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Healing inclusivity News Social Justice

B’rit Olam, Racial Justice, and Black Lives Matter

When Donald Trump stood in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church and declared martial law, we witnessed birkat HaShemBirkat HaShem is cursing the name of God. Birkat HaShem is blasphemy. And the one who commits it is a megadef.

In his sanctioning the use of tear gas, flash-bang shells, and in the firing of rubber bullets on American citizens who were exercising their Constitutional right of peaceful assembly so that he would have a clear path to a church as his stage and a bible as his prop, I condemn as a megadef the President of the United States. With a bible held sanctimoniously in his hand while simultaneously condoning violence and threatening far worse against the very people he is sworn to lead, I accuse him of cursing the name of God. 

God has held my broken heart every day of the eight since Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, may his memory be for a blessing. The God I trust is the One who spreads sheltering wings over all the people in the night, guarding them, guiding them, and granting them peace. The God I pray to takes note of our afflictions and takes up our struggles, hears our prayers for every illness, wound, and pain. The God I cry out to listens when we call for the voice of liberty to be heard and for the oppressed to be redeemed.

The Eternal of my faith requires me to pursue justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. As I followed the President’s march from the White House to his staged photo opportunity in front of St. John’s, I witnessed his pursuit of retribution, not justice. I witnessed his love of violence, not mercy. In his faithless taking up of the sacred word of God, I witnessed blasphemy and no humble walk with God. 

As our cities burn, the God I believe in calls us to think deeply about the uprisings. God commands an honest accounting for the real reasons behind them. God demands our dedication to overcome them. We are a nation physically gripped and emotionally exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no end in sight. Its economic impact is devastating. Given 400 years of evidence, further proof of racial inequity and injustice was unnecessary, but the pandemic has laid bare the socioeconomic truth that African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native Americans are being disproportionately infected and dying, and people of color are experiencing even greater unemployment and underemployment than they were before. In communities of color, the suffering is greater. Recovery will take longer, if it comes at all.

Emmanuel Levinas taught us that our responsibility to the other is infinite. Our responsibility is of such a magnitude that it drowns out the noise of anything we’ve accomplished. There is nothing to rest on. Since Ferguson, some of us, the CCAR, and the Movement have made limited progress in understanding our own racism, the racism of our institutions, and the malignant, systemic racism in our country. But let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing is dismantled and infinitely more is demanded. 

So I share the following points:

1. Our covenant is eternal. God commands us to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. And by our lives, to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. We can’t ever turn away.

2. Black Lives Matter. To BLM, in our context, I suggest a second BLM: 

B = Believe.
L = Listen.
M = Maintain support from behind Black and Brown leaders.

3. Locate God now. The cries we hear are God’s cries. The tears that fall are God’s tears. God is reaching for help to raise this burden from God’s shoulders.

4. We are commanded to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. The covenantal relationship is forever. A b’rit olam. Covenant is not convenience. But it is rooted in chesed. Not sappy chesed, not “loving kindness,” but chesed how Rabbi Brad Artson teaches it: Chesed as resilient love. The root of our covenant with God, the basis of our covenant with each other, is a resilient love that invites us surpass ourselves and to risk growth.[i] The resilient love of our covenant means we can be a part of great team, a team where no one plays just for themselves and everyone plays for each other. Keep showing up.

These ideas are based upon the same text: Moses at the burning bush.[ii] Larry Kushner teaches us the burning bush was not a miracle. The bush was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention. Only when Moses really paid attention, did God reveal himself to our teacher…There is another world, right here, when we pay attention. [iii]

Here is our test: Pay attention. Believe and listen to the experiences of people of color, especially Jews of Color. Check our motivations and resist that temptation of white privilege, to pretend we have Superman capes. Our test is to maintain support from behind black and brown leaders.

Last point, same text: Moses at the bush. From the depths of hell in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Esh Kodesh, gave his disciples a gift: he taught his Chasidim that the covenant is not only eternal. It is also interdependent. God needs us. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like one who struggles beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity. [iv]

Rather than teaching a simplistic faith or the belief that suffering is somehow part of some greater, cosmic plan, the rebbe reminded them that we are in an interdependent, covenantal relationship with God. The b’rit binds us together forever. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like a person struggling beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity.

