The Loud Silence of Support
American Jews have long taken great pride in their history of advocacy in the fight against racial injustice. Abraham Joshua Herschel’s work inspired millions of Jews throughout the decades to get to work, using the privilege many of us receive to help fight against the evils of hate in this country. It was the Jewish community, alongside the black community, that helped to create the NAACP. Our Torah even reminds us that we owe it to the other marginalized people in our communities because we know all too well what it was like to be slaves in the land of Egypt. And now, more than ever, we have an obligation to put in the work to earn that pride, creating a present that is as reflective as our past in solidarity and support of the People of Color in our communities.
This week, our country felt as thought it was shattering into a million pieces. As protestors demanded justice for George Floyd, a Black American being arrested for a counterfeit dollar bill and killed as a result of the deeply rooted racist brutality of policing, the US government saw it fit to respond with a doubling down of police violence, militarizing against the very citizens they have been sworn to protect. Anger, fear, hate, and frustration were the calling cards for a week in which we saw the insistent demand that enough was enough; this country has been in desperate need for change for as long as it has been in existence, and we are officially tired of waiting for that change to come of its own accord.
I must say, on a personal note, that I found myself pulled in two directions this week. On the one hand, nobody needs another think piece by a white man processing his feelings; we need to be listening to those who are demanding to be heard after generations of being ignored and silenced. On the other hand, “silence is compliance,” and I owe it to the communities I serve as a faith leader to make it well known that this is a moment in which all voices need to be insisting on the change that will make it so that Black Americans no longer have to live in fear in their own country, in their own communities, in their own homes.
Normally, in crafting a Shabbat message, I would go to the usual Jewish spaces: the Torah portion, the commentators, the Talmud. This week, I’m going to do much the same thing; I’m going to look to see what the Jews of Color in my Jewish community are saying, so that they might be heard on Shabbat, the day where we are called to reflect upon how to move forward into a new week, ready to do better than what we did before. Let’s see what wisdom our people has to offer about their own experience of this week.
Chris Harrison, a writer and editor for the Union for Reform Judaism, said this week in his reflection on the current climate in our country: “I firmly believe we are God’s partners in creation, compelled to fight against chaos in all forms – including racism.” He concluded his writing by saying “We are hopeful that our Jewish community will take every story of racism – within or outside of the Jewish community – as a personal challenge to do better by us.”
Colleague and soon-to-be rabbinic student Evan Traylor, who I grew up with in NFTY, said “right now, we need more from our white Jewish siblings, and more from our Jewish institutions — we need support, allyship, resources, and strategies to confront racism in our community, and in our world. We are all created in the image of God — it’s time to build the Jewish community and world that makes our Torah true in this age.”
Caryn Blomquist, a Jewish professional working at Congregation BJBE in suburban Chicago down the street from where I grew up, offered the following, “If we ask the systematically oppressed to educate the privileged, we’re not only putting the burden back on the victim, we continue to feed into the idea that the state of the world is the responsibility of someone else. Wrong! The state of the world is a collective project, the responsibility to be shared.”
It is from Ms. Blomquist’s powerful words that we, the white Jewish community, see our biggest obligation. It is incumbent on us to figure out how we can educate ourselves, to find ways that we can be good allies to the cause and to fill in our own ignorances.
It has been beautiful, this week, to see the Jewish community of all colors, denominations, and ideologies, speak loudly and with conviction that racial justice is a Jewish issue, and that we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to fight for the end of racism and hatred in this country. And now, it is the job of Jews of white privilege to step back from the microphone, step back from the keyboard, and to listen. We need to listen to Jews of Color telling us how they feel in our spaces and how we can make everyone feel more supported, cared for, and seen. We need to listen to all Black Americans who are telling us what they need from us, and it is our job to figure out how to help them get it. We need to listen to all of the voices that for too long have been suffocated by the knee of oppression and drowned out by the cacophony of sound coming from the well-intended, but too strong voice of the ally community.
The work of fixing a fundamentally broken system is a lifelong fight. We cannot expect any single act or piece of legislation or statement to fix what has been centuries in the making. But neither can we continue to claim that progress is slow, that we are taking the long plod toward justice. Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that we are not obligated to complete the task, nor are we free to desist from it. We have spent too long on the one side of that spectrum, and need to busy ourselves in the pushing forward. The work of justice and equality is a marathon, but we need to be running. RIGHT. NOW.
We, as Jews, need to read books by our peers of color. We need to listen to podcasts with diverse voices teaching and exploring ideas. We need to expose ourselves to ways of thinking that may seem foreign at first. And when we feel the discomfort that comes with going to a place we’ve never been before in our own minds and hearts, it is our body’s reaction to change, change we so desperately need.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made every human being unique, and who has called us to ensure that every person may one day sit under their vine and fig tree, and that none shall be afraid.