Race, the Jewish Conundrum and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Yom Kippur Day Sermon for 5776…

Race, the Jewish Conundrum and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Hillel famously said, “Im lo achshav, eimatai?  If not now when?” (Pirkei Avot).  I always thought of this expression as the Jewish carpe diem – seize the day! No time like the present!  But then Freddie Gray died and West Baltimore’s simmer came to a boil.  Our neighborhood that night was safe, calm, but still tzuris-adjacent, within the blast range, awash in shock waves of despair and desperation, rage and retribution, pulsing with humanity.  Our nation, indeed the world, sat in judgment, or asked sometimes innocent, sometimes ignorant questions with little capacity or context to absorb the answers.  I watched, as you did, the skewed, skewering newscasts, marched and spoke at protests, talked with neighbors, cleaned debris with Miriam and our kids, joyfully davened with you on the front steps of Beth Am that Shabbos.  Through these difficult months, I have been proud to discover how many of you feel called to be in, for and of Reservoir Hill – the dozens of you who came out recently to explore the neighborhood and to discuss our ongoing, strategic involvement in the community. And there were a hundred, from Beth Am, Jews United for Justice and beyond who crammed into the chapel to observe Selichot and reflect on race and responsibility in Baltimore. I’ve come to realize this spring and summer I have misunderstood that phrase Im lo achshav eimatai?  Not “if not now when?” but what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now!”

We Americans love to quote Dr. King, especially his “I have a dream speech,” and who can blame us?  He was a compelling speaker, a painter of words.  And dreams are universal.  Dreams are aspirational.  Everyone dreams.  King said “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…,” but if we heard “one day” as some intangible distant tomorrow, if we heard the dream but forgot the nightmare, we weren’t really paying attention.  The dream was the nechemta, a homiletical device to comfort, inspire and motivate his audience.

Before he spoke of dreams that day, he made demands and spoke hard truths: “…We’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition…” he proclaimed. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…. It is obvious today,” he said that day, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

Before Dr. King mentioned dreams, he taught history: “Five score years ago,” he preached, “a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination…. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now,” he said. “…Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal, he predicted, for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” In other words: Im lo achshav eimatai!

That was half a century ago.  Much was accomplished in those days following the March on Washington. The civil rights movement in which many of you found your voice and lived your Jewish values is the rich soil from which we must now rip out the overgrowth, the bramble and weeds, and into which we must now plant new seeds. Because in the years since the end of Jim Crow, too many stood idly by and allowed hate to flourish.  To many let the fields lie fallow too long and tricked themselves into believing things are better than they really are.  Al chet shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz halev, for the sin we have committed against You by hardening our hearts.

When we relax our hearts though, so much more is possible.  It is when we combine that commitment to the now with a willingness to experience the fullness of another human being that we as a society have the potential to move forward.  Consider Martin Buber when he says, “…So it is with the human being to whom I say “You” [Thou]… I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his graciousness….”  He could just have well have said the color of his skin.  Buber understands when we abstract we diminish and invariably objectify.  This is okay if it’s part of a dynamic process of connecting and reconnecting with our fellow human beings.  But when we allow ourselves to dwell there, in what he calls the I-It relationship, and refuse or fail to return to the I-Thou, we transgress the Kantian categorical imperative – that no human being should be reduced to a means.  Al chet shechatanu lifanecha b’sinat chinam, for the sin we have committed against you through baseless hatred.

What is the hope of I-Thou?  Philosopher Walter Kaufmann says in his introduction to his 1970 translation of Buber: “Ich und Du speaks to men and women who have become wary of promises and hopes; it takes its stand resolutely in the here and now.  It is a sermon on the words of Hillel: ‘If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?’”  That is to say, it is a call to the fierce urgency of now.  My friends, we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the urgency of the moment. Dreams can die.  Herzl said “im tirzu ein zo aggadah,” if you will it is no dream.  But the converse is also true: fail to act on the dream and the nightmare will endure.

Ta-Nehisi Coates shares his nightmare with his fifteen year old son in his haunting and magisterial new book Between the World and Me: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease…. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker” (pp. 17-18).