Our responsibility is infinite. The covenant and chesed’s resilient love demands we stay in this for the rest of our lives. Believe. Listen. Support from behind. God is crying out from the burden of witnessing this suffering.

The God I believe in cries out to us now. The God I place my faith in calls us to pursue racial equity and justice in our country, in our cities, and in our synagogue. The God I turn to and the God I invite you to be in relationship with is the God who commands kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name and the opposite of birkat HaShem. Let us sanctify and make holy the name of God by the ways we live our lives. As it is written, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, am holy.

Amen.


[i]  Bradley Shavit Artson, The God of Becoming and RelationshipThe Dynamic Nature of Process Theology
[ii]  Exodus 3:1-4:17
[iii]  Lawrence Kushner, God was in This Place, and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, & Ultimate Meaning 
[iv]  Esh KodeshVayikra, March 16, 1940


Rabbi David Spinrad serves as the senior rabbi of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He loves to laugh and believes the covenant is rooted in a love that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

Categories
Inclusion inclusivity

As Jews, We Cannot Leave the Task of Fighting Racism to the African-American Community Alone

In the wake of the racist killing of George Floyd, Rabbi Samuel Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, shares his call to action, based on Jewish values, to listen to African-American leaders to form bonds and alliances to help fight racial injustice and inequality.


I am struggling to articulate a path through the pain and worry I feel. I truly fear for our nation. Ever since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worried about our physical, psychological, and economic health. I have wondered how we would emerge from our quarantined homes and return to our shuttered offices, restaurants, schools, and public spaces. I have witnessed the trauma of over forty million Americans out of work, but I believed that there was some hope of a vaccine that might immunize us from this virus. There was a promise that eventually that vaccine would allow us to return to our normal life.

But now, I am far more fearful. There is a more insidious illness of racism and inequality that is deeply ingrained in American history and culture. There is no true cure on the horizon. Racism can destroy us. As The New York Times reported, August 1619 marked the beginning of African-American slavery in America, and sadly that moment of origin has defined our current world. I recognize that I am a privileged and truly fortunate white man. Yes, I am a Jew, but I am seen as white. When my children, especially my son, received his driver’s license, I did not have to warn him about the consequences of a broken tail light. I was not worried that he would be stopped for a minor traffic offense and then be subject to a police response that might end in his death. But my African-American friends, no matter how prominent, successful, or respected, have each had that talk with their 16-year-olds.

It is appropriate to condemn lawlessness, looting, and arson. Those acts will not achieve equality and justice. Indeed, those most harmed are often the people living in the marginal neighborhoods destroyed by the looters. But if we focus only on the issue of rioting, we ignore the legitimate sources of the rage. We must not ignore the legitimate cries of those who fear a knee upon their necks or other uses of power to keep them down.

Fifty years ago, President Johnson created the Kerner Commission to look at the causes of urban rioting and civil unrest. Its most famous phrase stated,”Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Fifty years later, far too little has changed. As I stated at the Chicago Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday breakfast, we are fortunate to live in a sparkling, vibrant Greater Chicago, but we know that much of the South Side and West Side have not shared in Chicago’s transformation and prosperity.

We are suffering the consequences of the great entrenched disparities of American society. As Langston Hughes asked: “What happens to a dream deferred?” We should not be shocked by the anger and frustration of an African-American community that has known far too many unjustified killings by police, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and too many more.

What can we do? We cannot leave the task of fighting racism to the African-American community alone. At the same time, the Jewish community cannot respond with paternalism. When our community suffered the trauma of the Tree of Life massacre, our Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i friends and religious leaders stood beside us in our sanctuary. Reverend Jesse Jackson joined us in prayer that night. So too, Congregation Sukkat Shalom will hear from Reverend Janette Wilson, Esq., National Director of PUSH Excel. We want to hear directly from a leading voice in the Black community. We are honored that she is joining us. We must hear directly from Black leaders who speak with voices informed by the pain of inequality and discrimination.

We are taught in Pirkei Avot, 2:21 that, “It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to avoid its demands.” Racial inequality, discrimination, and violence are enormous problems deeply ingrained in American culture. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Indeed, some of the most violent protests have occurred in our most progressive cities in which too many Black lives have been taken in unjustified police killings. Chronic poverty, substandard education, gang violence, and other problems will not be easily solved by people of good intentions. We need to do more, and we cannot give up. Elsewhere we are taught: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” We must continue to struggle to bring about the promised fulfillment of an American dream built on justice and equality.

