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
CCAR Convention Immigration Social Justice

Embedding Ourselves in Baltimore: What Rabbis at CCAR Convention 2020 Can Learn From an Immigration Outreach Center Born Out of a Catholic Church

When the planning committee for the upcoming 2020 CCAR Convention met last spring, we asked ourselves, “How could we be in Baltimore and not look to understand the issues that the residents of this city meet each day?”

Like Cincinnati, Orange County, and Atlanta in recent memory, this convening of the Central Conference of American Rabbis will include opportunities to learn from some of the social justice issues endemic to Charm City. When we are together in March, we will explore issues around immigration, the toll of gun violence, climate change, the safety and care of people who are sex workers, and much more. 

One workshop I am excited about will be with Baltimore’s Immigrant Outreach Service Center (IOSC). This 501c3 organization is an immigration center which grew out of a social justice campaign at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Baltimore, through the help of foreign-born parishioner volunteers. IOSC helps immigrants build successful lives, offering a variety of services as wide as the variety of people they serve. There is a lot for us to learn from this organization that we can apply to our work settings: in advance of Passover, we will hear from people who came to the United States running from terrible circumstances towards a better opportunity for themselves and their families. We can also find inspiration from the experience of St. Matthew; the congregation’s demographics shifted with each passing year and so did the variety of programs they used to meet the needs of this changing population. And we will learn from the IOSC Executive Director and Senior Pastor of St. Matthew about how they created an independent non-profit organization that does essential justice work and has served immigrants from 123 countries.

As the CCAR continues to serve rabbis who serve in a multiplicity of settings, the Convention committee is also working to create learning opportunities that serve us. As we navigate the future of Jewish life in this time of change, I know that the social justice offering at CCAR Convention will inspire us all and supply tangible resources and inspiration to fuel the work we will do at home. I will see you in Baltimore. 


Rabbi Eleanor Steinman serves as an associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. CCAR Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020. 

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
gender equality News Social Justice

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell on the Anniversary of the Hyde Amendment

We read Nitzvaim the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and again on Yom Kippur Morning.   In this portion, we are told we have choices, to do good or bad, for our lives to be ones of blessings or curses.  The case is made for choosing blessings.  Again, we are empowered to make these choices with Moses working hard in this text and other places as God’s advocate, to steer us to make our choices for living up to our covenant with God and Torah and doing the mitzvot, those things which we are obligated to do for ourselves, for others and for God. September 30th this year was not only Rosh Hashanah and the first day of Tishrei.   September 30th also marks the 43rd anniversary of the passage of the Hyde Amendment, the policy that bars federal funding for abortion in the United States.

On the federal level, one of the most notable and longstanding restrictions is the Hyde Amendment, which was first passed in 1976 and has been renewed every year since. 

The Hyde Amendment bans the use of federal money for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the pregnant person’s life is in danger in all federally administered health care plans such as Medicaid, TRICARE, and Indian Health Service. Many people that are have insurance through these plans, particularly Medicaid, are of low income. Thus, the Hyde Amendment largely and disproportionately impacts low-income people and other individuals with marginalized identities. It is reprehensible that someone would be denied their right to serve as their own moral agent for their reproductive health simply because they are insured by a federal health care plan. 

We as Reform Jews support women having choices, bodily integrity, the right to weigh their situation and beliefs and make knowledgeable thought out decisions for themselves and their families.  

Our tradition teaches that all life is sacred, and Judaism views the life and well-being of the person who is pregnant as paramount, placing a higher value on existing life than on potential life.

We learn from Mishnah Ohalot 7:6 that a woman is forbidden from sacrificing her own life for that of the fetus, and if her life is threatened, the text permits her no other option but abortion. In addition, if the mental health, sanity, or self-esteem of the woman (i.e. in the case of rape or incest) is at risk due to the pregnancy itself, the Mishnah permits the woman to terminate the pregnancy. It is due to the fundamental Jewish belief in the sanctity of life that abortion is viewed as both a moral and correct decision under some circumstances.  

