Categories
News Social Justice

The Messy Truth of Legacy

Racist Realities and the Need to Stop Romanticizing

All of us are capable of racism. The first family of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are no exception, and neither are we. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Numbers 12:1). In a sensitive and thought-provoking Torah commentary, Rabbi Hannah Goldstein acknowledges Miriam’s contributions while still holding her accountable for her ugly behavior in this particular passage:

“Our Biblical heroes are often flawed, and we can learn as much from their missteps as we can from their positive example. This is also true of so many of our historic heroes, as no record is uncomplicated and without stains. I imagine that Miriam’s belittling of her sister-in-law wounded her brother deeply, and it certainly revealed something quite problematic about her character. But Miriam also remained the protective sister who placed Moses in the water and watched over him until his safe rescue from the river. She was the bold musician who confidently led the people in song and dance when they safely crossed into freedom; she was the nourishing force that quenched their thirst in the desert. Few leaders are without fault, but in our reading of the text, we acknowledge the messy truth of legacy. We can both confront the painful shortcomings of our heroes and make room to celebrate their virtues.”

For far too long we have selectively celebrated our contributions to the Civil Rights Movement while conveniently forgetting or ignoring examples of our failures. Yes, there were brave and righteous Jews who marched in Selma, donated generously to the cause, and even gave their lives in the struggle against segregation and Jim Crow. Yet there were also far too many of us who were complicit and complacent with racist regimes. Too many of us were silenced by fear of what would happen if we stood up and spoke out. Too many rabbis were more afraid of losing their jobs than losing their self-respect. We need to allocate more time to reflecting on racist realities and less time to an overly romanticized version of how heroic we were.

Today’s growing chorus of voices proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” compels us to do more than demand an end to police brutality, terrorist attacks on Black Churches, and appalling disparities in income, education, housing, and health care. Like the disturbing sibling story in this week’s Torah portion, our current moment calls on us to consider the unsolicited comments, nasty quips and cruel utterances that we have hurled within our own families and within the greater family of the progressive Jewish world.

Painful testimonials of how congregants, or prospective congregants of color, were spoken to with condescension, suspicion, and ignorance demonstrate that we have tremendous work to do in making Jews of Color feel at home in our congregations. 

Over the past few weeks, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center have made a number of videos and conversations about these experiences available. Improving the way we engage with Jews of Color was already a priority for our Movement but the most recent killings of black citizens at the hands of police and former police have added a greater sense of urgency to this self-scrutiny. 

Just because we Jews have experienced oppression doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of saying or doing racist things. Our history of enduring injustice does not constitute immunity from engaging in it. The fact that Miriam was a slave in Egypt didn’t prevent her from making racist comments. Being a religious minority doesn’t preclude us from enjoying privileges of whiteness, making unwise choices, and saying foolish things. 

God of Grace and Goodness, grant us the humility to admit when we have been wrong, the integrity to confess unflattering chapters of our history, and the tenacity to confront racism and bigotry both within and without the congregations we call home.

 May this be our blessing and let us say: Amen.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.

Categories
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
Poetry Social Justice

‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire’

As we watch with heavy hearts the events of late May and early June and witness innocent Americans exercising their right to protest fall victim to police violence, we pray for an end to racial injustice and power structures designed to silence, suppress, and kill people of color. We pray for healing, and we remain aligned with Black and Brown communities in the fight to end injustice. In the words of Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who shares a psalm here, “It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate.” 

Encouraged by the teachings of Pirke Avot, which teach us that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” we remain committed to social justice, and we remain committed to teaching and promoting anti-racism. We encourage you to read the CCAR’s statement on racist killings.

Here, we share a poem, written by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, and a psalm, written by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in reaction to these tragic events.


I Can’t Breathe
By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

I can’t breathe,
The knee of oppression
Is on my neck.

I can’t breathe,
The air of my city
Is filled with tear gas.

I can’t breathe,
I am filled with rage
And the smoke of burning buildings.

I can’t breathe
Because the air is filled with contempt for people of different colors.

I can’t breathe
Because my country is suffocating
And the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner.

I can’t breathe
Because I am grieving for America
And praying its dreams aren’t dying
In the streets of our nation tonight.

