Yom Kippur Evening 5776, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
Sacred and profane, pure and impure, kosher and traif. Our tradition has often sought to categorize the world according to binary principles, and centuries of halakhah, Jewish law, have built elaborate structures to maintain their separation. Yet it is the Torah that teaches – nearly at its midpoint, in fact: “You shall have one law for the stranger or native alike. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 24:22) One law. One reality. One common existence. A fundamental teaching and a critical pursuit. Yet there are serious places where we see this is simply not the case, and too often the distinguishing variable is race.
When one set of parents tell their child to apply himself in school with the hope that maybe, just maybe, he’ll go to Harvard; and other parents tell a child to apply himself so that maybe, just maybe, he won’t land in jail or, worse yet, get shot in the street – when this is the case, there isn’t one reality. While all parents, hopefully, educate their children about the dangers of irresponsible sex, drug use, driving under the influence – but some parents also have to have “the talk” with their children about smiling, but not too much; about keeping their hands in full view not if, but when, they’re pulled over; about what clothing they wear and how they wear it – there isn’t one reality. When, even with the same level of education, whites earn more than Hispanics and blacks; and blacks with some college education have the same probability of employment as whites who haven’t completed high school – there isn’t one reality. When “the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, [yet] three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino,” and “black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men” – there isn’t one reality. When prosecutors routinely describe black offenders as committing crimes due to an internal personality flaw, like disrespect; and white offenders due to an external condition, like family conflict – there isn’t one reality. And when the black population in the city of Charleston, about 50% in 1980, slips to 41% in 1990 and only 25% in 2010 – there isn’t one reality. In fact, our city was described to The New York Times by a local community leader as “a tale of two cities.”
Two cities, two realities, two laws – this is what racism looks like in our society. It’s systemic. As Debby Irving, author or Waking Up White, has written: “Racism [isn’t] about this person or that, this upset or that, this community or that; racism is, and always has been, the way America sorted and ranked its people.” That’s why the same Torah that commands us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” also has to instruct us that, “You shall have one law for the stranger or the native alike.” Because we can get along well, respect one another, link arms and hands and span the entire three miles of the Ravanel Bridge with extra people to spare, yet still fail to examine how at the end of the day we, more often than not, return to neighborhoods and lives and realities so far removed from one another.
Mere blocks from here, President Obama challenged us to do better in his eulogy for the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney. “For too long,” he said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that were guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws [that] make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.” So that we work toward one reality.
But if racism is systemic, then it’s big, really big – surely bigger than anything you or I might try to do about it. I know I’ve often felt helpless this summer. If I had begun the summer traveling hundreds of miles by bus through the South with my family, visiting civil rights monuments, markers and museums that tell the story of senseless hatred and stoic bravery, and not realized that my son and the other children on the trip weren’t just learning history, but that their generation, like ours, will still have to continue the struggle – Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient. If I had completed that trip and not been called back to Charleston under the most horrific of circumstances – the buses traveling on to the church in Birmingham where 4 little girls had been murdered in 1963 for the color of their skin; our plane bringing us back home, where nine men and women – despite their hospitality, despite their graciousness, despite their purpose of gathering for study and prayer – had been murdered because of the color of their skin – Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient. If I had stood at press conferences with colleagues and friends, many of whom had dedicated their lives and careers to causes to which my eyes were only just beginning to open, as they strove for a first step, removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State Capitol, and had not read the disgusting comments detractors posted on their Facebook pages, heard about the threats they received by phone and mail, watched as groups and individuals sought to overturn even this one symbolic achievement as soon as it happened – Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient. Any one of these experiences would have been sufficient to overwhelm me with the scope of the task before us and leave me feeling inadequate to tackle its numerous challenges. And I have to imagine I’m not alone.
But we can’t afford to feel helpless, powerless. As we said on Rosh Hashanah: It is not up to us to finish the task, but neither can we walk away from it. Rabbi Israel Salanter taught: “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then I knew: first, I must change myself.” And that we can do! That’s what this day of Yom Kippur is all about. So let’s talk about what you and I have the power to change about ourselves, for it is powerful and may very well change our families and our town, if not the world, as well.