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon leads Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

Categories
News Social Justice

The Beauty of a Southern Jewish Heritage

The front desk clerk at my Montgomery, Alabama hotel cheerfully told me, “I have a river-view room for you.” Night had fallen; but the next morning, when I opened the blinds, there it was: The Alabama River makes an exquisite horseshoe in downtown Montgomery. It’s surrounded by lush woods and is fronted by an historic railway station. A beautiful sight to behold!

Only hours later, though, the loveliness of the scene became more complicated. I was among fifty Reform rabbis participating in “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation: A Central Conference of American Rabbis Pre-High Holy Day Seminar” this past August. As soon as the program began, I learned of the critical role that gorgeous river played when Montgomery grew and prospered as the center of a robust domestic slave trade. That river was the conduit, bringing enslaved human beings north from Mobile Bay into the interior, where families were cruelly separated, small children ripped from their parents’ arms, and spouses forever separated, enriching white Alabama slave traders.

We entered The Legacy Museum, a powerful testament to the horrors that white supremacy has wrought on African Americans for 400 years. In the museum’s first exhibit, only feet from the door, I was hit hard by a declaration I should’ve always known to be true: Many of the same families who were enriched by the slave trade continue to be prosperous citizens of Montgomery today. Their wealth, inherited down the generations, cannot be separated from the enslaved human beings their ancestors oppressed to earn their generous living.

Why, you might ask, was I so bothered by these particular words, among all the museum’s horrors?

I have long proclaimed, “In my family, the ‘old country’ is the Mississippi Delta.” All of my grandparents and four of my great-grandparents were born in the American South. I treasure my great-great grandparents’ family Bible from Trinity, Louisiana. When Reform Judaism’s detractors assert the libel—that the children of Orthodox Jews become Conservative; their children, Reform; and their children leave Judaism altogether—I take out my great-great grandfather’s Minhag America for Yom Kippur, a prayer book written by American Reform founder Isaac Mayer Wise. If that’s not enough, I produce my paternal great-grandfather’s Union Prayer Book—alongside three more in direct succession, which my mother, her mother, and her grandmother each received at her Confirmation, each name embossed in gold on the cover. When I was 18, my beloved paternal grandmother gave me her mother’s Hours of Devotion: A Book of Prayers and Meditations for the Use of the Daughters of Israel, which her mother had given to her when she was 18. That great-grandmother was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1871, but that prayer book was published in 1868, so I presume that it belonged to her mother before her.

I was raised in the warm embrace of this family, with a strong Jewish identity and a confidence about the place of Jews in America.

As I got older, I became aware that my mother’s family had known financial security for more generations than we know. And my paternal grandmother told of her father’s tremendous success, reversed in a financial crisis in the early 20th century.

I seriously doubt that any of my ancestors were slave traders. Most who immigrated before the Civil War came to this country only shortly before it. I learned that two of my great-great-grandfathers had fought in the Civil War only because I asked, not because my grandparents boasted of Confederate glory or yearned for its return. Still, that Montgomery exhibit got to me.

As I continued through the museum, I saw stark reminders that slavery didn’t end in much more than name with the Civil War. Sharecropping, convict leasing, and racial terror lynching kept Black southerners in shackles, albeit of a different kind, until World War II, with Jim Crow persisting until the mid 1960s. During that period, all of my ancestors lived in the South. Again, I have no reason to believe that any were outwardly racist. Instead, I heard stories of kindnesses to Black customers and domestic employees. I never heard my grandparents use racial epithets. At the same time, I was never told that any of my family were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, for example. We Jews know, though, that bystanders have enabled the greatest evil perpetrated against us. Before the Civil Rights era, and often during it, southern Jews were bystanders at best.

After the museum, our group went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, better known as “the lynching memorial.” There, I found memorials indicting every county where my family lived during that period: Adams County, Mississippi. Attala County, Mississippi. Catahoula Parish, Louisiana. Harris County, Texas. Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. My ancestors’ Black neighbors were terrorized by lynching in each place that they lived.