Coates is bleak.  His exquisite writing is an indictment of a society he views with a sort of detached fatalism.  His voice is at once full of rage and lurking at the edge of despair.  He is Black Baltimore’s, Black America’s Kohelet.  Futility courses through the pages of his book.  But the fact that Kohelet is just one book in the Biblical canon doesn’t make Kohelet’s pain less real, doesn’t make him less important.  Perhaps it even makes him more so.

I have spoken about race from this bima before, and each time I do so, I approach the topic with trepidation, even a degree of terror.  Who am I?  But someone once said “religion exists not only to comfort the afflicted but also to afflict the comfortable.”  And Kohelet says there is a time to stay silent and a time to speak up.  And today is Yom Kippur, a day on which afflict ourselves so as to better ourselves, so as to better our society.  Today, as we afflict our bodies, let’s see if we can also open our hearts to the pain of our black neighbors, and absorb the visceral wisdom of Coates when he says, “…race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible— this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

To understand Coates, we must first examine what it means to be Jewish and white. Some of us are not white, Jews of Color are thankfully among us as well, but for those of us who are, or “believe we are,” as Coates channeling Baldwin would put it, what do we do with that other central aspect of our identity? That is to say, how do we reconcile our whiteness with our Jewishness?  This I would argue is absolutely essential if we are to approach the Buberian ideal.  Or put differently, “To thine own self be true,” says Polonius to Laertes, “and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

With your permission I would like to put the challenge plainly before us today: Ours is a people whose bodies have also been broken and burned, who have endured generations of subjugation, slavery, and mass murder, who have suffered inconceivable horrors at the hands of terrorists, the boots of Cossacks and the structural, maddeningly systemic policies of tyrants.  How can we hold this history honestly and responsibly… and recognize that it is also in tension with another equally disquieting truth: that we, in this country, in this century, as much as any group and more than many, have benefitted from policies imbued with racial bias and infested with racist attitudes?

Let’s do an exercise for a moment.  Raise your hand if within your extended family there are either victims or survivors of the Shoah. Keep your hand up or raise it if you personally have ever been barred or dissuaded from swimming, sleeping, eating or living somewhere because you were Jewish.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever personally been subjected to anti-Semitic remarks.  Now raise your hand if you’ve ever turned your car or changed lanes without signaling.  Keep your hand up if you’ve been pulled over by the police for this crime.  Sandra Bland was.  Three days later, she was dead in a Texas jail.  Would that this were a rare or isolated incident!

For those of us who are both Jewish and white, we’re faced with a unique conundrum: How do we synthesize our pain and our privilege?  We do have a model for this. There is a holiday on which we do exactly this.  Can you think of it?  It’s not Yom Kippur.  Pesach.  On Pesach we relive our slavery, we eat lechem oni, the bread of affliction and bitter herbs; we recall our suffering.  But we also celebrate our freedom.  That same matzah is lechem herut, the bread of freedom and at the Seder we drink and recline as do the privileged and the free.  Add to this our unique opportunity, here at Beth Am, of being located in this historically Jewish and now majority black neighborhood.  Reservoir Hill is a powerful nexus of history and geography, a call to the very synthesis we seek.

My fellow Beth Amers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the problems, the disparities and the way those disparities have been systematized and institutionalized.  But perhaps even worse, these policies often hide in plain sight.  They capitalize on our laudable desire to be good, open, tolerant and fair. Products of our enormous human capacity for self-deception, and America’s culture of color-blindness, they are ultimately responsible for sustaining what author Michelle Alexander calls a “massive racial undercast,” one as insidious as Jim Crow and, in some ways, as damaging as slavery.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Katrina, the fiftieth anniversary of Selma and the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  Slavery has been banned for a century and a half and yet black and brown Americans experience many of the same privations, segregation, marginalization and scapegoating.  We Jews know something about scapegoating.  The term comes, of course, from the Yom Kippur Torah portion we just read where the goat quite literally carries the people’s sins.  For reasons delineated in David Nirenberg’s important work Anti-Judaism, the craft of scapegoating Jews has created a dastardly world-standard by which to measure other hatreds.  Whether blood libel, Passion Plays or the Protocols, our people know well what it feels like to carry the weight of the world’s sins, to be seen as something less than human.

