a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

MLK Day, The Civil Right’s Movement and Jewish Responsibility

Posted on: January 21, 2015

On erev Shabbat last week I gave the below (sermon?) on MLK Day, #blacklivesmatter and Jewish responsibility. As I sat on the bimah with the rabbinical staff at Congregation Rodeph Sholom I started to feel uneasy. The congregation, from what I could see from my vantage point, was comprised of mostly white adults in their mid-thirties to mid-sixties. I wondered if my message would be heard and if it would be understood. I also wondered if they did hear me, would the words that I had to say “stick.”

I’ve been fretting over the evening since I stepped out of the synagogue into the cool (okay really effing cold) night that erev Shabbat with some of my friends; three Jews of Color, one who knows me and my point of view well.

“You were really … nice,” she said taking a long pause before saying the word nice.

“Nice?” I asked her as we walked down W83rd Street

“Yeah, nice. You could’ve been a lot more direct, you said everything you needed to say in the nicest way possible.”

This friend and I agreed that for the audience my message did it’s job and an email I received from the rabbi and friend who invited me agreed. The words that I said that night were powerful and effective. There’s already buzzing in the synagogue about “what’s next” and that makes me happy.

MLK Day, The Civil Rights Movement and Jewish Responsibility 

I want to start by thanking Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer and the CRS clergy team for inviting me to talk to you today. My Jewish life started within these walls and it’s an honor to be here talking to you about something I’m very passionate about.

I also want to thank my friends for coming to support me tonight.

When I accepted the invitation to speak, I quite naively thought that this would be easy. Rabbi Meyers told me to bring who I am as a blogger and to share what I think the Jewish community needs to hear about the black lives matter movement and the current status of race relations in our country and how that applies to who we are as Jews. But when I sat down to write about what I really thought, how I really feel and what I really want the rest of the Jewish community to hear I was stumped. Would I be heard? And how could I fit it all into just 8 minutes?

If I’m being honest, every January I brace for my social media feeds to be over-run with black and white stills of Dr. Martin Luther King walking hand-in-hand with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In fact, as I scanned Facebook before boarding my flight from Seattle yesterday , on what would have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday, my page was already filling with quotes,pictures and articles.

The quotes are both inspirational as well as aspirational. And the images are plentiful and they are moving; two men of faith with their arms locked marching for racial equality. It’s quite intimate and if you sift through the many images of that famous march you can get carried away with the romance of the moment.

Heschel and other faith leaders were moved to join the countless and nameless black Americans who had been and were working towards Civil Rights in the segregated south for the 1965 Selma Civil Rights March. A few years prior to the Selma March, Freedom Riders were arrested and detained, many were beaten and some lost their lives during that summer.

There is no question that Heschel and many Northern whites, both Jews and gentiles, played a role in the Civil Right’s movement. This history of Jews in the Civil Right’s movement is a proud one. And it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle. And while we should definitely remember and honor that piece of Jewish history, I wonder if it has become our crutch, a stick in the past preventing us from action today. Are we living the Dream that King spoke of, are we to this day praying with our feet as Heschel described? Are we fighting for racial equality? And are we doing so under the flag of Judaism?

The work of achieving racial equality and equal opportunity didn’t end with King and Heschel, yet it seems that when we, as Jews, talk about the Civil Rights Movement and when we talk about communities of color coming together with Jewish communities, we talk about it in past tense, and sometimes only for only one Shabbat in January. Instead we could use the timing of the New Calendar Year and MLK day to commit to a concrete actions, we could commit to making our Jewish communities welcoming places for Jews of Color and Multiracial Jewish families. We could make conversations about race less about “us” and “them” and more about who we are as a diverse Jewish people.

After a string of deaths of unarmed black men such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and too many others without real accountability, our country is experiencing what I hope is a serious wake up call. A call to wake up and see that the systematic injustices that have real world impact on communities of color nationwide.  The words black lives matter isn’t just a hashtag or a temporary moment, it is a resounding shout that while a black man may sit in our country’s highest seat of office, our country continues to show us that the lives of people who look like me aren’t as valued as  the lives of my white counterparts.

Black Lives Matter It is not just a call to action for black Americans, but for all those who value and just and equal society.  Let us remember that Dr King did not just look to rouse his fellow black Americans in the call for justice, but the greater American population because to quote King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others? For, An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

A black person is killed extra judicially every 28 hrs, and Black men between ages 19 and 25 are the group most at risk to be gunned down by police. Based on data from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, young Blacks are 4.5 times more likely to be killed by police than any other age or racial group.

Black Lives Matter is an opportunity to continue to work towards change, not a time to observe. As King said, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.

Heschel asked: “Who is a Jew? A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.”

The day that Heschel walked with King was only 50 years ago. 50 years is a fraction of time. 50 years ago my parents went to segregated schools and 50 years ago I wouldn’t have the pleasure of standing before you today.

