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Addressing Race as a Jewish Community

Yom Kippur is a time when we confess our wrongdoings collectively, and is therefore an opportune moment in the Jewish calendar to reflect on how we can do teshuvah for the ways in which we have failed, communally and individually, to address the issue of racism.

Racism undermines the American Promise, the promise of equality enshrined in our nation’s founding documents, and the promise of opportunity that our ancestors embraced and ultimately experienced when they came to this country. We are a nation founded on the idea that each of us has been endowed with inalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. And yet at the same time it took generations for that language to apply to our indigenous peoples, to the slaves brought from Africa, to women, and to others. Racism in particular is the starting point or “original stain” on our moral fabric that forms the basis for many of those other “isms” in our society.

Despite progress, racism persists. Americans still often live in communities segregated by the color of our skin, where “separate but equal” may no longer be the law of the land, but remains the reality for too many when it comes to access to quality education, banking or housing systems, and more. Discrimination based on racial identity is still a reality for many, because of both structural barriers and because of unconscious biases. Our inability to move past the versions of racism that exist in our communities today remains a challenge that we face as Jews and as Americans.

When I ask my African American friends and colleagues how they are feeling in the current environment, one of the most common responses is that they feel they are in a state of national crisis. The physical insecurity that many black Americans experience has moved to the forefront of our national attention, and my heart has broken watching video after video of the shooting or killing of black men. And my heart breaks knowing that police officers put their own lives on the line every day, and yet we are failing to achieve an outcome that delivers equal justice for all Americans.

Some of the most painful stories to hear have been those of fellow parents, including friends and congregants, who fear for the safety of their black children. I recently watched a short documentary1 in which parents described their experience giving “the talk” to their children. This talk isn’t about the birds and the bees. It is a talk about how to interact with police or other authorities to minimize the chance of a violent altercation. One white mom wondered aloud, “I was told to talk to them before they first experience racism. But, when will that be?” Did it already happen, perhaps? How young is too young? A father teared up as he recalled the words he spoke to his son: “Son, you are a beautiful young boy. But in America, because of the color of your skin and of my skin, we are going to deal with a lot of danger… I will do my best to keep you safe.”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard stories like this. A friend from Philadelphia, a prominent lawyer whose children attended the same preschool as my own, has spoken to me about his fears for his children’s safety. Over the last few years, he has had to explain the painful events of the news in ways that don’t scare his young son too much. And he wonders: what does he say when his now six-year-old son becomes eight or nine or ten? My friend has all that he needs—a great career and home, and his children are in fantastic schools—yet he knows that he needs to prepare his son for how authority figures as well as ordinary folks might treat him when he becomes taller and stronger, when he could be perceived as a threat.

When this issue of police violence against African-Americans was coming to my attention, I read a story that has stayed with me. It was by Kimberly Norwood2, a law professor at Washington University who lives in a middle class suburb near Ferguson, the city where Mike Brown, whose death at the hands of a police officer sparked protests about police violence, was from. Her suburb is squarely middle class, and she describes in her article that the life she and her family leads is very different than most of her not so far away neighbors from Ferguson. But there are some experiences she shares with those neighbors that are based on race. In one of several examples, she described going on a cruise with her husband. Her sons were teenagers at the time and they would be staying home. They were taking summer enrichment classes at a school one mile from her suburban home and would be walking back and forth to their school.

In addition to the regular things one might need to prepare before leaving on a vacation and leaving teenagers to fend for themselves—she put one other thing at the top of her to do list: email the chief of police. She worried that if her two sons walked one mile to their afterschool enrichment program, they would be the subject of harassment, by local members of the community or by the police themselves; that someone might call into the police “suspicious persons” or they would be picked up or berated in some way, simply because of false assumptions too often made about people who look like them. Norwood contacted the local chief of police and explained her situation. She emailed two pictures of the boys. Norwood met up with the chief and a day later went on her trip.

In her article, she reflects, “I’ve asked myself: How many parents of white sons have thought to add to their to-do-before-leaving town list, ‘Write letter to local police department, so police do not become suspicious’?”

My heart breaks when I hear the stories of people who are treated differently because of their race. Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican Senator, spoke out this summer after the many tragic events that unfolded to share his own personal experience. He spoke about his deep respect for police who serve their country—and also told his own truth: that since his days of becoming a senator, he had been pulled over by police on seven different occasions.

As members of Jewish communities, whose textual tradition and history instruct us to work for justice and equality, we cannot look away from this crisis. There are several texts, too many to quote here, that express Judaism’s commitment to human dignity and righting the wrongs of our society. A fundamental concept derives from the Creation story3, in which we are taught that the first human being was created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Later commentators interpret this to mean that every person is of infinite worth and that the diversity of humankind is a positive reflection of God’s glory.4

And there are the many prophetic verses that affirm our commitment to helping the most vulnerable. Our prophetic reading for Yom Kippur morning reminds us each year about the deeper meaning of the fast—to teach us do the right thing, to pursue justice, to let the oppressed go free, to free every yoke!

We also find the pursuit of justice and equality as foundational to the vision of Reconstructionist Judaism, as formulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. In his book, The Future of the American Jew, Kaplan outlines nine “Basic Values in Jewish Religion.” Justice is one of them. Justice, he argues, is based on the assumption that human beings are “intrinsically equal,” notwithstanding their individual differences.5

In this section, Kaplan argues that our society should be viewed as a community—a social organization in which the welfare of each and every person should be the concern of all—and the life of the whole is the concern of each. These are the conditions under which people can experience self-worth. He writes, “To experience the dignity of selfhood means that every individual must be able to feel that the society in which he lives regards him not merely as a means to an end, but recognizes him as an end in himself.”

It seems to me that Kaplan’s words from a different era speak directly to the issues at play within our society today. For us to have justice, everyone must be able to feel as if they matter—as if they are a subject instead of an object. And we must do as a society what we can to enable the conditions in which each individual, regardless of their station in life or their race, is valued and treated as an equal.

As a community, we not only have texts that teach us about how to treat those who are oppressed, we can rely on our own historical experience. Jews have been and at times remain the “other.” Over the course of history, Jews have experienced systematic persecution, including in our very own United States, where for many years, Jews did not have equal access to jobs or universities because of who they are.

During the Holocaust, Hitler formally assigned Jews the role of “inferior race” and engaged in racially motivated hatred to carry out a plot to wipe out all the Jews. When we think back just a generation or two ago, we know the dangers that come with racial hatred. Having experienced it in our collective history can help us empathize with those who are being discriminated against based on race—and help motivate us to address the problem.

Racism in America is also personal to us because, as we fight it, we do so in a community that is and always has been multi-racial. Often, when Jews think in their mind’s eye about “the Jewish community,” we visualize a uniform white Jewish community. At the same time, it is estimated that about 20%6 of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. And this population is growing.

Tamara Fish, a New York–based African-American Jewish community leader wrote an op-ed in the Forward about the intersection of black and Jewish identities and Jewish involvement in the fight for black lives. She directs her comments to all Jewish readers, saying, “You, as part of the Jewish community, are engaged in the process of raising black children. You need to remember that. This is why Black Lives Matter, because black Jewish children are here. They are your children. They are my children. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

We are likely not going to solve these problems this year or anytime soon after. But we can do something. We can find ways to engage, to learn, and to advocate.

On Yom Kippur, as we seek to take responsibility for communal wrongs, may we find the inspiration to do the challenging work of examining race and better understanding the systems that we have inherited. May we draw upon our faith and history to inspire us to act. May we listen to others’ truths and share our own, and in doing all of this participate in the work of tikkun olam, repair of the world.

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