The 1975 URJ Resolution on Abortion states, “While recognizing the right of religious groups whose beliefs differ from ours to follow the dictates of their faith in this matter, we vigorously oppose the attempts to legislate the particular beliefs of those groups into the law that governs us all. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”

 In an environment in which abortion access is becoming ever more restricted, the Hyde Amendment creates additional barriers to abortion access for women, particularly those from communities of color or with low incomes. With the High Holy Days providing an occasion for all of us to think about how we can advance justice and equity in our communities, advocating for reproductive justice – including the repeal of this harmful policy – is part of that equation.

The Equal Access to Abortion in Health Insurance or EACH Woman Act  (H.R. 1692/S. 758) was introduced into the 116th session of Congress on March 12, 2019. The EACH Woman Act seeks to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and would guarantee that every person who receives care or insurance through a federal plan or program has coverage for abortion.

If you feel compelled to take action on this matter of women’s health and free agency to make decisions about their own body,  please consider urging your member of Congress to support the EACH Woman Act. The EACH Woman Act would end bans on abortion coverage, restoring respect for each woman’s moral agency, ensuring fair treatment no matter her income, and protecting her health and safety.

Parashat Netzavim gives us the choice to act or not to act, to follow our convictions, our Jewish values and our communal interests.  Please consider your choice in acting on this matter and advocating for women to have choices in their control as well.

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell
Temple Concord, Binghamton, NY

Related resources from the RAC and from Planned Parenthood: 

https://cqrcengage.com/reformjudaism/app/write-a-letter…

https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/…/ab…/hyde-amendment

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

Reckoning with the Sins of Slavery & Racism

I was pleased to see that the Central Conference of American Rabbis led a rabbinic mission to Montgomery, Alabama. A little more than a year ago, I, too, went on a pilgrimage to the deep South with members of my congregation. Our trip changed me. As we enter our most sacred season and prepare to make teshuvah, for the wrongdoings of our past, the lessons from my pilgrimage stay with me still. I believe as a nation, the United States must make teshuvah, atoning for our legacy of slavery by making reparations to African Americans. 

As we traveled by bus through the region, I recalled how in the Hebrew Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and God, horrified, exclaimed: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries to Me from the earth!” All these generations later, here on American soil, nothing has changed. Blood also cries to us from the earth, the blood of millions of individuals kidnapped in chains, tortured, beaten, brutalized, lynched, incarcerated and senselessly shot down. This is why the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, where we commemorate the thousands of victims of lynching, is hallowed ground.

Teshuvah, atonement, is recognizing our sin and repairing the damage it has caused. Sometimes, when shame blinds us, we cannot see our wrongdoing clearly. Our nation has suppressed our shame over slavery and its consequences for far too long. Many of us who benefit from systemic racism—that is, those of us who are white—often suppress our shame because we are repelled by the agony that has been wrought to our advantage. We avert our eyes from the terror that’s been inflicted on millions of African Americans; we’re sickened to realize that we’re safe by virtue of our skin pigmentation. For some of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, we resist the truth because to accept it means we’ll need to shift the status quo and make substantial sacrifices. And many other white people are paralyzed by the knowledge that the full damage caused by slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality, will never be rectified. Whatever the reasons, when white people sublimate our shame over slavery, our moral standing as a nation is diminished, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

I believe our shame as a nation has kept us from doing the right thing: We must make reparations to the African American community. I do not know exactly what a reparation package looks like, but I do know that there are economists, lawmakers, and scholars who have given this issue deep consideration. I know that Congress has rejected HR 40, a bill that seeks to develop reparation proposals. I know that The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has reported that “the transatlantic trade in Africans and enslavement…were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism…Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.” I also know that truth and reconciliation commissions have helped other nations begin to heal from heinous crimes against humanity that occurred on their native soil.