The organizers of our rabbinical group provided the words to “Strange Fruit,” a poem written and set to music by Abel Meeropol and popularized by Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

 

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The Alabama River in downtown Montgomery is indeed beautiful, and I continue to treasure my southern Jewish roots. I particularly honor the memories of my grandparents, who were consistently present, positive influences throughout my childhood and beyond it.

Still, at this season, I cannot help but ask what repentance is required of the grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson of bystanders who prospered while their Black neighbors bled?

T’shuvah, ut’filah, utz’dakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zeirah, “Repentance, prayer, and charity,” we learn, temper judgment’s severe degree. I now regard my own commitment to racial justice as an act of t’shuvah, of repentance. I will do what my ancestors did not, and perhaps could not, given their insecurity as Jews in what was still a new land for them. During Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon, I will pray that God forgive them their sins, even if those sins were mostly of silence. And I will continue to direct tzedakah to redress racial inequality that persists to this day, with a thought toward returning some of the prosperity they enjoyed between the end of the Civil War and World War II.

And yes, I will continue to celebrate the beauty of my southern Jewish heritage, bringing me to where I am today.

Categories
CCAR on the Road Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation – Day 2

Today started with us learning text, the lifeblood of our rabbinic life, the source of our authority.  It is essential that we not be seen merely as liberals, or worse, “do-gooders,” who can be dispensed with as those who lead with soft hearts instead of sharp minds.

Our teacher was our colleague, the incomparable Rabbi Rachel Mikva, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.  We started with the classic text from Pirkei Avot 1.18:  R. Shimon ben Gamaliel says:  “The world stands on three things, on justice, on truth and on shalom.”  In Montgomery, Alabama, these words strike directly to the heart.  They seem more compelling and urgent than Shimon the Righteous’ claim that the world stands on Torah, Avodah and Acts of Lovingkindess.

She introduced the notion of “A Torah of Race,” building upon Rabbi Ellen Lippmann’s framing of authentic Teshuva upon core values of confession, regret, restitution and resolution.  The supporting texts from tractates Ta’anit and Sanhedrin forced us to confront what we are required to do publicly to acknowledge our wrongdoing as leaders.  We learned once again how a stolen beam of wood fashioned into a palace might render the entire structure illegitimate. 

We could not look away from our own responsibility regarding the illegitimate structures of the society whose benefits we enjoy, often richly.  We could not evade the debt we owe to those persons who were owned, degraded and denied dignity and opportunity even as our country was enriched by their forced labor.

After our shiur ended, we visited the PowerHouse, where women are cared for and protected when they seek abortions in the state of Alabama.  In the midst of unrelenting harassment, Executive Director Mia Raven and her fearless clinic escorts protect women who need abortions because of their life situations.

Anti-abortion protesters try to thwart poor, needy women, mostly of color, who choose not to bring their pregnancies to term.  They may need money, a bed to wait for 48 hours before the state will allow a simple D&C procedure.  They receive a soothing voice and strong arms to guide them through hostile crowds of men and women who hurl curses and abuse as they walk the 30 feet from PowerHouse to the clinic.

“They have weaponized Jesus,” Mia declared to us.  The irony was not lost on us.  The Prince of Peace in Christianity was being employed as a vehicle of shame,  hatred and violence.  The stories we heard literally took our breath away and underlined that these extraordinary efforts were being taken in the name of reproductive justice, not merely rights.

We went to Selma in the afternoon, Selma of legend and dark fame.  The real Selma is down to only 20,000 people, mostly African-Americans now. There we spent time with Joanne Bland, a fierce woman of color who demands respect and attention.  She walked us through the events of Bloody Sunday, took us to the church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the crowds to motivate them and steel their will.  She told us of her own personal experience and that of her family during those fateful days.  She showed us the concrete slab where John Lewis and the other marchers stood and we each picked up a stone from that sacred place to remind us to be strong and courageous when standing up for justice, as she and all the rest of the marchers had done, even when threatened with death.

Joanne had us drive on our bus slowly, no more than 15 miles per hour, so she could point out all of the significant places of her Selma, a place of so much pain and resilience it took my breath away.  After sharing with us the story of the heroes of the march and its martyrs, we finally began our walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, tracing the footsteps of the heroes from 54 years ago.

