Jews and Racism in America

Note: These are excerpts of remarks at a Shabbat morning service at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) which featured many elements marking Black History Month.  

Two weeks ago, I was at a conference in New York City sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. It was called “No Time for Neutrality” and it was planned in response to the wholesale assault on civil liberties and democratic values coming from the Trump Administration, specifically the attempt to curtail immigration from certain Muslim majority countries.

This article appeared in the New York Jewish Week on March 10, 2017.

On the Monday night of the conference, some 200 rabbis, accompanied by about 100 others, marched down Broadway from 88th Street to Columbus Circle, stopping in front of the Trump International Hotel and Tower. In a planned act of civil disobedience, 19 rabbis sat in the middle of the street until they were finally arrested for blocking traffic (not even a misdemeanor but enough to garner major news coverage!).

This act of protest reminded me of an arrest of rabbis in June 1964 when 17 rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine, FL for their actions in support of Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights agenda. Part of the letter that these rabbis wrote from jail included the following passage: “We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time.”

How fitting for our own times! Many know the deep involvement of the Jewish community in the Civil Rights Movement: Jews played major leadership roles in the NAACP and in organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington; between a third to a half of all Freedom Riders who went South in the summer of 1964 were Jewish; much of the civil rights legislation drafted under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson was drafted in the conference room of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington.

But too many Jews point to a picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and feel as if our work for equal rights for Black America has been “covered”. Heschel would be outraged if he saw how many Jews used his acts of moral courage as an “out” for their own current inaction. Each generation is challenged to respond to the moral crises of its time. For our generation, it is abundantly clear that, even as the Civil Rights Movement eliminated most forms of racial discrimination in law, the de facto situation is quite different.

Racism in America no longer comes with hooded men and burning crosses. It looks like the “suppression” of tens of thousands of Black voters in over a dozen states. It looks like an incarceration rate of Black men that is six times higher than it is for White men. It has names like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott and Tamir Rice, age 12. What is most sad about the killings of these unarmed Black men by police officers is that it represents only the tip of the iceberg. Ask about it in the Black community and you will find out that such killings have been going on for years and the dead number in the thousands.

This country has a long way to go to reverse a pattern of prejudice and practice that negatively impacts every person of Color in our society. We are very far from being a land of equal opportunity and equal treatment under law.

How fitting it is that our congregation’s marking of Black History Month falls on the week that we read of the giving of the Ten Commandments. The children of Israel are transitioning from being an enslaved population to a people committed to a set of moral and ethical laws. This week we become a nation with moral agency. And with that agency comes the responsibility to act in the face of moral injustice.

Fast forward 3500 years. We are not only people with moral agency, we Jews are also people of considerable privilege. In my own personal work in the area of racial justice the past few years, I have learned how much I don’t understand about the implications of “white privilege” in this country. It is a concept that gets many people nervous and defensive but I am convinced that there is no way to make progress on racial justice in America without confronting some of these hard truths.

In planning today’s musical selections with Siera Toney, our African-American guest vocalist, she referred to Jews and Blacks as “Exodus People”. “We get each other” she said.  I think it was an overly generous comment. I wish it were more true than I expect it is. There is still so much that “we don’t get” about the Black experience in America today. There is much work for us to do.

Today we sit together, Black and White in sacred space (our sanctuary), in sacred time (shabbat), about to read sacred words (the giving of the Ten Commandments). We hope and pray that the experience might bring us closer to creating the “Beloved Community” that God envisioned for all of us.