We in the Jewish community have a unique perspective on this issue. The shadow of the Holocaust still looms large; we will never fully recover from the grief over the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Yet, because of reparations offered by Germany, we Jews know what it means when perpetrators (or the descendants of perpetrators) acknowledge their crimes and try, insufficiently but earnestly, to make amends. Some of our energy expended on anger and mourning has been re-channeled into rebuilding our lives. Because of our experience, Jewish Americans can bear witness to the healing power of repentance and reparations.

We can set ourselves free from the past. We can create our nation and ourselves anew. It is time. Let 5780 be the year in which we make teshuvah and begin the reparations process.

Ruth A. Zlotnick is Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Seattle, Washington, and is Vice President of Membership of the CCAR Board of Trustees. A version of this post appeared in The Seattle Times.

Categories
High Holy Days

Deeds, Not Fasting

In Talmudic times of trouble, tractate Taanit tells how the Jewish community needs to move forward:

The elder among them says words of admonition, “People! It does not say of the citizens of Nineveh that God say their sackcloth and their fasting, but rather: God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil ways.”

Our High Holy Days are a time for turning.  And we know that it is neither our fasting nor our penitence that matters, but how we change our daily behavior, our deeds.  What is true for individuals is true for nations: the entire citizenry of Nineveh needed to turn from the improper path they walked together.  We know the ways in which our own nation walks are sometimes stepped in sin; our High Holy Days come to admonish us to find better pathways to the future.

This past August, we marked two sad national commemorations.  2019 marked a century since America plunged into its Red Summer, a season of violence in which white supremacists in over 36 cities (and many rural areas) unleased their fury on  black communities, killing hundreds of human beings, injuring countless others, burning many black neighborhoods to the ground.  August 18 of this year also marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores.  Our summer has forced us to confront the evil ways of racial injustice that have been a part of our country since its inception.

This past August also witnessed fifty Reform Rabbis stepping forward, learning what we could do to help repair this historic and painful breach.

We travelled together to Montgomery, Alabama.   The destination was the new Legacy Museum and Memorial, build by the Equal Justice Institute to teach our nation about the direct racist trajectory from slavery through Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration.  Bryan Stevenson, the heroic founder of EJI, delivered a powerful keynote at our Cincinnati convention that called us to get proximate to this narrative, to the history, and to the lived experience of others.  Of course, Stevenson called us to learn the lessons so we might take action.  Over 50 CCAR colleagues answer Stevenson’s call for three powerful days this summer.

What did we learn? To begin with, we saw how deeply structures of injustice are built into our American way.  For many of us who had grown up proudly counting important pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the heyday of the Movement, we realized that those laws guaranteeing equal protection and equal opportunity never took their full effect.  Inequalities along racial lines are still starkly visible whether looking at the poverty line or at the distribution of prison sentences.  We learned that while individuals might consider themselves “colorblind,” our system still not only accounts for the color of one’s skin, but—according to overwhelming data and research—also disproportionally disserves people the darker their pigmentation. We learned that in an America that has always baked racism into the system, it is not enough to say, “Well, I’m not a racist.”  In a system as consistently oppressive as ours, we must actively become anti-racist.

Being anti-racist racist means many things.  First and foremost, being  anti-racist means we cannot be passive.  Being anti-racist it means actively learning about the depths of American racism, and then actively working to end our racially unjust system.  Being anti-racist means travelling outside our comfort zones to get proximate to difficult truths.  Being anti-racist means looking at the benefits we have unjustly won from the American system, and then being willing to sacrifice those most ill-gotten gains.  Being anti-racist means we have a whole lot of work to do, not just in our words, but in our deeds.

On the very day that marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores, Rabbi Rachel Mikvah taught us about the difficult of dismantling racism.  The Talmud questions the extent to which we need to return objects that were stolen.  The example is brought of a stolen log that has been used—for decades—as the structural support for a grand palace.  Our Rabbis of blessed memory remind us that that stolen beam needs to be returned, even if it mean taking apart the palace, brick by brick. 

