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Addressing Race as a Jewish Community: Kol Nidre 2016

Post Series: High Holidays

Kol Nidre 5777
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, SAJ, NY, NY

Yom Kippur invites us to acknowledge the places we, as individuals and as a society, have gone astray and to begin to redress those wrongs.  The confessional prayers — the Al Heyt and the Ashamnu that we will soon sing — are written in the plural.  As we recite these prayers multiple times, we are reminded over that we share in the collective responsibility for wrongdoing. 

Rabbi Caryn Broitman teaches about the Al Heyt: “The communal issue…is responsibility.  And that is ultimately collective, for wrongs are perpetrated and perpetuated only with the consent of the many, even if that consent is passive.”  On Yom Kippur, we take responsibility for these wrongdoings, personal or communal, for our actions and for our silence.

In this spirit of acknowledging societal wrongs and taking collective responsibility, tonight I want to talk about race and racial justice.  I recognize that this is not always an easy issue to grapple with and have conversations about, but I hope tonight will lead us to meaningful dialogue and deeper engagement as a community.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge that there are many issues, many societal plagues that also need to be addressed and are also likely on our minds given the past few weeks and this past year, to name a few: anti-Semitism and sexual violence; Islamophobia and the scapegoating of immigrants. 

Thankfully, we have already begun addressing some of these challenges as a community. I am so grateful to the members of SOJAC, SAJ’s Social Action Justice Committee, who are building coalitions and organizing our community to advocate our elected officials on behalf of refugees.  And we will take another step towards addressing Islamophobia as we hear from an important NYC Muslim community leader, Debbie Almontaser, on Yom Kippur afternoon.  We will continue to address these and other issues, throughout the year and in years to come. 

I want to talk about racism because it 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, as New Yorkers, and as Americans.

I also want to talk about racism tonight because my heart is breaking.  It is breaking because 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.

So tonight I want to focus in on this particular challenge, to engage with the stories of black Americans, including American Jews of color, who are struggling to live a life of safety and dignity in America in 2016. Then I will talk about the Jewish sources and ideas that might inspire commitment on this issue and how we at the SAJ can engage, listen, and begin to act.

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 documentary in which parents described their experience giving “the talk” to their children.  This talk wasn’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, home, and his children are in fantastic schools, yet, he knows that he needs to prepare his son for what authority figures as well as ordinary folks, might think when he becomes taller and stronger, when he could be perceived as a threat. 

When the news was filled with almost daily revelations of a tragedy for the black community, a friend of mine with a black son posted a “meme” on Facebook.  For those not on Facebook, a meme is a picture or saying that gets used repeatedly, often times re-phrased to make a new statement. A popular Internet “meme” is from World War II, the British propaganda poster urging the public to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  My friend’s internet post similarly had a picture of the British crown, but instead it read, “I can’t keep calm. I have a black son.”  Her anxiety was so high, and she couldn’t avoid feeling that this could one day be her own son.  As a parent with children the same age, I can only imagine how she felt and feels.

My heart breaks knowing that people worry that their children will be treated differently or perceived a threat because of their skin color.  An SAJ member who is a parent of black sons told me that “the talk” she gives is not a one-time event and it’s not limited to run-ins with authorities.  The talk is about the negative expectations people will have of her son—how they may perceive him to be “the problem – and the potentially more severe consequences he would face for misbehavior.  Given that climate, her son knows that he has to behave differently and better than his white peers to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble or singled out.  He is aware at ten years old that his race necessitates him to be held to higher standards and to be careful about how he is perceived by those around him. 

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 Norwood, 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, times he felt were motivated by the color of his skin.

And my heart breaks when I think about the many black men who been shot or killed in this past year during run-ins with law enforcement.  Of course, even with video evidence, it is hard for us to know exactly what happened, whether force was justified and what type. We do know that the job of serving as a police officer is one that comes with great risk, one that requires the support of the community.

And at the same time, there are simply too many videos that raise questions. Perhaps some of the most concerning, the most upsetting, are the shootings of unarmed men, who — as far as evidence shows — were not doing anything to warrant the outcome.  Here are some of those stories:

Terrence Crutcher, a 40 year old father from Tulsa, Oklahoma, stood in front of his car, which had stopped working on the road.  The police came after some calls about the car blocking the road came in.  Crutcher stood next to the car.  He was unarmed. He was walking towards the police with his hands up when he was tased and then shot. He died the next day. Crutcher’s twin sister Tiffany quoting the officer who called her brother a “big bad dude” minutes before he was killed, “That ‘big, bad dude’ was a father. That ‘big, bad dude’ was a son. That ‘big, bad dude’ was enrolled at Tulsa Community College,” “That ‘big, bad dude’ loved God. That ‘big, bad dude’ was singing [in church] with all of his flaws every week.”

Alfred Olongo, a 38 year old man, was suffering a mental breakdown.  After he started acting strangely and weaving in and out of traffic, his sister called the police for help. When the police came, after a short confrontation, they shot and killed Alfred.  His sister cried out, “I called for help, not for him to be killed!”

And while the least violent of the stories, perhaps the most revealing: Charles Kinsey, a 47 year old aide to an autistic man working at a group home chased one of his patients who ran away.  They ended up in the street.  Seeing the police draw a weapon, Kinsey lay on his back and put his arms up in the air as a gesture of surrender. He had not done anything wrong. He was doing his job supporting an autistic man. He knew to lay on his back and remained in this position for many seconds, just to make sure there was no confusion about his intentions. He was shot in the leg three times. 

Parents are not giving “the talk” to their children and communities are not asking for accountability because they oppose law enforcement.  They are doing it because they see a pattern and they are scared. 

Trevor Noah, comedian, social commentator and host of The Daily Show, who is black and South African, noted after some of this summer’s shootings, “In America, once you are pro-something, it is assumed you are anti-something else… [but] it’s possible to be both.  It’s possible to be pro-cop and pro-black.”  We can support our police and we can support our black citizens at the same time as we take communal responsibility for this problem.

My heart also breaks knowing that our Jewish community is right now so divided on how to and whether to engage on this issue in particular and on addressing racism in general.  Since these shootings, even as early as Trayvon Martin’s death, a group of activists began the Black Lives Matter Movement, which aimed to show that in our country black lives are not (always) valued and to highlight a variety of issues facing the black community. 

This summer, an umbrella group of varied Black Lives Matter-affiliated organizations, put together a comprehensive document called “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice.”   The policy demands in this Movement for Black Lives Platform are grouped into six categories: 

“End the War on Black People”

“Reparations”

“Divest-Invest”

“Economic Justice”

“Community Control”, and

“Political Power”

Within those six categories there are dozens of specific demands, backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and to organizations working on those issues. 

One particular section of one of the six categories was deeply problematic for the vast majority of Jews, myself included.  In the “Divest-Invest” statement, there is language labeling Israel as an apartheid state and accusing Israel of genocide. 

Reading these words pained me personally and deeply.  As a person who cares about Israel and who wants to help ensure that black lives to matter in our society, I felt like I was being ripped into two, instead of being the whole person that I am.   

Mainstream Jewish organizations were quick to respond, with many advocating that because of these two words — out of 47,000 words of the document– that Jews should distance themselves not just from this document, but from the broader movement.  Some walked away from the conversation entirely.    While I relate to discomfort and pain and felt it personally, I was also disappointed that the community seemed willing to abandon an issue that affects many outside and inside our community.

Given the fact that millions of Americans are afraid and worried about their safety and their future, about their hopes for achieving the American promise, I do not think we have the luxury to walk away from this struggle.  In the words of Rabbi Sharon Brous: “It is clear to me that it would be a serious moral failure if we were to allow our justifiable anger with the nature of the criticism of Israel to distance and distract us from the work of teaching down structural racism in America…the point is that the work is essential, and we are not free to disengage.”  

We can stay in the conversation with this movement and joining Black Lives Matter advocacy and actions, while also sharing our criticism with movement leaders.  Or we can also seek out specific partners focused on our shared goals, like the NAACP that among other things, works to combat voter suppression or T’ruah, a rabbinic voice for human rights, or other groups addressing mass incarceration.  And so on.  However we choose to do it, the work is critical—and we are needed.

We are not free to disengage because we are Jews and members of Jewish communities, whose textual tradition and history instruct us to work for justice and equality.  And because in today’s multi-cultural Jewish world, racial justice is personal. 

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 story, in which we are taught that the first human being was created Btselem 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. 

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, olav hashalom (of blessed memory).  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. 

In this section, Kaplan argues that our society should be viewed as a community—a social organization in which the welfare of each and everyone 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, universities because of who they are.

In particular, 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 looks increasingly different than during ealier times. 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% 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.

At SAJ, our family and children’s community is multiracial, including asian, latino, and black Jewish children.  Many of us in this room have family members who are Jews of color.  When we recognize that our Jewish community is not monolithic, the conversation changes.  It is no longer an “us” and “them” issue.  This is about members of our own community. This is about creating a better world for the children in our SAJ community and broader community.

Tamara Fish, a New York based African-American Jewish community leader wrote an op-ed in Forward this week about the intersection of black and Jewish identities and Jewish involvement in the fight for black lives.  She directs her comments to all Jewish community 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 in 5777 or anytime soon after.  We can do something.  We can find ways to engage, to learn and to advocate. 

In particular, at SAJ, we have some plans to share about how we might address racial equality and justice in the coming year.  We start by learning and listening.  In November, we are launching a Racial Justice Reading group, co-led by me and SAJ member Sheryl Silver.  We will explore a variety of subjects, including the roots of racism, areas of systemic racism today, white privilege and implicit bias.  We recognize that not everyone will attend the reading group itself – but we want this to feel like a whole community project.  We will share our learning with the broader community and make our book and article selections known when possible, so that you can even participate from home.     

We will learn from speakers, including a Jewish person of color who will speak about their personal journey and the hopes for the future of both communities they inhabit.  We will also pursue a congregational trip to the Smithsonian’s new Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

I am also very open to ideas you may have. Perhaps we can build a relationship with a predominantly black church near SAJ.  And while I cannot promise we can do everything in this first year, I would love to hear from you and consider how we can build these ideas into our programs into the future.  My hope is that the learning we do as a congregation can help us have challenging and sensitive conversations about race.  And that this work can and will inspire us more deeply into action. 

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 be 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. 

Gmar Hatima Tova.

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