Though the bridge is enormous in my imagination, the actual structure is quite modest.  The walk across it is positively placid.  Walking slowly over the span I had to listen silently for the police sirens, the bullhorns, the anguished cries of the beaten from a half century ago.   On the other side is a park and shrine and a chance to speak to another witness who was there, who gives his vivid testimony to anyone who will stand and listen.

Finally we went to the Selma synagogue, Mishkan Israel.  Once a place of thriving Jewish life, it now serves four living members.  The structure is from 1899 and was built in only six months.  Its style is Romanesque and it is filled with rich wood and lovely stained glass.  The president (the youngest of the four remaining members) shared the story of the community and his love for the building.  For the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, the sanctuary was filled like it had not been for years.  But the footfalls have faded and such was the uniqueness of our rabbinic visit that the local television news was there to report on it.

We prayed in the social hall and my silent b’rachot were for mercy, compassion and justice for all who had suffered as well as for the will to respond to the urgent call to combat racism that still haunts our country, North and South, today.  

And I pray now  – God, may our hearts and minds stiffen our backs, gird our loins and guide our hands to combat all those harm Your beloved creatures with their hatred, all who refuse to accept the simplest of our spiritual truths, that we are all one people, all from one God.  We Jews declare that God is One and we are one.  Could any truth be more clear or pressing today?


Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

Categories
Social Justice

Religion and Relationships on the Road: A Deep South Pilgrimage

Racial justice is preoccupying many religious leaders.  As in too many other cities across the country, protests erupted in Charlotte last fall following the fatal police shooting of an African-American man.  As clergy we are called to help our congregations who want to deepen their understanding of systemic issues of racism.  Some of this education can occur inside our sanctuaries and social halls, and some requires building relationships across racial and religious differences outside our synagogue walls.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel learned that lesson well. They first met on January 14, 1963 at a Conference on Race and Religion in Chicago where they both were speaking and coincidentally quoted the exact same text from Amos (5:24) calling for “…justice [to] roll down like waters.”  That moment sparked a friendship that would move them to stand together in countless other cities and settings and would inspire generations of advocates for justice to embark on a similar path of civic engagement.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

This model of building relationships across racial and religious differences led me last week to participate in a Deep South pilgrimage with two churches (even though I had just visited Alabama for a Civil Rights trip with a group of women from the Jewish Federation three months before). I traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis with Charlotte’s Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church which is a predominantly African-American church and Myers Park Baptist Church, a liberal largely white church. The clergy who lead both these congregations are my partners in social justice work of our city. When I first spoke of joining them, my colleagues immediately acknowledged the legacy of Rabbi Heschel and the historic place of Jews in the fight.

What was it like to go on a Deep South pilgrimage with a black and a white Church?

It was a journey of connection and building relationships. Each morning on the bus we sang freedom songs and pondered questions with a new person sitting next to us: “When was the first time you learned about the Civil Rights Movement?” or “What calls you to be here today: scripture, story or relationship?”

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

It was a journey of understanding another’s memories of pain. As we drove through Lowndes County, Alabama, through which the Selma-to-Montgomery March passed, Dr. Peter Wherry, Pastor of Mayfield, asked us to reflect on the fact that every tree could have been the execution place of an African-American soul, every stream could be where someone fled in fear seeking to clear the scent so that they would not be found by the police and their dogs chasing them, and every field could have been that of a sharecropper or a tenant farmer working for no wages.  When we visited the museum capturing the tent cities where these sharecroppers lived after they had been kicked out of their homes and off their fields for registering to vote, the items on display there were not history but our African-American travel partners’ memories.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

It was a journey of coming to understand each other’s vision for justice. Together as African-Americans and whites we crowded into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage where Coretta Scott King and her husband lived and their first two babies were born.  As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, the phone calls of hate multiplied– sometimes thirty a day.  We saw the remains of where a bomb hit their porch. We stood in the study attached to King’s master bedroom where he wrote. We crowded into the kitchen where Dr. King had a midnight moment of his fear leaving him knowing that whatever his fate would be, his mission of working for equal rights was his calling.  Standing together, we recognized that the journey to justice was long and hard then and remains so today. It requires faith.