We learned this lesson in the cradle of the Confederacy, just hundreds of feet from the Confederate White House.  Yet we know that the other White House, the one that stands as symbol to many of America’s greatness, was built by enslaved individuals.  The labor that built the White House in Washington, D.C., was stolen.  The White House, therefore, symbolizes America in a different way: a structure rooted in injustice whose foundations must be rebuilt, and that which was stolen, returned.  That return, in Hebrew so appropriate for this Holy season called teshuvah, goes by many names we should not be afraid to say in English: repayment, restoration, reparations.

It is not enough that we learn about, that we talk about, that we write about these injustices of old that continue through to today.  Fasting and lament have their place, but they will move the Divine no more than they will change society.  We need a national time not just of truth and reconciliation, but of restoration and reparations.  Our High Holy Days call us to turn from our evil ways.  It is time for all of us to act.  It is time for all of us to help turn our nation from its inarguably racist path towards a future of true liberty and justice for all.


Rabbi Seth M. Limmer serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and also as a Member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.  Together with Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, he is editor of
Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Justice, available from CCAR Press.

Categories
CCAR on the Road Immigration Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation – Day 3

The last day of any mission, trip or conference leads one to think about travel and arriving safely at home.  I mean, what could this last morning offer us that could possibly match the power and intensity of the previous two?

The answer was not long in coming.  We began, as we had done the previous day, in study.  Instead of text, we were guided in history by our esteemed colleague, Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, Emeritus Rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston.  With the aid of video materials prepared by Rabbi Gary Zola of the American Jewish Archives, we learned the stories of senior colleagues who served in the South, rabbis whose names we recognized but whose stories were unknown to us.

For we had reached the moral crossroads of our journey to Montgomery and Selma.  What had the Jewish community done in the face of rigid segregation and the violence employed to maintain it?  We like to bring out the names of Reform rabbis who traveled South to stand with Dr. King  We mention Jews who were jailed, beaten and even killed during the tumultuous fight for civil and voting rights for African-Americans.  But most of them came from the North.  They played their valiant part and returned home, singed but not burned.  The Reform rabbis who lived in the communities of the South, who served Jews whose lives and livelihoods were at stake, had to balance a tightrope taut with fear and danger.

Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, Mississippi, Rabbi Milton Grafman of Birmingham, Alabama and Rabbi Charles Mantiband of Florence, Alabama and Hattiesburg, Mississippi were on the front lines as much as the more famous Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, if not more.  In a big city like Atlanta, you could find allies for equality.  In small cities like those mentioned above, one’s capacity to serve, one’s ability to survive, was much more tenuous.

 They were in physical danger from racists, but often without support in their own congregations.  Jews were afraid of losing their jobs, having their businesses torched and their homes firebombed.  Their fear was real and legitimate.  But from gradualists like Rabbi Grafman to those who took public stands against racism like Rabbi Mantiband, they stood and withstood pressures that I cannot imagine in my own rabbinate (despite once coming face to face with the notorious James Wickstrom of the Posse Comitatus in northern Wisconsin in 1987).

We then visited a holy place, the parsonage of Dr. Martin Luther King when he served in Montgomery.  Dr. Shirley Cherry guided us from the visitors’ center and told the story of the street we were on, how the neighbors opened their homes to the Freedom Riders from the North and hid them from the Klan.  She told of us Vera Harris, who lived four doors down from the parsonage where we stood and how she had personally fed and cared for those brave activists.  She told us that Vera was in her mid-90’s and was in hospice care at home.  All of us, 48 rabbis strong, would go that morning to her house and pray for her body and soul, that her passing from this world to the next might be without pain and in peace.