First, we need to raise our antenna and increase our awareness. We need to educate ourselves. Precisely because we can remain ignorant of the African-American experience in this country and our community, we need to work to ensure that we don’t. One of the most poignant and powerful responses to the Emanuel shooting I saw was a crowd-sourced, evolving document called #charlestonsyllabus. Have you seen it? Two days after the shooting, Chad Williams, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, reached out to a few colleagues and began soliciting readings that could help one make sense of what had happened – not just this one tragic event, but the root causes and systemic factors that fueled it. In his words, the result is “a list of nearly 300 books, articles, novels, primary source documents, films, songs, children’s literature and educational websites that provide historical context for the Charleston shooting and the various issues related to it. … Organized thematically, the readings cover [topics like] the history of African Americans in South Carolina, slavery in the United States, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Confederate flag, southern racial violence, the black church, and the civil rights movement. While by no means definitive, [it] offers teachers, students and [all of us] an excellent introduction to African American history and the legacies of race in American society.”
But #Charlestonsyllabus is more than a list. “It [represents] a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation,” to the kind of serious attention addressing racial inequality demands. So the first thing I would encourage you to do is read something, a whole book – material or a perspective you’ve never encountered or had occasion to learn about before. More than one book would be even better. You’ll note that one of our selections for KKBE Reads! in our Adult Education program this semester is the latest work by Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son. It’s a powerful and incredibly thought-provoking book and I look forward to discussing it with you in November. Too often our information comes in sound bites – a news clip, an article, an editorial written from a single viewpoint. So let’s dive deeper. Doing so can help us with the second area we need to address, as well: Eliminating our colorblindness.
It may seem counterintuitive, but I agree with author and civil rights lawyer, Michelle Alexander, who says colorblindness – in the context of racial inequality in our country – is a disability. Sure being colorblind is a good thing when it leads us to treat individuals with equal respect and dignity regardless of race or ethnicity. But colorblindness also prohibits us from seeing where equality doesn’t exist, and where the differentiation isn’t based on hate or economics, education or effort, but fundamentally and at its core on race. As Alexander writes: In America, we persist in our belief “that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, [and] failure to move up reflects on one’s character. … But the current system permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy.” Only if we remove our blinders to color can we begin to see this truth.
Consider the incident that occurred only last week of a 14-year-old boy arrested at school for bringing in a clock. Ahmed Mohamed had built a clock and brought it to school to show his science teacher. His teacher, together with school administrators, supposedly mistook it for a bomb and called the police. Perhaps you read this posting about it on Facebook:
I said: It’s sad they thought that kid had a bomb.
She said: They didn’t think he had a bomb.
I said: Yes, they thought he made a bomb and even called the police.
She said: They just wanted to humiliate a little Muslim, African boy. They didn’t think he had a bomb.
I said: Don’t be a conspiracist. They might be a little prejudiced, but I’m sure they thought he had a bomb.
She said: Ok. But they didn’t evacuate the school, like you do when there’s a bomb. They didn’t call a bomb squad, like you do when there’s a bomb. They didn’t get as far away from him as possible, like you do when there’s a bomb. Then they put him and the clock in an office, not like you do when there’s a bomb. Then they waited with him for the police to arrive. Then they put the clock in the same car as the police. Then they took pictures of it.
I said: […Something that probably shouldn’t be repeated in this sacred place.] They never thought he had a bomb.
If we can’t see that this 14-year-old’s name, Ahmed Mohamed, and his brown skin are the heart of this story, things will never get better. If we can’t realize that whites enjoy certain privileges in this country because we’re white and blacks suffer certain disadvantages because they’re black, things will never get better. If we persist in our insistence on colorblindness, instead of seeing the role of race and ethnicity in profiling and privilege, things will never get better. Only by removing the blinders can we see where there are two laws, two realities, and that the expectation should be just one.