But, unlike ancient Egypt, it is not our people on whose backs this country was built, whose dehumanization was quantified and enshrined in our constitution, whose bodies were commoditized and sold on the same land where now stands Baltimore’s Holocaust Memorial, Port Discovery and Power Plant Live.  Let’s go back to April 19, 1861, when an angry mob of secessionists took to rioting on Pratt Street, the first blood of the Civil War was drawn, and Baltimore was dubbed “Mob Town.” The day was a Friday and that evening, a few blocks from that Slave Market, and less than three miles from where you are sitting right now, at Har Sinai on High Street, Rabbi David Einhorn preached a sermon excoriating prominent New York Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall for his support of slavery.  Einhorn was, by this time, a well-known abolitionist.  Within a few days, the offices of his periodical Sinai having burned to the ground, and fearing for his family’s safety, Einhorn fled Baltimore for Philadelphia.

Much has changed since April 19, 1861.  I feel blessed my children will have grown up in a world where being African-American and President are not mutually exclusive.  But, we must also lament and consider how much has not changed.  Because 154 years later to the day, on April 19, 2015, a 25 year old man who grew up in the projects one mile from where you are sitting, died of injuries he should never have suffered after treatment he should never have endured.  Al chet sh’chatanu lifanecha b’yodim u’v’lo yodim, for the sin we have committed against you knowingly or unknowingly.

Sandtown-Winchester is one mile from here.  Roland Park is less than three.  Do you know the difference in life-expectancy between the two neighborhoods?  Fifteen years.  Fifteen years longer in Roland Park. The median income in Sandtown is $25,000.  The unemployment rate in 2013 was over 22%.  And Freddie Gray’s neighbors are over 96% black as opposed to around 8% in Roland Park.  How does race factor in these other disparities?  The issues are complex, but the research is compelling. Alexander spells out the ways America moved from indentured servitude to slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs to Mass Incarceration, what she calls the “New Jim Crow.”  Rather than summarize her arguments here, I’ll encourage you to read the book, if you haven’t.  She makes a case for what is often referred to as structural racism, which the Aspen Institute defines as “the long-term result of laws, policies, attitudes and approaches based on skin color that have systematically benefitted many whites, but routinely disadvantaged and alienated many nonwhites.”

The laws include radically disproportionate penalties and mandatory minimums for relatively minor drug offenses.  Or Supreme Court decisions inuring law enforcement from charges of racial bias.  The policies are shaped by police militarization, profiling and far too often brutal tactics.  Or they include red lining, a housing policy of the not-too-distant past meant to ensure maximally segregated neighborhoods.  And the attitudes?  These include what many of us heard from neighbors, friends, or those around the country this past spring, including in my opinion, far too many in the Jewish community. “Black on black violence is such a tragedy,” they opined.  “How could those people destroy their own neighborhoods?  What kind of people are they?”  But violence is not the reason for the vast majority of arrests of people of color.  Consider this: “A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. But these results, explains Alexander, “contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America.” Blacks made up 15 percent of drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users, [and drug dealers], then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like” (The New Jim Crow, p. 106).

Coates writes, “’Black-on-black crime’ is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel (Between the World and Me, pp. 110-111).”  All of this and much, much more has led to an astonishingly high percentage of African-Americans, particularly black men, millions of whom are in some fashion under the control of the criminal justice system – whether in jail, on probation or bearing the life-long shame and stigma of a criminal record which can, and often does, result in fewer job opportunities, being shut out of public housing, cut off from food stamps or losing for some period, or forever, the right to vote.  And the vast majority of these black men around the country endure of all this for non-violent offenses. HaShofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?  Shall we?

