When I hear examples of people dedicating their lives to a greater purpose, I am awestruck, tingles go up my spine. Dr. King’s words, life and struggle, have always inspired me in such a way. This took root even deeper when I learned that Jews like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood up with Black people to demand civil rights and equality during the middle of the 20th century. I am proud of that legacy and pray it continues today, but what has become of it?
America has problems. The problem of police violence against Black, Brown and Indigenous people does not come out of nowhere, or exist by itself. Over-policing Black areas is a manifestation of inequality. The problem of inequality is linked to deeper, historic, systemic, implicit, and explicit, structures in our society. While my ancestors came to America late in its history, every American with privilege must understand and take responsibility for this country’s unsettled past. Last week on Memorial Day, George Floyd a black man in Minneapolis, was murdered by police. While we are rightly pained and outraged by this latest tragedy, this is not an aberration, this is always in America.
Kareem Abdul Jabar recently wrote, “…African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”
In Chicago the structural racism is not subtle. I grew up in a bordering suburb on the north side of the city. The north side of Chicago is home to relatively few black people; in a city known to be a “Black city”, where African Americans make up 33% of the population, this was no accident but rather the consequence of policy and social pressure during most of the 20th century.
Chicago is a sprawling flat city, and the streets are laid out in a grid with downtown at the nominal center. So the north side is everything north of downtown, and the south side, including the black part of town, is everything south of downtown. Someone must have given up on naming most of the south side streets, so they are numbered, 17th Street, 18th street, and so on into the early hundreds as they move further from downtown.
Transiting on the trains through the whole city, and past downtown, as a young teenager, taught me a lot about race. Visiting my friend in a rare white south side neighborhood at 50th street felt like a journey to a far land, not without danger. Venturing even further to a vegetarian soul-food restaurant owned by Black Hebrews on 75th street was a trip to what felt like a different city. The time I spent in Chicago forced me to recognize my own bias, and fear of Black people. Riding the train from the north side to the south side, laid bare the economic inequalities between White and Black. It was obvious African Americans could succeed in every part of our society, the same as Whites, but it took time to understand why so often they didn’t, and why every homeless person I saw or talked to was Black.
Non-black people cannot fully understand what it’s like to be the recipients of the 400 year American legacy of slavery, terrorism and discrimination. So there is a strong push on social media and offline, to center the voices of Black Americans, and truly listen to them. There is a multitude speaking up right now, telling us what it feels like to be Black in America. Additionally there is no shortage of professional individuals and organizations with proven policy proposals proven to reduce police violence and inequality. Where possible we should elevate the voices of Black Jews.
For instance Chris Harrison recently wrote on the Reform Movement’s blog, “…congregations and Jewish institutions must instantly speak out against acts of racism whenever they occur and follow up with action. We must prove that our prayers are not just poetic gestures; they are the centuries-old sacred fuel empowering us to stand firm in the face of the Pharaohs of our day. In short, antiracism must be as integral to and synonymous with our Jewish communities as reciting the Sh’ma.”
I don’t know what it’s like to be Black in America, I think I pass for white, but I am a Jew. So I know something of what it's like to be the Other, to be hated, to be terrorized. Helping to eliminate racism, eliminate prejudice, eliminate hatred, helps everyone, and helps Jews. It is in our self-interest to make common cause with the oppressed, and as Jews we are urged to do so by the Torah, in Leviticus,
לֹ֥א תַֽעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ
Don’t stand idle upon the blood of your fellow
And before that in Exodus,
וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Mi’tzrayim.
And Rabbi Hillel said,
If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
And Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said,
“Some are guilty; all are responsible.”
We should confront the racism, explicit and implicit, in our community and in our own hearts. In doing so, I urge you to look past the distractions hyped by the media, towards the causes of racism and inequality. Dr. King once quoted Victor Hugo saying, “if a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness."
Four centuries of injustice cannot be overcome in one demonstration, one summer of protests, and certainly not in one news cycle. The problems in this country will not be solved quickly, but this moment can be the first real step in a generation towards solving them. We can start here by affirming the value of a Black life, is the value of a human life, all of us created in the image of G-d; Black Lives Matter.
After listening to those most affected, we cannot remain silent, we must speak to our family and friends. Now is the time to reach out to Black friends and family with messages of support, without expectations. We can directly support Black owned businesses and organizations assisting demonstrators and doing other good work at the community level. We can call our congresspeople and senators, demanding positive change at the federal level. We can push for discussion of the policies, and priorities, of the local police. We can march with our fellow citizens.
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