Race – Healing the Rift

Kol Nidre 5776,
a sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor.

Imagine a couple coming in for therapy, married for decades. Both partners talk about their long and difficult upbringing – facing poverty, discrimination, dysfunctional families, myriad challenges — one challenge heaped upon the other. They meet, and despite wildly divergent paths, they find a common language and shared values that they learned from their pain. That shared language allows them to develop a relationship, which leads to friendship, which leads to a deepened relationship. They strengthened one another in those early years – gave each other succor as each faced continuing challenges – and the strength that one gave to other allowed each to conquer their past and move ahead to reclaim and recast their past identities. Over time, the stronger each got, the further they moved from one another. Finally 50 years later, they barely communicate, they have lost that shared language – and memories of their intertwined past cannot heal the rift that now exists. This scared partnership is in dire need of powerful intervention.

Unfortunately, this situation is too often repeated – in couples’ therapy – and in relationships between communities. Tonight I want to lift up a specific relationship that needs our attention, and needs a massive intervention – the American Jewish community’s relationship the Black community.

Like the couple that I just described, our communities came to these shores with very different stories and under very different circumstances – yet, pain, disadvantage, suffering and alienation were shared experiences. In the 1860’s Rabbi David Einhorn was run out of Baltimore for speaking out against slavery. From the time that the Black community began to organize itself, with the founding of the NAACP in 1909, there were often Jews who assisted the Black community and shared ways of combating the injustices that were common to both of our plights. Kivie Kaplan, one of the founders of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ Religious Action  Center in Washington DC was one of the major leaders of the NAACP in the 1950s.

Our roots are deep and intertwined. Leaders of the Black community during the formative moments of the Civil Rights period turned to Jewish leadership for aid and moral support. Great leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, Rabbi Maurice M. Eisendrath and two of my most important mentors and teachers, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, and social activist Albert Vorspan were among the first to stand with the Black community in solidarity. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was drafted on the conference table of the Religious Action
Center of Reform Judaism at the storied Massachusetts Avenue center – which was overseen by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, which I was privileged to serve as its Associate Director some thirty-five years later.

The year before the Voting Rights Act was drafted, in the summer of 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to the meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis asking that a delegation immediately join him in St. Augustine for a major rally. Brickner organized a group of 16 rabbis and one layman, Al Vorspan. They met with King and then set out to integrate various shops and stores in St Augustine. Brickner and others were quickly arrested and thrown in jail. A local Jewish businessman came to the jail to berate Brickner and his cohort and tried to get them to leave well enough alone. Brickner was enraged, and gathered a few of the rabbis in that jail,  including another one of my teachers, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz. Together, they wrote the following:

“We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.

“Here in St. Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen faces that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right.

“We hope that we have strengthened the morale of St. Augustine’s Negroes as they strive to claim their dignity and humanity; we know they have strengthened ours. Each of us has in this experience become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be, but has not yet been able to become.”

And yet, in the intervening years, we have grown distant as each community established itself more firmly. Just two years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, in June of 1967 Jews witnessed a war on three fronts break out in Israel and six days later, like the shocking Maccabean revolt of two millennia prior, Israel, against all odds, vanquished those who sought to destroy her. And here in America, a rise in pride and focus on our attachment to the State of Israel was solidified. And we turned inward.

At the same time, the problems of the Black community worsened – the promise that seemed within grasp of economic parity, and the opportunity to participate in the burgeoning of the American middle class, more often than not evaporated – or was never really there. Over time, policing institutionalized racial profiling, Jews fled the inner cities and moved away. In the 1980’s I helped to birth an organization in New York City called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) as we witnessed fewer Jews teaching in public schools (which, when Jews were teachers and role models, often led to powerful relationships between teachers and their students and thus, healthier relationships between Blacks and Jews). We saw the economic impact of once mixed neighborhoods, losing many of their white Jewish components, and with that the move of many Jewish owned business out of the inner city.

And as we moved farther apart, enmity crept in. We witnessed the growth of radical elements in the Black community: Louis Farrakhan (now a distant memory) caused great pain in our community. The growth of Islam in the Black community led to anti-Israel rhetoric. As Jews moved further into the mainstream, we have moved further away from our historic linkage to the Black community – formed in shared stories of forced servitude and nurtured in the streets of the south and the jails of Birmingham, St Augustine, Macon and other places where racism ran rampant and Jews and Blacks marched together. Despite this glorious past, we cannot bring it up again and again and continue to fail to see our fundamental differences. And in the eyes of the Black community, we became more white, and part of the greater problem.

We, as Jews have been blind to our ‘whiteness’ – Rabbi Michelle Pearlman recently wrote that to be white and Jewish is different than being white. Her thinking was influenced by Jill Jacobs in her book Where Justice Dwells. In that book, the author James Baldwin is quoted:

“No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations and a vast amount of coercion before this became a white country. It is probable that…the Jewish community… in America… paid the most extraordinary price for becoming white. For the Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here in part because they were not white.” Pearlman continues, “Like many American Jews, I did not consider that perhaps there is a bit of a mismatch between my insides and my outsides. I feel different from other white people because I am Jewish, but I rarely reflect upon the incredible advantages that have been mine because on the outside, people perceive me as white.”