Photo by Sarah Ann Photos

In some Civil Rights museums, the presence of Jews who partnered in the pursuit of Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s was present, and in other museums their images and voices were painfully absent – written out of history. I shared stories of Jewish freedom riders, the role of our Religious Action Center where critical Civil Rights legislation was written, the thousands of Rosenwald schools established by the Jewish philanthropist in partnership with African-American Southern communities, and the work of Jewish refugee professors at historically black colleges, opening the minds of some of the travelers to history they never knew.

Racial justice is high up on the agenda of many liberal religious denominations in our country.  Yet our vision for equality and equity cannot be actualized in isolation – collaboration is required. Social justice and religion happen on the road — in relationships on the streets, in city halls of the community, even in courtrooms where cases are tried. The ladder of congregational civic engagement is rooted in relationships. The rungs expand to include social action, education, philanthropy, advocacy, organizing and being part of a larger movement. Each rung offers our congregants a Judaism that is expressed not only through uttering prayers in the pews but that is lived in the world.

Rabbi Judy Schindler is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte, and is co-author with Judy Seldin-Cohen of an upcoming book from CCAR Press, Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement Is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America.

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

How Can We Sleep?

It was my grandmother who asked me, “Why do rabbis always talk about Jonah on Yom Kippur? Can’t they think of some other subject?”  This year, I can’t help but think that my grandmother’s question will eerily parallel that asked by so many sitting in the sanctuaries of our Reform synagogues: Why is my rabbi always talking about racism? Can’t rabbis think of some other subject?

Jonah is ineluctable: he waits for us in the recesses of our afternoon liturgy, hiding in the plain sight of our assigned haftarah.  We could no more escape talking about the reluctant prophet than could the selfsame prophet escape the Divine command to go to Nineveh.  It makes no difference how majestic are our High Holy Day sermons, how compelling or complex are the main messages we fashion over months, how emotionally exhausted and spiritually spent we might be by minchah: we must confront the Son of Ammitai before the Gates of Repentance close.  Weeping may tarry for the night, and joy arrive in the morning, but Jonah is always awaiting us in the afternoon.

Racism is as unavoidable in America as is Jonah in our High Holy Day experience.  Hammering headlines assault us with brutal facts: the police killings of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa; a presidential candidate advocating nationwide adoption of stop-and-frisk tactics; the unabated gun violence in my city of Chicago.  No engaged citizen can avoid the American truth that we do not live in a society of equal justice for all: the only way to continue the pretense of living in a colorblind culture is to bury one’s head in the sand.  The lingering legacy of centuries of institutionalized injustice and systematic prejudice is laid bare before us each day in every news outlet in any city or suburb where we make our homes.  No one with eyes open can avoid confronting America’s racial injustices.

Unfortunately, many rabbis think we can—or maybe should—avoid speaking of the plague of racism this High Holy Day season.  We reason that the more we speak of a single subject, the less congregants are likely to listen.  For those of us who addressed these issues last year, we fear being labeled a ‘one trick pony’, or accused of speaking to social issues at the expense of tending to our flock.  Since racial justice—unlike Jonah—isn’t waiting for us in our fixed liturgy, we imagine we might be able to avoid this difficult subject.  That Jews of Color are still the minority in our own houses of worship allows us to feel as if this is not really “our issue”, and we would be better served leaving it to others. The tragedy of the worldwide refugee situation, the uncivility of our presidential election, and the many issues connected to Israel provide us with a panoply of other topics about which to talk.  Each and every one of us could make it through Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur without ever facing the difficulties attached to speaking about race.

Jonah, too, thinks he can avoid all difficulty.  He runs from his Divine charge, and amidst a tempest salts himself away in slumber.  The storm raged outside: everyone felt its wrath, but Jonah chose to ignore it.  But burying himself below deck cannot last: How can you sleep! Our captain, our tradition, challenge Jonah: How can you sleep?  Rashi takes these words to chastise, “This is no time for sleep!”  Isaac Abarbanel deepens the astonishment at the blind eye Jonah turns to the raging sea, “Do you not understand the difficulty of this moment, and sense the great danger we all face?”  The book that bears Jonah’s name summons Jonah to pay attention, to address the turbulent seas on which he sails.  The haftarah we read in the tiring hours of Yom Kippur afternoon reminds us we cannot sleep soundly in our cabins and ignore the raging storms of society.

The message of Jonah is that we all need to be awakened.  Or, as some might say today, we all need to be woke.  This is a true for exhausted clergy in the twentieth hour of the fast as it is for a congregation worn out with continuing reminders of our responsibility to counter the raging storm of racism in America.  As much as we are coerced to confront this challenging issue, let us take our direction in so doing from the story of our sailors.  They move from asking Jonah, “What have you done?” to looking for concrete solutions: what can we do?  This year, amid the tempestuous season of protests and outrage, may we be moved from delineating the origins of our situation to outlining solutions to end structural racism in America.  May we continue to do so with the great partners of our Reform Movement, and may we continue to build relationships with partners across the lines of faith, class and color until the seas around us subside.  May we, whether weary in our pulpits or in our pews, remain awake and attentive to racial injustice.  May we, in moving from examination and understanding to solidarity and solutions, play our part in bringing calm to America’s shores.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  He is also the Chair of the CCAR Justice, Peace & Civil Liberties Committee.

Categories
Social Justice Torah

A Full Canteen and a Red Brick Wall

This weekend I will do what so many of us in the rabbinate will do: celebrate and remember the life and work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  For me, MLK weekend (celebrated by Reform Jews as “Shabbat Tzedek”) is a chance to link Dr. King’s message to that of Parashat Bo. Over the course of the weekend I will: be a part of a Religious School Mitzvah Day; pray and work with our community-wide teen program’s day of service, together with teens of all faiths; take part in ribbon cuttings and prayers on Monday at a new homeless shelter and an interfaith Habitat for Humanity start; and call my members of Congress to advocate for criminal justice reform. I am looking forward to it all.

Even as I look forward, I am also looking backward to Sunday and Monday, and thinking a great deal about the texts I learned with colleagues in SEACARR at the annual Kallah. It was held in Charleston, South Carolina, with Dr. Mark Washofsky serving as our convention scholar. During nearly five hours of reading and lively conversation, he took us through Judaism’s texts on “Trolleyology.” We considered the infinite value of all life (M. Sandhedrin 4:5), the responsibility to save oneself (BT Baba Metzia 62b), the three mitzvot whose performance demands the ultimate sacrifice (BT Sanhedrin 74a-b), and others.

That these texts were being studied in Charleston led Dr. Washofsky to begin his teaching with a reflection on how we read, and what we read. We were surrounded by “texts” in our historic downtown hotel: a tall statue to John C. Calhoun in Marion Square; Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church around the corner. What we learn from history is in part determined by what we choose to consider a part of our history. Is it better take down the statues, or not? To fly the flag, or not? Which texts are in, and which are out? Which do we honor, and from which do we learn via negativa?

Our Jewish tradition requires the same curation, as Dr. Washofsky reminded us. Is it “whoever saves a life, saves a world?” Or is it “whoever saves a Jewish life?” Honesty about the provenance of those texts is the better course than papering over our textual history.

Here is the text from Baba Metzia:

Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura publicly taught: “Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,” until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: “‘Your brother should live with you’ (Lev 25:36) – Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”

brickWith that Talmudic thought experiment ringing in my ears, I returned to my hotel room on Sunday evening — a room with an interesting architectural feature. Charleston’s Embassy Suites occupies the 1829 structure which served as The Citadel before the Civil War, and in preparing the building for use as a hotel, exposed brick was left in many rooms (including mine). It became for me yet another “text” in a city so rich with them. My comfortable bed made for a stark and discomfiting contrast to the red bricks laid by slaves, and made for a fitful night’s sleep. Privilege and subjugation in such close quarters. A full canteen, no canteen, and the very same desert to cross.

Ben Petura would have me share the canteen and die alongside my fellow; Akiva would have me drink it all, and live. And while we learned from Dr. Washofsky that we tend not to look to our “Trolleyology Texts” to learn halakhah around social justice issues (we have other texts for those questions, more direct and more persuasive), I can’t help but hear them in a homiletical/aggadic key, in light of the struggle for racial justice in America, and wonder about other options. That the “Black Lives Matter” movement faces push back for asking too much, that Affirmative Action is under attack, that Reparations is not even a part of our national discourse…all of this has me wondering as MLK Weekend approaches: “What am I doing with this canteen, and how can I do my part to slake the thirst of people whose lives matter no less than mine, whose blood is every bit as red?”