Dr. Cherry took us from room to room in Dr. King’s house, starting with the front room that had been bombed while he was preaching at church.  Coretta and her baby were there, but in a back room and miraculously emerged unhurt.  From there we went looked into the bedrooms and the saw the simple way the King family lived.  I was fascinated, as were my colleagues by the small study packed floor to ceiling with books and a writing desk.  She showed us the lovely dining room table where Dr. King would sit with his family for dinner and eat with guests, the simple and the high and mighty.

But the real sacred space in that home was the kitchen.  Dr. Cherry told us of Dr. King’s long, sleepless night after the bombing, when he was receiving 30-40 calls with hate and death threats each day.  He went into the kitchen, heated up some coffee and paced the floor to think of what to do.  He sat down and had his epiphany.  His enemies had hatred, guns and bombs.  He had faith, but felt despair. 

Dr. King pleaded with God, saying, “I think the cause we are fighting for is right, but I’m losing my courage…”  And he heard his inner voice call him by name and say, “Martin Luther, stand up for justice, stand up for righteousness, and lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  And all of the fears left him, Dr. Cherry said.  He went on standing for justice and righteousness until the moment he was struck down by the assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Into Dr. King’s kitchen chair Dr. Cherry had placed Rabbi Jonah Pesner.  I don’t think she knew that he is the extraordinary, inspirational head of our Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, which has placed fighting racism at the top of Reform Judaism’s agenda.  As she described the divine experience of Dr. King during his long, lonely night of the soul, Rabbi Pesner, sitting in that simple chair, wept freely, as did many of us with him.

She led us out to the Peace Garden behind the house where we gathered for the final time.  Dr. Cherry repeated what she he had declared to us over and over again that morning.  She said with all of her passion and inner fire that, “love is the ultimate security in the time of ultimate vulnerability.”  She concluded by saying that there are things in this world that will break your heart, but you must not let them break your spirit.”

These three days have wrenched my soul.  I have been touched by colleagues, scholars and heroes I had never known.  I have re-learned the lesson of our age, that radical hatred must be met head on with radical love.  Violence may win for a moment but faith and love and justice will prevail in the end, even if that is only be achieved beyond my lifespan.  This I believe with every fiber of my being.  By this ideal I will live the rest of my life.  For this I commit my head, hand and heart.  

This is the prayer of my life.  All from three days in Alabama’s furious past and thorny present.  Just three days to kindle within a spirit of fire, the fire of memory and justice.


Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

Categories
CCAR on the Road Social Justice

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation

Montgomery, Alabama is a clean, glistening city.  Sunlight dances off the white, marble dome of the Capitol building.  There are posters for an African-American candidate for Mayor this year.  You might think that its terrifying past of racial terror is in the rearview mirror.

But then you talk to Pastor Ed Nettles, lifelong resident of Montgomery.  After sharing his memories of terrifying Ku Klux Klan marches he admits that his white neighbor living next to him turns his back on him every time they are near each other.  After recalling the childhood abuse he suffered from a white man stepping on his hand so he wouldn’t pick up a Mardi Gras necklace, he shakes his head slowly when we ask if things really are better.

He says that it will take several generations of young people who won’t tolerate with the legacy of hate, who will then finally throw off the yoke of this city’s racist legacy.  This is a legacy which still honors Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, which fought defend white peoples’ right to own other human beings, specifically because of their color.

That racist legacy is brilliantly brought to life by the Equal Justice Initiative, the work of Bryan Stevenson, the author of the best-seller, Just Mercy.  The initiative is publicly shared in two parts.

First, there is a museum chronicling the history of slavery and degradation of people of color over the centuries in America.  We walk the exhibits in silent awe and shame. 

But the museum is filled with more the eye-catching pictures and powerful video re-enactments and timelines. In one room there are hundreds of large jars, 24 inches tall and 6 inches wide, filled with dirt.  These soil samples are from where each of thousands of African-American women, children and men were lynched, murdered on the merest pretext, often in front of enthusiastic, blood-thirsty crowds.  Shelf after shelf neatly stacked with row after row of jar after jar – each one containing the DNA remains of a lynching victim listed by name.  We walk by the jars and read the names of the dead in silent awe and shame.

