Yom Kippur Day 5776: “Jews and Race, in Olympia and Beyond”

My friends, we need to talk about race.

Three months ago, two African American men were shot by a white police officer here in Olympia. The men were caught trying to shoplift beer at the westside Safeway and, after fleeing, were confronted by a member of the Olympia police. Some form of altercation happened, and the two men were both shot. Thankfully they were not killed, although one remains paralyzed by the incident.

And in an instant, the news that we have heard about across this country. The news of police shootings, the news of white officers, the news of black victims. It became our news. Our community became one of those communities.

Much has happened since that night Andre and Bryson were shot by Officer Donald. The evening after the shooting, I along with local clergy held a forum here in this sanctuary, with the presence of the Mayor and Police Chief, to allow members of the community to share their feelings and concerns. At the same time, a protest march made their way downtown. Since that time, as the investigation was underway, there was further organizing and coalescing, conversations and opportunities to speak out. And as the prosecutor released his report, absolving officer Donald of any wrongdoing, yet proceeding with charges against the two men, further protests were mounted.

I have been present for several of these protests. And while marred by the presence of open-carry, white supremacist activists on the one hand and by black bloc anarchists on the other—both it seems looking to provoke and wanting a fight and unfortunately finding it—these have served to peacefully remind us locally of the mantra that is echoing around our nation: Black Lives Matter, and that as a nation, we still need to have a serious conversation about race.

And we, as Jews, need to talk about race. We, as Jews, need to affirm Black Lives Matter.

There is much that can be commented on with our local shooting. As the prosecutor has released his report, and the Olympia Police Department has commenced its own internal investigation, there are questions as to whether or not proper police procedure was followed, and whether or not Officer Donald put himself in jeopardy. There is the issue about the attempted theft of beer by the two men–I can not ethically dismiss this fact though some would like to relegate it to the status of “everybody does it.” But the question of whether or not charges should have been brought is an open one. There is the issue of violence in our country, that we are quick to turn to violence in many situations, and the threat of violence—and the ubiquity of guns in our country leads to the invisible and ever present threat of violence—is another factor which led to this incident.

And even with all of this, it still boils down to physical violence perpetrated by a white person upon a black person. And for this we must make a reckoning. For this we must atone.

This is not to attack Officer Donald. This is not to attack police in general. It is to attack a system that perpetuates an injustice in which African Americans have since the beginning of this country been disadvantaged, which has led to distrust in institutions, suspicions, and fear. The mindsets, attitudes, assumptions about race are at work everyday in ways both conscious and unconscious. We may not know which of these played into the Olympia shooting, except to say that they were.

As the New York Times editorial board wrote, “The “Black Lives Matter” movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of the police, and is of a piece with this history. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued.” Do all lives matter? Of course they do, that is the fundamental Jewish teaching—that we are all created in the divine image, and that we all descend from a common ancestor, Adam and Eve—to teach that no one can claim superiority over another.

But unfortunately we do claim superiority one over another, and so Black Lives Matter needs to be said.blm sign

The names that gave rise to this movement are etched on our national consciousness: Freddie Gray, Baltimore; Eric Garner, Staten Island (“I can’t breathe.”); Michael Brown, Ferguson; Sandra Bland, Waller County, Texas—all at the hands of police. And then of course the murder of the Rev. Clementa Pickney at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, along with his parishoners, who were engage in sacred study when a man professing racial hatred came in and, after joining them for study and partaking of their hospitality, shot them dead.

And it was perhaps this last one that stands out the most, for the setting was too familiar.

These killings are devastating. And the numbers too are devastating.

Blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites. If you take it by age, blacks ages 15-19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Almost 1 in 3 African American men will be arrested in their lifetime. While People of Color make up 30 percent of the US population, they make up 60 percent of the prison population. People of color are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop. Harsher school punishments, higher rates of juvenile incarceration, lower wages, voting rights challenges, and on and on.