How should we feel about all of this?  Not guilty. Guilt doesn’t usually help, but awareness does.  Imagine for a moment you are a hypothetical Mrs. Cohen.  You and your husband own a lovely home on Linden Avenue in the first half of the last century.  You’re walking distance to a dozen synagogues, including this one, a beautiful city park and a couple of street car lines.  But you desire a bit more space, perhaps a garage for your car and some grass for your kids to run around on.  Not in Roland Park or Guilford – they don’t allow Jews there, but there are some newer developments to the Northwest.  You hear a knock at the door.  It’s a realtor who, after you invite him in for a cup of coffee, tells you danger is on the horizon. Several of your neighbors are selling, he tells you, and, you know, “the shvartzes” are moving in.  You and your husband are pretty forward thinking.  You don’t have anything against colored folks, but the agent tells you to think about property values.  As the neighborhood changes, you’ll lose equity, perhaps thirty or forty percent of your home value at least.  Your three kids are getting older.  You intend to send them to college.  You figure let some nice colored family buy the home.  Not long ago, they weren’t allowed in this neighborhood anyway, so that’s progress.  You’ll get your yard and garage.  They’ll get a nice home in a nice neighborhood.  It’s a win-win.  So you sell.  You, Mrs. Cohen, had no intention of creating an urban ghetto. You made a decision bish’gaga, without knowledge of the shady practice called block-busting to which you’ve just been subjected.  And of course you have no way of knowing forces, some tragic but benign, many deliberate and invidious, would leave your once treasured home in shambles, your neighborhood in ruin.

Looking back though, the Cohen family’s innocuous decision was just one of thousands of other seemingly innocuous decisions that collectively did violence to the city of Baltimore.  And we, this Yom Kippur must decide what to see and what to choose not to see, both in our past and in the potential choices we make going forward.  Al chet shechatanu lifanecha, for the sin we have committed against you by pretending that tolerance and empathy are the same, for turning I-Thou relationships into I-It transactional ones.

So where does this leave us?  What do we do now, if we are called to the achshav in all its fierce urgency, but also feel overwhelmed?  I do.  I feel overwhelmed.  Racism in this country isn’t going to be unmade by a few well-intentioned acts.  This is going to take a movement and a long, long time.  It will need to be addressed in a multifaceted way: policy and law, education and training, advocacy, relationship building.  But our tradition compels us to act.  We were slaves, we tell ourselves over and over again.  We do this not to feel sorry for ourselves.  We do it to motivate ourselves, to never succumb to numbness and despair.  Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, we don’t have to finish the work, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena, but not being able to finish, is no excuse for abstaining from it.

Here are three action steps: tangible things you can do in the short term:

  • Read and learn:
    • Books like The New Jim Crow or Between the World and Me are a good place to start. There’s also Pietilla’s Not in my Neighborhood and Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks.
    • Go to org where The Aspen Institute has a Baltimore working group with great resources on their website. These help explain concepts and terminology like institutional or structural racism, white privilege or even white supremacy. These terms are part of a growing lexicon and we should try to understand them, even if they make us uncomfortable.
  • The second is advocacy for effective policy change, and a great partner here has been Jews United for Justice.
    • JUFJ is working on a number of issues related to poverty and race. Learn about the broken system of rent courts or ongoing water shut-offs. And this coming legislative session JUFJ will be joining with others to advocate for much needed police reform.
  • Finally, defang some of the challenges of race by building relationships with our neighbors and working with local partner organizations. Help to make Beth Am as effective an anchor institution as possible in Reservoir Hill.

Al chet shechatanu lifanecha… for the sin of indifference.  This is not a moment to stand idly by.  It is a fiercely urgent moment demanding our attention and our participation.  In this New Year, we are grateful for the many blessings in our lives.  But those blessings are diminished when we come to understand that there are others, largely because of their race, who cannot access that abundance.  And they are diminished when we admit the hard truth: that we’ve been playing with a stacked deck.  There’s nothing wrong with success, but the American dream of which Dr. King spoke over fifty years ago ought not to be realized on the backs of the darker and disenfranchised.  If the deck is stacked for some, it is by definition stacked against others.  It’s time to put our cards on the table, to confront inequity and begin to right egregious wrongs.  Some of you may disagree. I hope you will keep an open mind.  But no one, I’m confident, will chase me out of town, or threaten to tar and feather me for saying this.  And perhaps this is exactly the problem.

Because when it’s overt racism we confront – slavery or explicit public policies like Jim Crow –there can be fierce and public disagreements.  But, when the problems are hidden and subtle they are more insidious and easier to reject, rationalize or simply ignore.  So this is the challenge: learn, listen, lead when called upon, follow when you can. But whatever we do, let’s not look back in yet another half-century and mourn how little has changed.  Baltimore can’t afford it.  America can’t afford it.  And on this Day of Atonement, our souls can’t afford it either.

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