From there we take a shuttle from the Museum to the Memorial.  The memorial is composed of large, 10 foot slabs of metal with the name of more than 800 counties in the US in which lynching took place for the better part of 90 years.  Each slab has the names of the victims listed.   They are suspended from the ceiling of the outdoor exhibit.  We enter and walk the grounds in silent awe and shame.

There is a plaque on the grounds that reads as follows:

For the hanged and beaten.
for the shot, drowned and burned.
For the tormented, tortured and terrorized,
For those abandoned by the rule of law
We will remember.

With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice,
With courage because peace requires bravery,
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle,
With faith because we shall overcome

Yizkor – We will remember.  It feels like visiting Yad Vashem, but with no end of this story. We walk from the grounds in silent awe and shame.

I pound my head with my hand, trying to comprehend – Fellow Americans did these atrocities.  And past has been prologue – Fellow Americans still perpetrate violence against people of color because they are deemed to be of less value than white people.  The past was slavery and lynching.  The present is mass incarceration and violence, even death at the hands of the police and other white people.

At the end of the evening, back at the hotel, I walk slowly back to my lovely hotel room.  In silence and in shame.  And this is just day one.


Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Sunday Night’s Mass Meeting

CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.

As a mother of a young daughter, I cannot imagine being separated from her. I look at her and cannot fathom a situation in which she’s left alone, without any supervision – not one to watch her, to help her, to keep her safe, to love her. And yet, thousands of children are in that very situation. Not in some far away land but here, on our soil. Seeking refuge from the horrors of evil, families have been driven away from their homes, churches and communities and have come to America for refuge. As Jews we are taught to welcome the stranger, and to remember that we were once the refugee looking for safety and a home.

When Reverend Barber II put out the call to clergy of all faiths to join Repairers of the Breech in El Paso for Moral Monday, in order to protest this administration’s “policy” of separating families, of parents from their children, I felt compelled to attend.

Upon arrival, I entered a modest, old church and was met with hundreds of activists, clergy from all faiths and even media. There was an energy emenating from the pews, as people joined in singing songs about justice and faith. Each of the representatives from the faith communities shared brief words, one more powerful than the next. Rabbi Rick Jacobs was our representative who gave words of Torah to us all.

Of course, Reverend Barber II gave his homily, in which he passionately described the wretched conditions the families seeking refuge are currently enduring within the walls of detention centers. Little food, no showers, no running water! People drinking from toilets! Living in cages! Young children separated from their mothers! Private companies that own the Centers are actually making money off the backs of children. Where is the humanity!? I was and remain outraged that the American government is dehumanizing people, much like what was done to our People just a few decades ago.

Together as one community, we stood united in reflective prayer and inspirational song. We listened to Fernando, the Executive Director of the Border Network for Human Rights as he spoke about their work advocating for migrants at the border. He introduced us to two young men who had spent time in a Detention Center – they shared their stories of starvation, of thirst, of not being able to take a shower for weeks, and of wearing the same clothing for the duration of their stay. We then listened to a family whose patriarch was taken from them; his granddaughter at age nine asked why he was being treated like a criminal. Even she knew that this was unjust. It was difficult to listen to the stories shared, but important to hear.

As rabbis, we know that in the Torah scroll we are able to distill the word Ayd or Witness from the Shema. Indeed, during my experience in El Paso, I and others heard the call to serve as moral witnesses. When I returned home to Connecticut, I held my three year old and watched her sleep. She looked so peaceful, and so cared for. My heart continues to ache for the children who have no bed to lie in, have no mommy to care for them and feel anything but peaceful.


Rabbi Joui Hessel serves as the Associate Director for the Eastern Region for Recruitment and Admissions at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.