So we can educate ourselves, open our eyes to the way race and color divide in our country, and, finally and perhaps most importantly, we can stand in true solidarity with the African American community right here in Charleston. Why do I say true solidarity? Because most often, when the Jewish community seeks to stand in solidarity with the black community, we do so on our terms. This isn’t unique to Charleston. We ask them to come worship with us. We invite their leaders to speak from our bimah. We hatch an idea, design a program, decide what will make a difference. But, on this day when we search our souls for truth, let’s admit that, with the best of intentions, more than making a real difference, we’re mostly making ourselves feel better. We’ve done something. “Standing in true solidarity with one another,” however, as an insightful recent college graduate put it this summer, means “letting black folks lead. The church is more than a church, it’s a pillar of the community, a sacred place, a safe place.” If we really want to make a difference and show our solidarity, we need to support it and “support community organizers and organizations in their efforts. Go to a meeting. Ask them what they need.” Move past our comfort zones.
This is why KKBE, and so many of you here this evening, participated in the community prayer vigil at the TD Arena – even though it was on Shabbat; even though it included, at times, Christian worship. Because black leaders told us it would be helpful to be there. This is why I feel it is so important for our congregation to be involved in CAJM, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. Because it’s among the few places where we get to hear what concerns keep the African American members of our community up at night and stand with them in true and powerful solidarity to address them. This is why 11 of us from KKBE carried a Torah scroll and marched through the heat and hills of Columbia, SC, under the banner “Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Votes, Our Schools Matter.” Because the NAACP organized a 40 day, 1000 mile march from Selma, AL, to Washington, D.C., and together with some 200 other Reform rabbis, several NFTYites, and numerous other congregants from around the country we answered their call.
This is why I ask you to pick up one of these cards from our ushers as you leave the sanctuary this evening. All of us on the march, from Alabama to Virginia, met a 68-year-old disabled veteran of the merchant marines, with long dreds and a broad smile, who had changed his name to Middle Passage in recognition of the harrowing, forced journey that brought his ancestors to America generations ago. Middle Passage marched at the head of the line every day, American flag in hand, leading the procession – until he suffered a massive heart attack and died at the 922nd mile. Like too many foot soldiers on this decades long journey, he didn’t make it to the end – but his message still lingers: “Voting is the most important right we have,” he said. “It’s been altered. It’s harder for us, for the whole population of the United States, to vote.” So, please take one of these cards when you leave the sanctuary this evening and bring it back tomorrow morning, when we will collect them and mail them to the offices of the Religious Action Center together. They ask Congress, simply and succinctly, to honor our nation’s history of bipartisan support for voting rights and ensure that they are once again adequately protected. Your clergy, Executive Committee and Board of Trustees have signed them, and we hope you will, too – not because our Reform movement has made the cards the available. They’re simply facilitating the effort. Do it because Middle Passage and so many others who have dedicated and given their lives to advance civil rights have asked us to, and we need to listen.
Friends, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a beautiful teaching, but the Torah knows it’s not enough. Our community gets along reasonably well. We’re kind and decent to one another. We haven’t erupted in violent protest like Baltimore or Ferguson. And, for that achievement alone, there’s an active movement to nominate our city for the Nobel Peace Prize. A humbling gesture, to be sure. But nonviolence isn’t an end in itself; it’s only the preferable means to a necessary end. The end is, and has always been, social change.
“You shall have one law for the stranger or native alike. I am the Lord your God.” One law. One reality. One common existence. The Torah makes it clear this is God’s will; in 5776, will we make it ours, as well?
Ezrat Nafsheinu, M’kor Chayeinu – Soul-Sustainer, Source of Our life –
We wish to stand as one before You.
Where is justice?
When will there be peace?
Who can mend our broken and fragmented society?
Let healing come –
Let it come through the pursuit of education;
Let it come through the clear vision of eyes no longer blind to color;
Let it come through acts of true solidarity and committed support.
O God, let healing come – let it come through us. Amen.
Quotations from: Ta-Nehesi Coates interview on Charlie Rose, July 12, 2015; “Entrenched Racism Drives Down South Carolina Child-Well-Being Scores,” Paul Thomas, The State, August 9, 2015; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander; “Steeped in Racial History, Charleston Ponders Its Future,” Richard Fausset, New York Times, June 19, 2015. Concluding prayer adapted from Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur.