Community Before Self

A late post this week as I have been distracted, as we all have been, by the events in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman last week killed 17 people in a high school. And while this is not the first time this has happened, this one has hit me particularly hard for a variety of reasons: it is a location I am familiar with, as my grandparents lived in the general vicinity; the impact on the local Jewish community feels greater than in other mass shootings; and with a son in high school, I could relate to the community, the students and the parents.

With this latest school shooting, we also return to the familiar cycles of civic ritual: mourning and grief, vigils and memorials. We also return to the familiar cycles of sound bytes and platitudes: politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” followed by a chorus proclaiming that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. And the dance by many lawmakers around any other reason for the shooting other than the most obvious, the accessibility and ease of procuring guns themselves.

I don’t have much more to add to the overall conversation. I too mourn the loss of life. I mourn too the inability of our society to do anything about it. I’ll just repeat that we need to recognize that one of the biggest deterrents to mass shooting accidents is gun responsibility legislation.

There will still be violent people, of course, who seek to hurt others. But if they do not have access to lethal means to hurt others, then fewer people will be victimized. One can still do damage with a knife, or a club, but the damage will be much less than a semi-automatic rifle. People still die in car accidents, that is not an argument to stop wearing seatbelts.

While limiting and qualifying gun ownership is the biggest need to stop similar incidents, there may be some truth to the statement that it is not just guns that are the problem. While the right likes to defer to “mental illness,” and there are those on the left who point to “toxic masculinity,” I think that the real underlying factor is “radical individualism.” We suffer at times under a society that values the self over the community, rights over responsibility, the one over the many. Governments, authorities, societal structures are suspect.

We are always in need of improving our communal institutions, but we can not live separate from them. The Torah portion this week is a object lesson; parasha terumah describes the building of the ancient mishkan, or Tabernacle, the central institution of the Israelites. It is to be the gathering place of the people, the center for worship, the place where God dwells among the people.

The fact of the Tabernacle in and of itself is a lesson–we need communal norms and structures, and we can not exist independently. This is made more explicit in the description of how the Tabernacle is to be built. While a few people were selected as the craftspeople, everyone contributes the raw materials. At the beginning of the parasha we read: “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.'” (Exodus 25:1-2)

In other words, everyone contributes to the building of the mishkan. It can not be built in isolation, everyone has something to give. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are dependent on, and responsible for, each other.

In this case, our own “right” to own a firearm does not outweigh the need to protect fellow citizens and preserve public safety. This goes beyond distinguishing between “law abiding” and “not law abiding.” In some cases, those categories should not even exist. The key should be to restrict and limit guns, not just ownership.

To do so in our country, we need to recognize that “rights” are not absolute. People wrote the Constitution, and they can rewrite it. But more than just the technical aspects of legislation or amendments, we need to embrace the value that community sometimes comes before self. Too many lives have been lost already because we have failed to see this. Let it be that our hearts so move us to make a change.

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.

Listening to Jeremiah in Charleston

Yesterday was quite a day.

Yesterday was an amazing spiritual confluence: in the Jewish calendar it was Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, the first day of the month of Tammuz. For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan began. And Pope Francis issued a major encyclical on the environment, which hopefully promises to change the way we address climate change.

And we woke up to news that the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC—an African American church deeply rooted in Emanuel_African_Methodist_Episcopal_(AME)_Churchhistory—was the site of a horrible racist attack that resulted in the shooting death of nine people, including the pastor (who was also a state senator).

At time in which we are deeply confronting the history of institutionalized racism and privilege—from police shootings (including the one in Olympia) to the identity adoption of Rachel Dozelal—we are confronted with this particular act of terror, this particular act of violence based in hatred.

I shared this on Facebook yesterday morning:

Today: Rosh Hodesh (new moon) of Tammuz, the beginning of Ramadan, the Pope released an encyclical on the environment, and news of a tragic shooting at a black church in Charleston. May we have the strength to overcome our fears and hatreds, and clarity of vision to put aside violence and embrace hope and peace.

This shooting struck a particularly deep chord because of the time and place: it took place during a bible study at church. The shooter apparently had joined the group an hour before he began shooting—he was thus welcomed and included in a sacred space at a sacred time. The church—meant to be a place of safety and sanctuary (in the many meanings of the term)—was violated.

[As a Jew I felt a particular sickness at this act, because of the time and place. Jews are a historically persecuted minority, and we in our sacred spaces have wrestled with trying to walk the fine line between openness and safety. More than one person has expressed to me a bit of caution, of the need to look over ones shoulder, when gathering for services or at the Temple. Indeed, just last week someone walked into the sanctuary during Erev Shabbat and loudly disrupted services, yelling, “I need to talk to the pastor!” In this case it wasn’t a violent episode, I was able to talk to her to ascertain her needs, but it was a reminder nonetheless of our vulnerability at times.]

Because of this violation of sacred space, it felt like a sacred response was needed. A few colleagues and I, with the help of Interfaith Works, hastily arranged a vigil in Sylvester Park yesterday at 5:00 p.m. It was a time for being together in grief and to renew our commitment to peace and justice. We prayed, we sang, we read the names of the dead and we offered words of Scripture. We came together as victims and allies to mark this one tragedy and locate ourselves within the larger narrative of violence and racism in our country.

It was a powerful gathering. My Episcopalian colleague the Rev. George McDonnell shared this wonderful litany she wrote. And to honor the fact that the shooting victims were engaged in sacred text study at the time of their deaths, I offered a short passage of Scripture.

With the new month of Tammuz which we entered into yesterday comes a period of mourning in the Jewish tradition. The 17th of the month is a minor fast day which begins a three-week period which leads to a major fast day, Tisha B’Av. It is on that day that we mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Through noting this historic event, we turn our attention to the themes of communal disruption, baseless hatred and disunity in the community—all reasons given by our Sages for the Temple’s fall. In other words, the physical destruction of a communal institution is a symbol for the inner failure of community.

But, our Sages also sought to remind us that hope can rise from the ashes. As a Scriptural reading for Tisha B’Av, they assigned the prophet Jeremiah concluding with these verses, which are also appropriate for this time:

Thus says God: Let not the wise glory in their wisdom, neither let the mighty glory in their might, Let not the rich glory in their riches; But let them glory in this, that they understand, and know Me, That I am the God who acts with lovingkindess, justice, and righteousness in the world; for in these things I delight, says God. (Jeremiah 9:22-3)

The work continues. Let us all come to a place in which we can bring about lovingkindness, justice and righteousness in our world, so that all peoples can delight.

In the Wake of the Police Shooting in Olympia

I got behind in my usual posting, etc. because of the events in our Olympia community over the past 48 hours: the police shooting of two African American men in the early morning hours. Without getting into the facts of the shooting, it is enough to say that the fact of it happening raised a lot of emotions in our community. And rightfully so.

The initial struggle is how to turn those emotions into something concrete. Beginning Thursday morning, plans were being made to hold a forum, sponsored by local clergy, where community members can come together to express what they thought and felt. City officials would be on hand to listen.forum

With the incredible coordination of Danny Kadden from Interfaith Works, it came together in amazing fashion. Temple Beth Hatfiloh–our “house for all peoples” as the quote from the Book of Isaiah adorning our Ark says–was the chosen venue. At 6:00 p.m. the sanctuary was full with almost 20 members of the clergy acting as hosts, local attorney and civil rights leader Reiko Callner acting as moderator, and with city officials, including Mayor Buxbaum, Chief Roberts, City Manager Steve Hall and others on hand to listen.

People spoke eloquently and with emotion. People spoke with respect and with passion. People spoke openly and firmly.

At the same time as this forum, hundreds gathered on the west side of town at Woodruff Park and then marched down to City Hall. Rather than being in conflict, both of these events were important and served a purpose. Many voices were raised to address this rift in our community.

And address it we must. As one speaker said at the forum last night, “we have become one of those communities.” But the hope is that we can do things differently, we can say what we need to say, hear what we need to hear, and listen to whom we need to listen.

Last night was a start.

Here is a comprehensive write up of the forum. The Olympian created a video of some of the speakers:

And these were my introductory comments:

Welcome to Temple Beth Hatfiloh.

This space, this sanctuary, is meant to be a community space. Oftentimes we gather in this space at times of community celebration. Other times, as we do tonight, we gather for difficult community conversations.

We are here because two African American men were shot in the early morning by an Olympia Police Department officer. I for one am not going to get into facts or allegations beyond that, simply to say that this event strikes a note of discord in our community, especially as it reflects our national conversation on law enforcement, race and gun violence.

We all come to this room this evening with our feelings. Feelings of anger, sadness, pain, helplessness, fear. I invite you to check in with yourself now to see how you are feeling at this moment.

And we come to address it head on. And we are convened here not just by myself but by my clergy colleagues from many different faith communities, and I invite them now to rise to join me in welcoming you here this evening.

And so we are here. We know we are not the only gathering tonight. Right now on the west side people are gathering in Woodruff Park to meet and plan and march. That is OK—we act in concert, we are all one community.

And so we are here with intention, with purpose, with open hearts and hands, with emotion, with passion and with prayers for peace, justice and healing.

Welcome, and thank you.