We need to talk about it, and we need to talk about it as Jews. Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama, who recently wrote a book Just Mercy, a story about his commitment to providing legal representation to the most desperate and an examination of an oftentimes unjust system.  He himself is African American. Last year he gave a talk at the Consultation of Conscience, a meeting of Jewish social justice leaders, and spoke of how in Germany, everyone wants to talk about the Holocaust. There is a desire to reckon with the past, to examine that dark chapter in the country’s history. Yet in America, we do not wish to truly examine the effects and slavery, and come to terms with what that difficult chapter in our history means for us today.

We need to begin to identify the attitudes and assumptions that lead to these disparities. That led to black kids getting killed by white cops. We need to examine, for example, privilege, or the fact that with white skin comes benefits, assumptions, advantages that are deeply rooted in a system to sustain them.

And here is where the Jewish piece becomes that more interesting. For where do Jews land on the privilege scale?

Our history is complicated. For Jewish community is by no means uniformly “white.” Jews are ethnically diverse, and not just worldwide. Across the US we have a diversity of backgrounds and ethnicities that prevent us from saying that we are a white community. About 20 percent of the Jewish population in the US is non-white or non-Ashkenazi. Our own Jewish community, and our own families (my extended family includes African Americans, Yemenites, Moroccans) are racially and ethnically diverse.

At the same time, I look at myself for example, I ethnically trace my roots to Central and Eastern Europe, and with that European ancestry comes lighter skin. And a good part of the history of the Jewish community in this country has been coming to terms with what it means to be both “white” and “non-white” where whiteness is both a physical feature and a social construct.

We know that Jews were not always accepted in this country, indeed anti-Semitism has not gone away. Jews have been relegated to the status of “other.” Racism has infected attitudes towards Jews, indeed the term anti-Semitism, coined in Germany in the 19th century, was meant to distinguish the Jew not from the Christian, but from the German, the Aryan.

At the same time, the majority of Jews who trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe have been able to “pass” and to gain entry in the majority population. Historical studies, like The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity by Eric Goldstein and How Jews Became White Folks by Karen Brodkin, trace this development and tension.

And I think that we as Jews understand privilege because, especially here in Olympia, in which we Jews are as much a minority as African Americans, find ourselves not privileged in many of our interactions and societal engagements.

For example, our ability to celebrate our holidays and worship in the way we like is not shared by the majority. So that is why you have curriculum nights at school scheduled on Yom Kippur and this coming spring the first night of Passover falls on ArtsWalk. To come to services today we had to make accommodations with our workplace or school, and sometimes supervisors or teachers are not understanding, or skeptical, or ignorant. Or maybe it comes down to more subtle things, like references and experiences shared within the Jewish community—including food or language—that is not found within the larger dominant community. Or expectations that you represent all of Judaism. Or the expectation that you know what Christmas is but there is no expectation that others know what Purim is. These are the signs that we are at the other end of privilege for much of our existence here in Olympia.

Yet when many of us walk down the street, we are no different than our Christian (or culturally Christian) neighbors. For we fit in in a predominantly white Christian community. And we can adopt to the prevailing norms as we see fit.

This complicated tension, that of being of and outside the majority, is on the one hand a challenge and an opportunity. When it comes to race, it can be seen as pitting two identities—that of majority and that of minority—against each other, unsure where to fit and not fully aligned with either side, leading to questions and doubt. And at the same time, it is an opportunity, because we understand not having privilege, and so can bring that to bear on conversations on race.

Perhaps because of this interesting history that we have found ourselves on the side of civil rights in this country. Julius Rosenwald, the force behind Sears Roebuck who donated much of his wealth to black educational institutions in the south. Jewish refugee professors fleeing Europe who found homes in black colleges in the south. Jewish attorneys who worked for the NAACP arguing such cases as Brown v. Board of Education. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who along with James Chaney freedom riders who were killed by Klansmen. Rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Eisendradth who stood shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King and joined the March on Washington.

The history of civil rights in this country is marked by the participation and active support of Jews, but it can not just be relegated to history. We can not simply live in the nostalgia of the 60s. The challenge now is to continue to pick up the mantle and continue to be allies to the African American community and to engage in issues of race in this country. And while issues relating to African Americans have been at the forefront, we remember too that the picture of race in this country is getting increasingly more complex.

So what might this look like?