A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Aflame with the fires of fear
With anger burning ‘bout brazen brutality:
From a kneed neck Floyd’s breath snuffed out over there

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Veering vigorously toward violence and hate
Preventing protests that promote another vision:
Of justice that we all must create

A Psalm for our brothers and sisters
Who fear for their lives, black and brown
When they jog, shop, go to church, or go bird watching
With their hands held up high, or when lying down

A Psalm to remind us ‘bout justice
And the debasement that threatens their lives
Because our silence can no longer silence
The real pain of widowed husbands and wives

So Pray for our cities on fire
And sing out songs of protest ‘gainst hate
But since lives, they are holy and matter
It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate


Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Paul Kipnes is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
Reform Judaism Social Justice

Begin to Confront Discomfort and Uncomfortable Truths By Asking One Question: ‘Are You OK?’

Dear Rabbis,

I am very grateful to Rabbi Hara Person for offering me space on the Ravblog to share a few words with you. She suggested, with Biennial behind us, that I write about something that I would want the rabbis to know in the aftermath. While that list is long, I appreciate your consideration as I begin here.

As many of you know, my Biennial experience was an exercise in racism; both the constant experiencing of it and then speaking about it in the moment quite publicly at my Shabbat afternoon session, which was a first for me.

I thank each of you who took the time to write to me to after I shared my experiences both in the room at my presentation, and then on Facebook. The outpouring of support from the rabbinic community and the community at large following Biennial touched me deeply.

I am thrilled to see that there seems to be a great deal of time and energy being focused on how we can be more welcoming, both as individuals and in our Jewish spaces. It is a conversation that I have longed to have for three decades, and I believe that our ever beautifully more diverse community will only thrive if we continue to keep this effort at the top of the agenda.

“To be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.”

What I find that we are not yet talking about, however, is what happens after someone has been left feeling marginalized or dehumanized by our community. Even as someone who has experienced this for most of my life, I had not really considered it myself until after Biennial and I started to received messages from people.

The messages came, literally, in volume. Outrage. Disbelief. Confusion. Sadness. Anger. And now that I’ve found some quiet time and space to process things, I have found myself struck by what was not said. Or, more accurately, what was not asked.

Are you OK? What can I do for you?

I can count quite literally on one hand the number of people—friends, strangers and clergy alike—who asked if I was OK. Or if I needed support following Biennial. And that really surprised me. Had I, God forbid, been in an accident, people would have come bearing flowers or chocolate chip coffee cake. They would have asked if I’m OK. And what they can do to support me while I heal.

But was there no coffee cake on offer amidst the outrage and sadness. And, really, I could have used some.

It is often said that people do not ask questions that they do not already know the answer to. But I have come to learn that, many times, people do not ask questions that they know have an uncomfortable answer.

In my case, we all know that the answer is no. I was not OK after Biennial. We who are dehumanized for our race, religion, sexual orientation, or abilities are never OK when attacked. On my book tour, I tell people that it feels like my heart has been broadsided by a truck moving 75 miles per hour each time that I meet racism and intolerance. That I am never sure if my heart will start beating again. When I will be able to breathe again. And it is always a hit and run, where the offender slams into me and keeps moving. Without care or apology.

When it comes to speaking uncomfortable truths, I find that I am an exception rather than the rule. I am finally at a place where I am very comfortable speaking out when an incident takes place. And I am quite comfortable saying that I was not OK. But it has taken decades of therapy and very hard work to become this version of me. For many years, I choked on my silence, put on a brave face, and pretended that I was OK. And there are many—too many—who still remain silent, simply because we don’t find that there is really an open-ness to discussing it.

Until we are at a place where each person is greeted with the same warm communal embrace, I believe that it is important that we also consider proactively how to respond in the aftermath. To be asked, “Are you OK?” “What can I do for you?” is a critical place to begin because these questions say that we do not have to carry the pain alone.

And to be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.

I acknowledge that these conversations can be uncomfortable ones for all of us. People who love me dearly did not ask if I was OK after Biennial. Some could not bear to even acknowledge what took place, including people who saw it for themselves. But I believe that sharing the truth of all of this a big part of how we begin to make sure that it does not continue.

As our rabbis, leaders and teachers, I encourage you to consider both the before and the after. We welcome the outrage, sadness, anger and sermons. But, please. Ask if we are OK. Ask if we need support. It matters so much more than you know.

B’ahava v’shalom,

Marra Gad

Marra B. Gad is a Los Angeles-based author and independent film and television producer. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and holds a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University. Her memoir, Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, was published by Agate Bolden in November 2019.

Photo credit: Bobby Quillard

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.