These conversations about race and racism and inequality are hard conversations to have. They are daunting–they discuss MLK and Heschel as models for how the rest of us should act. MLK wasn’t  just some preacher from Georgia and Heschel wasn’t just a rabbi who lived in NYC, they were extraordinary people.  There are reasons they are celebrated for their greatness, but what does that mean for the rest of us.

It’s interesting and I’m not sure it always happens over MLK weekend, but this week’s Torah portion is Vayera, when we read that Gd directs Moses and Aaron to “let his people go.” After generations of Israelite bondage, the Hebrew people are to be set free.There’s an interesting Rashi that should give us some comfort  in Shemot 6:26, it reads “This was the Aaron and Moshe..”Rashi notes that in some places the Torah mentions Moshe before Aharon and in other places (such as our verse) it mentions Aharon before Moshe. This teaches us that both were equally great.

But, since the Torah says that Moshe was the greatest prophet who ever lived; how can it be said that Aharon was equal to him?

I think it’s because, achievement is measured by whether a person fulfills his personal mission. One who has a small mission but completes it is just as great as one with a big mission who completes it. Aharon achieved the absolute maximum of his potential; just as Moshe did. We should all be looking to fulfill our own potential in the fight for equality.  We might not all be the drum major for justice, but we can at least play the cymbals.

A lot of the work I do both through my writing and my work with the Jewish Multiracial Network is shaking up Jewish communities and reminding them of Jewish ideals. It sometimes requires me to gently and sometimes not so gently remove rose-colored glasses and ask Jews to take a hard look in the mirror, and then a good hard look at the Jewish community. We need to ask ourselves some questions and not be afraid of the answers, for true progress requires a little discomfort.

I urge us to think about the following questions:

When I think of working with communities of color, am I working with and supporting their leaders and/or seeking perspective from Jews of Color?

Am I listening to the experiences of others, allowing them to be the authority on their own experience?

Is my Jewish community accepting and inclusive to Jews who don’t look like me?

When I talk about the “Jewish experience” am I marginalizing Jews who are not white?

When I think of who a Jew is and what a Jew looks like, does that picture exclude people of color?

Are the books and materials in my Hebrew school reflective of the diversity of the Jewish community?

Synagogue mission statements are filled with buzzwords these days; diversity, inclusiveness, open, acceptance, LGBTQ. To be frank, for a lot of communities it is just words. Not for lack of intention, but isolating their “action” to copy on a website or brochure, or  a MLK Shabbat. Real and sustained inclusion work is hard, requires a lot of self-reflection, and it takes time. Just as it took more than just one summer or one march to change the segregated south, it takes more than one January day to memorializing the Civil Rights movement into a true social justice action plan.

So let the lessons we have learned from King not be where we stand, but the starting block from which we, as Jews, continue to work to see his dream realized.

Thank you.

3 Responses to "MLK Day, The Civil Right’s Movement and Jewish Responsibility"

Ericka,

I thought your 8 minute sermon was well constructed. It touched (constructively) all points and gave examples of encouragement to carry on the walk that our predecessors and or forefathers began. However, I understand your friends ‘nice’ (as a nonwhite N.American) but I also think you are balanced nice and direct straightforwardness quite well. In my opinion, that’s the balance you want with this audience. You removed (or kept) the rose colored lens off. I think the ‘what’s next’ shows that to be true. I do hope you check in with the congregation to see how that ‘what’s next’ manifests over time. And it will take time, as you well know.

Well done! Jew on! 🙂

I don’t understand the “nice” comment in the same way (I’m white,) but I do agree that there are not a whole lot of upsetting or guilt-tripping things in this. You avoid the bad things.
You speak on the same level as your Jewish peers, calling all Jews to continue the work that was started during the Civil Rights movement. You highlight the good things from the past and the good things that could be in the future.
I absolutely understand why so many messages about racial inequality today make me feel unbearably guilty. On my end, and on the end of the people writing or speaking them. Sometimes the truth carries a lot of guilty weight.
But your speech does not. After reading this, I do not feel like I need to go home and sit for a week with the horrible sins of my ancestors and my present-day peers before I can even attempt to tip-toe my way into action. I feel like the wrongs were acknowledged, yes, but then you moved on, asking how we could make it right. And on top of that, I’m not tip-toeing. I feel like I have a right and a duty to spring into action: Of course I do, I’m Jewish.
I won’t step on anyone’s toes, and I won’t speak for anyone but myself. I will listen to the experiences of others, and I will be upset and appalled if that’s how I feel about those experiences. And I will stand up and say that it’s not okay.
(Thanks for letting me sort through some of my political thoughts in this comment. It helped. A lot of my white, Iowan friends (where I live in mostly white, very corn-filled and football-obsessed Iowa) kind of question their involvement in #BlackLivesMatter. They kind of say “I’m white. I carry all of this history of being the oppressor. Who am I to have a voice in this fight?” And then they stay rather silent. But that makes no sense. Just because I’m the right color to benefit from a broken social system doesn’t mean I can’t stand up and say that it’s broken and help fix it. In fact, I think I kind of have to. If everyone in society did that, of every color, it wouldn’t be broken anymore.)

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