Stevenson in the talk I referenced earlier mentions four things to do to confront issues of race and injustice in our country: Get close to it, change the narrative, protect our hopefulness and choose to do uncomfortable things.

Get close to it: we need to listen to the voices of African Americans. We need to listen to their stories, their fears, their concerns, their experiences. Later today at mincha we will read from Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code, and we will read “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”. The problem isn’t the first part, we know we should not stand idly by. The problem is in the second part, in determining who is our neighbor. For too often we have a too narrow view of who is our neighbor.

Learn the ideas of allyship. Just as we Jews have needed allies throughout our history. This could mean reaching out to your neighbor. This means connecting with organizations like SURJ—Standing Up for Racial Justice—an organization of white allies to African Americans. And this means recognizing and celebrating the diversity within Jewish community as well.

Change the narrative: “Our history,” Stevenson says, “is that for decades we humiliated and anguished and injured people of color.” We need to gain perspective on this story, and come to terms with it.

Moses was born in Egypt, and though an Israelite, raised within the Pharaoh’s household. He was, culturally, an Egyptian. As an adult he ended up murdering an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave, he then fled for his life to Midian, another land on the Arabian peninsula. There he married and had a son, whom he named Gershom, or “stranger there” because, as the text says, “I am a stranger in a foreign land.”

Moses the cultural Egyptian, raised in privilege among the majority population, was only able to see difference when he himself had the experience of being the other, the ger, the “foreign one.” And once he had this perspective, it was only then that he was able to return to Egypt and serve as a liberator.

If we can recognize our privilege and recognize our lack of privilege as well, then we like Moses, can gain perspective and then help change the narrative.

Protect our hopefulness. As Stevenson says, “Injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.” And we Jews have always been the people of hope. From our long history of overcoming hatred and oppression and genocide to the notion of shearit yisrael—a remnant of Israel—that will always exist to uphold the covenant, we are a people of hope. Any severe decree, as we say in our liturgy in the Unetaneh Tokef, can be overcome with prayer, repentance and righteousness. This is a statement of hope.

And it is a statement of action, for as Stevenson says, we must choose to do uncomfortable things.

One of the most powerful things I read on race recently was Ta-Nahisi Coates unflinching and powerful book Between the World and Me. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It was uncomfortable.  It is written as a letter to his son, in which Coates provides hard truths, deep experiences and dire warnings about growing up as a black man in America.

Coates speaks of the Dream and the Dreamers, but this is an exclusively white dream. And not only a white dream, but a dream built on the back of blacks. This passage stood out:

They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them n slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, and entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to strain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

“Vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we must choose to do uncomfortable things. We must choose to remember, remember our history and the history of this country. We must remember that racism continues to be a persistent threat. We must remember that we have a voice and a presence as another minority in this town.

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we raise the banner of black lives matter, to commit to hear the stories, to be allies, to be in community, to engage. We know we do not have all the answers—I know I don’t have all the answers—but we commit to learn, to grow, to question, to do our own work and to follow when necessary.

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we reject the phrase all lives matter. It is true, but it is not what is needed at this time. And, at the same time, we can not summarily dismiss and devalue institutions like government, or the police, for those, like us, are human, and have the ability to change and grow. We open ourselves up to forgiveness and repair.

And on this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans we commit to justice, and commit to healing. We know it is possible. As we just read in the haftarah from Isaiah,

Indeed, not for all time shall I be quarrelsome,

Not for eternity shall I seethe with rage,

But from me shall my spirit drip like dew.

I shall create the breath of life.

We are vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

“God,” Stevenson says, “uses the weak and the broken to say the things that must be said in a just space.” Moses was broken, Isaiah was broken, we are broken. So we’ll say the things that must be said. We will not forget. We will raise up the fallen. We will stand with the powerless. We will recognize and celebrate and honor the ethnic and racial diversity within Jewish community. And we will use our Jewish perspective, as those who have suffered at the receiving end of prejudice and hatred, as those who glide in and out of privilege, as those whose numbers include many races and backgrounds, to create the breath of life anew in this country, beginning with our streets and our city.

Thanks for continuing the conversation!

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