Frankly, we Jews have felt that we should be treated better by the Black community because of what we did 50 years ago – but that is a very long time ago.

Now, we have realized that this relationship needs to be better nurtured. When the protests began in Ferguson, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St Louis, led her community across the town line and stood side by side with the leadership of those protesting – she understood that the policing policies that led to the injustice that occurred would ultimately impact all good people. And Black Lives HAD to matter.

The relationship had to be fixed – this summer, the NAACP organized The Journey for Justice – a 1000 mile walk from Selma to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to celebrate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As that act emerged from a partnership with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the RAC (as it is commonly known) was invited be play a central role in this 1000 mile trek. Over two hundred of my  rabbinic colleagues, as well as Jewish social activists and lay leaders marched from Selma to Washington – and a Torah Scroll was carried over those 1000 miles, just like the scroll that Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carried as he marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King 50 years ago. The Journey helped all recall the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this year and the grave threats to its protections that have come over the last several years. Rabbi Heschel was famously quoted as saying “What we need is an NAAAP, a National Association for the Advancement of All People. Prayer and prejudice cannot dwell in the same heart. Worship without compassion is worse than self-deception; it is an abomination.” (thanks to Rabbi Peter Stein). He later said that when he marched with King and the others, hefelt like his feet were praying.

So, one might reasonably ask – what is there to do? {Based upon some lists compiled by other such as Janee Woods and Rabbi Susan Talve}, I would like to suggest a few concrete steps we might take as individuals and as a community:

  1. As we consider the events surrounding Michael Brown and Ferguson, as well as Eric Garner in New York, we need to see the direct impact of deadly tensions born from decades of housing discrimination, white flight, intergenerational poverty and racial profiling. The militarized police response in Ferguson to peaceful assembly by the people, and the over use of restraint with Eric Garner, mirrors what happened in the 1960s during the Civil Rights protests. Therefore we need to support national legislation to curb profiling by police, as well as support national requirements for police training and accountability.
  2. When we consider Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we need to avoid judgement of their characters before we determine that their deaths were a tragedy – it doesn’t matter that Michael Brown was a good, college bound
    kid, or that Eric Gardner was guilty of petty crimes such as selling loose cigarettes – both of their lives mattered. The Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that all life is precious, and we don’t get to judge whether one death is a tragedy, and another is a result of the inevitable result of running afoul of the law. The Talmud reminds us that “to save one life is to save the entire world.” (Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 37a)
  3. Be aware of the racial injustice that exists in our society and do not be afraid to name it – it is only when we talk about it openly that we can begin to address it seriously. Living wage legislation can help break the bonds of economic disparity – and if one has a chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty, one has the chance participate in society. Our ancestors came to this country with a dream of trying to make it. We need to make it possible for others to take part in that dream.
  4. Do not politicize anti-racisim – it is not a liberal cause, it is not a conservative cause – it is simply a right cause. The Midrash teaches us that during creation, one person was created first so that no person or peoples can say my parent is better than yours – we all descend from Adam. Further, in another midrash (Pirkei D’rebbe Eliezer) – God takes sand from four places: white, black, red and green and mixes it all together to form Adam, so that no one could say that my color is better than yours.
  5. And finally, in each of the communities that we represent when we leave this island, do all we can to help register everyone to vote – in many places there are attempts to pass legislation that restrict voter registration, which impacts the poor. The right to vote is the purest part of our precious democracy.

In the prayerbook this congregation uses for Shabbat, we find the following reading: “Standing on the parted shores, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.” (Michael Walzer, adapted from Exodus, as found in Mishkan T’filah)

Fifty years ago we marched together, and again this summer we marched together. Arriving each time of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years ago one dreamer shared his dream and we recommit to the vision articulated on the steps of a monument dedicated to another dreamer – in the capital of a country founded on the principles that give us all hope:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sitdown together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.…

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day….

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

And the day after Rosh HaShana, last week, the newly appointed director of the Religious Action Center, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, said, “The Jewish people didn’t start marching for Justice 50 years ago–we started marching 5000 years ago, when our people rose up and cast off the yoke of slavery in Egypt and journeyed to the promised Land–and we will March for another 5000 years if that’s what it takes to bring justice to the world.”

As so the elderly couple sits on the couch and waits expectantly for the therapist to fix their relationship. Listening intently to the couple’s five decade history, the therapist says, “You cannot change the past – any of it. The good you did together remains as good as it was once before.  The pain you experienced, the abandonment each of you felt will remain and upon reflection can continue to cause pain. What you can change is your future – find the things that you share in common – build on the values that once bound you together. It is all in your hands.”

The power of this day is that we are all compelled to reflect on the past and consider what we could do differently when things went awry. But the future is ours to mold – it is in our hands.

Gmar chatimah tova – may each of you be inscribed in the Book of Life for blessing!

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