This blog is the second in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center.
בכול דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
“In each generation, a person is obligated to see things as if they themselves came out from Egypt.”
Looking through my father’s desk after he died, in the wallet that he had used in high school, in Baltimore in the 1950’s, I found two cards. The first said something to the effect that “I am glad that your establishment chooses to serve people of all races, and I am proud to patronize it.” The second basically said the opposite. “I am sorry that your establishment does not choose to serve people of all races, and I will no longer chose to patronize it.” I do not know that my father ever actually used these cards. None of his friends remember this campaign. I can only imagine the combination of courage, tact, and chutzpah it took to do so. But before my father could have used such a card, he had to take a look around and notice the patrons of a particular store, or the signs that denied patronage.
In my middle school grade, there was one black child. I noticed that he was black, but I did not consider what it might have meant for him to be the only black student in a white, suburban school. My high school, on the other hand, was more diverse – I recall one of my teachers calling it a “ghetto school.” While the race of students in my health class matched the local demographics, there were no black students who were enrolled in all honors classes. I didn’t recognize this until later. To be honest, I might have noticed a large amount of African-Americans in a given situation; I didn’t noticed a demographically disproportionate small amount.
I have since learned that a vast amount of racial inequality happens under the radar of those who therefore reap, often unknowingly, the benefits of that injustice. In learning about “the talk” that parents of African-American children need to give to their sons and daughters, I have discovered an entirely different view of our society. Over the last several years, with a small group of individuals of different racial backgrounds, I have been engaged in deeply personal and open conversations about our experience of race and prejudice. Educationally, socio-economically, and geographically, the leaders of this group (Social Justice Matters) are in the same location. The world that we live in, however, is very different. There has been much talk about what it means to “drive while black”, how the encounter of an African-American male with the police can be very different from that of a (seemingly) white or Asian male or female, even about being seen as an opportunity for a sale or a problem in a retail store. What I have begun to see is the entire social construction that a black member of the group wears every day in order to live in a world where he must be ever-ready to explain himself, where any encounter can turn disastrous, and where he cannot even voice his frustration at the failure of another’s understanding or the non-existent pace of social change, lest he be branded an “angry black man”.
What does it mean for Jews to see ourselves as if we ourselves came out of Egypt? Even if we cannot live inside someone else’s skin, how can we begin to understand another’s story? How can we not only share that we are willing to try, but that we can begin to open our eyes to see the world differently – through the eyes of oppression? After my father put those cards in his wallet, and before he handed them out, he had to take account of where he was, and who was around him. Because, only once we have begun to see and take stock of and to number what is around us – to truly count, as we are called to through the omer – can we even ask the question what we can do to make change.
We all count is not just about who matters. We must also actually count – who sits at the table with us; who can even enter the same doors; who is present and who is not. Only then can we seek them out, and ask what it is we can do to help. I have just begun to open my eyes. This period of the Omer, I, and Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, invite you to open your eyes and take a count, as well. Take the old story of the Exodus, and see through different eyes. Look at the numbers that are people – in your communities and across the nation. Only if we all count, can others count on us.
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.
Rabbi Joel Abraham serves Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains, NJ