My hope is that our Conference and our Movement will continue our renewed engagement with the question of racial justice, this weekend and long beyond. May we never shy away from the hard conversations. And may the texts (both paper-based and brick-and-mortar) of our Jewish and American traditions continue to call us out, and call us to justice.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Joining Hands, Marching Together

On Tuesday, five of us[1] flew to South Carolina to march in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice.[2]

Why? This poem from American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967):

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
            (America never was America to me)…”

We began. Passing the Columbia State House, we noted the poignant absence of the Confederate flag, finally removed following the tragic, racist church shootings in June.

At the front of our column, an American flag was carried high by a black veteran of Korea and Vietnam. He drew his name, Middle Passage, from a slave forebear.

“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
            (It never was America to me.)…”

Each block, passing stores and restaurants, folks came out to cheer. Cars honked, passengers waved support. We marched through middle class and lower middle class neighborhoods – and people noticed. They came out for hope. We were a bit of evidence that black lives matter.  And not only to blacks.

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak…

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream…”

We weren’t a large group.[3] And there wasn’t much publicity, in local or national news. What was the value in our participation?
We Barnert folks celebrated our own Rabbi Martin Freedman z”l, a Freedom Rider in Tallahassee, FL.[4] This was our chance to “walk the talk.”

Times have changed. But not enough. I walked alongside an Episcopal priest. She was white, her husband was black, and their bi-racial children suffered terrible discrimination. Her 14 year old son had been arrested by police in Edison, NJ on charges of assault.[5] But there had been no assault. Her son, walking in their white neighborhood, was stopped by police; when he answered a question with a smart-mouthed teen response, they handcuffed him.

This mother was drawn to a ministry with black prisoners, guiding them to manage anger and resentment, to forgive and then shape new lives.[6]

We marched with Keshia Thomas, a black woman devoted to spreading the message among frustrated teens that violence is wrong, period. Her story: in 1996, the KKK tried to organize a rally in Ann Arbor, MI. Hundreds of people gathered to protest. A rumor spread that someone was a Klansman, and people began to mob him. Keshia leapt forward and spread herself over the man, protecting him. A photographer from LIFE captured the moment, and Keshia gained a name for peaceful resistance. Her message has influenced thousands. Most recently she met young people in Baltimore after the death of Freddy Grey and the subsequent torching of a CVS store. “Look across the street,” she said to them. “There’s a Senior Home. What do you think those folks are thinking and feeling about you? Would you want to be in that home, and not feel safe going out on your street? Find another way to protest. Advocate peacefully with me!”

Alongside the American flag, we carried a Torah. Each night it was passed to the next day’s Jewish marchers. Torah: symbol of just civilization. Torah: witness to our own brand of persecution. We get it. So we speak out.

“…For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a ‘homeland of the free.’ …”

Civil rights earned can be lost. Racism is real.  Criminal injustice is real. The challenge to the Voting Rights Act is real. The cycle of Poverty is real.

Returning at the end of the day, we unwrapped the Torah around us, and shared our reactions. We recalled the Jewish Journey, fleeing slavery, seeking freedom.

“Standing on the parted shores, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”[7]

There’s a lot more to be done in our nation. Let’s do it together.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman serves Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, NJ and is the editor of Mishkan T’filah.

 

[1] The Barnert team: Lisa Dugal, Marni Neuburger, Isaac Hart (a sophomore at Glen Rock High School) and Anya Gips (senior at Fairlawn High School and BarTY President) and me. Read Anya’s and Isaac’s pieces separately!

[2] August 1-September 16, from Selma to Washington, hundreds of Americans are walking in solidarity for black civil rights.

[3] In fact, the greatest number of participants over the last 25 days has been Reform Jews.

[4] Our journey was much safer than his – we had the protection of state troopers.

[5] Her story echoes others I’ve heard of young black teens walking the streets in white north-western Bergen.

[6] She said to me, “Forget prison reform. It’ll never happen. After decades in my ministry, I’ve learned to devote all my energy to the victims, helping them move beyond their radically unfair pasts.”

[7] by Michael Walzer, adapted from Exodus, as found in Mishkan T’filah