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Standing Up for Racial Justice and Against Racial Violence

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Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) mourn the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police last week. As our hearts are broken yet again by the images and stories of the unjustifiable loss of innocent black and brown lives at the hands of law enforcement, the words of the psalmist ring bitterly familiar: “ad matai — how long will this go on?! … How long will you feed your people tears as their daily bread, making them drink great measures of tears?” (Psalm 80:5-6).  This injustice is not just the fault of a few bad cops but of a badly broken policing system. 

On Erev Shavuot, we disseminated a special el maleh rachamim” memorial prayer for victims of racial violence to be recited during the yizkor service. How many holidays must we continue to add names to our list of martyrs of racial injustice? We will not stop remembering Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Mike Brown, Alton Sterling, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Delrawn Small, Sandra Bland and now George Floyd, along with too many others. 

The blatant display of systemic racism that we all saw in the horrible murder of George Floyd hits all of us differently depending on our own race and life experience. But it is clear that these events have exposed a basic truth about our country. White supremacy is built into the fabric of American society, and the deep anger that is being expressed all around us has been festering for decades, if not centuries. This is one of the many reasons that our Tikkun Olam Commission, a joint venture of Reconstructing Judaism and the RRA, has recently committed to working on racial justice. 

We must dismantle white supremacy now if we are to have any chance at building a more just and equitable world for all people. For all people - because we are committed to the core Jewish value that all people are created betzelem elokim — in the image of the divine —  and are therefore equally deserving of full human dignity and safety. But also specifically for our people — the Jews of Color within the Reconstructionist movement and beyond who face the oppression, pain, and fear of living under white supremacy every day.  We must redouble our efforts to ensure that our Jewish communities provide a safe, supportive, loving and empowering haven for all of us, most especially Jews of Color. We lift up these words from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) student May Ye, with the kavanah (intention) of re-dedicating ourselves to the well-being of Jews of Color and all People of Color in our communities:

“To my black and brown siblings, your lives matter. You deserve to breathe - to breathe air that is not flooded with tear gas in a time when poor and working class, black and brown, elderly and incarcerated people are being hit the worst by a respiratory virus. You deserve to breathe clean air. You deserve to breathe in safety and in peace. Breath is a human right, it is a right of existence. Breath is not something that anyone should need to deserve. Your life and your breath matters and I will do everything in my power, engage my people and my elected officials to do everything in our power, to affirm that your lives and your breaths matter and make sure that that is a reality. We cannot only begin to know and say their names when their breath is taken from them.”

It is a courageous act to take to the streets in protest in the best of times; all the more so during a raging pandemic. We condemn the disproportionate use of violent police force against protesters as rage has swept the streets of the United States and the world. We also condemn President Trump’s racially-charged rhetoric threatening violence to unarmed civilian protestors.  We were repulsed when tear gas and violent force were used to remove peaceful protestors and clergy from the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church so that President Trump could enjoy a photo opportunity. 

We are outraged at the blatant discrepancy of police standing idly by as white supremacists at “Open Up” rallies march with assault rifles in hand, while unarmed protesters marching for racial justice are met by the swift deployment of the National Guard, SWAT teams in riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. RRC student Koach Baruch Frazier summarized the hypocrisy of this moment in a Facebook livestream video Sunday night, while he was gathering up empty military-grade shells of chemical dispersants deployed across residential streets of his neighborhood of West Philadelphia: 

“This is all this military stuff that they are shooting at our people out here, because we dare to say, ‘stop killing us.’ We got the chutzpah to say, ‘I don’t want to die at the hands of a police officer, and they are literally shooting us [points to a handful of cartridges from smoke bombs and tear gas]… You can see that this one says, “Defense Technology Corporation of America,” they are who supplied these weapons to the Philadelphia police department and they are using them against American citizens.”

Our hope is that this enormous amount of violence and pain can lead to real change in our country and that as few people as possible are hurt. We pray for a refuah shleimah, a speedy healing of body, mind and spirit, for all those who have been harmed over the course of the unfolding protests, and we offer our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the five additional people who have been killed. 

We join our friends at American Jewish World Service in calling on:

  • All lawmakers and law enforcement authorities in the United States — from President Trump and Attorney General Barr to every federal, state and local official — to make it clear that racist abuse and murder by any police officer, authority or citizen will be prosecuted aggressively and effectively with full accountability under the rule of law without exception;

  • President Trump, and any other elected officials who do so, to stop fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance through racist statements, Tweets and indisputable “dog whistles” to white nationalists and neo-Nazis;

  • Civil society — including all businesses, educational institutions, news organizations, nonprofits and faith communities — to recognize and root out institutionalized racism and other forms of hatred and intolerance;

  • The Jewish community to recognize and include Jews of color in every aspect of Jewish communal life; and

  • All protesters to pursue determined strategies to keep pressure on every sector of society through non-violent action in the context of the full right to free expression under law.

We find ourselves in a moment of deep collective rage. Some expressions of anger may feel constructive towards building the world of justice and liberation we seek, and some may seem destructive to that goal. Let us aspire to turn first to empathy when engaging that which we may not understand. We offer these closing words from Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, (RRC 2006 and Rabbi at SAJ, Judaism that Stands for All), as a blessing to help each of us find the empathy we need to navigate this moment of anger:

“I am angry. I am angry because I love. I love human beings. I love this gift of love. I want humans to thrive. And if we look into our hearts, we want every human being to thrive to their potential. And that is love.

Let ourselves feel the anger because it is a reflection of that love, that hope, that possibility.

Anger and love are not opposites. The God of anger and the God of love are not opposites. 

In this moment of pain, of injustice, of uncovering layers of justice, I want to invite us to call on the God of love and the God of anger, the same God, to support us in our work. And I want us to dig deep into our hearts to make space for love and anger and to know that one is a reflection of the other. Let our anger and our love lift us up into a better tomorrow and let’s continue to fight.”

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