Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Journeying for Racial Justice, Marching for Us All - Erev Rosh HaShanah 2015 – Rabbi Jill Perlman

Shanah tovah.

When I was in the sixth grade, a boy asked me to be his girlfriend. My sixth grade brain could not comprehend this request and I immediately and firmly replied no. He promptly began to ignore me. And then he began to say nasty things about me to others in our class.

This would have been traumatic enough to any eleven-year-old girl. But there was more to come.

Later on, when I was still very much the target of his discontent, I saw this boy get up in the middle of a quiet time in class meant for reading and stand near the class’ small glass aquarium, so small that you could pick it up in two hands and carry it wherever you liked. He looked at me, intent on me being an observer, took the metal edge of his ruler and quickly scratched at the glass before promptly sitting down again. And then he smirked in my direction.

I scanned the room. No one else had noticed. The teacher’s head was down, focused only on what was in front of her. So I stood and made my way over to the little glass box to take a look for myself.

What I saw there etched into the glass was very small and very messy, but unmistakable nonetheless. It was a swastika.

I walked over to our teacher, asked her if I could show her something, and quietly exposed my classmate’s crude etching.

I don’t remember much about what the direct consequences were, which most likely means that the issue stayed small and contained. I don’t remember what happened to the little aquarium. It was probably quietly replaced.

But I do distinctly remember the boy never speaking to me again. We went to different middle schools the year after that and I don’t know what happened next for him, if he remembers what had happened and why. I never got to ask him if he knew what that symbol really meant or why his eleven-year old mind so easily allowed his upset with me to transform itself into one of the most recognizable signs of hatred our world has ever known.

To be honest, what is most striking about this memory is how… normal… it felt.

I remember it, but I don’t remember any outrage or emotion surrounding it other than the pain of a little girl feeling ostracized by a boy. It was dealt with quietly. I thought, for too long a time, that it was simply a silly thing that a silly boy once did to me.

But it’s not a silly thing. And it’s definitely not a normal thing.

That normalization was perhaps the most heinous part of that entire episode in my life. I realize now that I was essentially being taught to expect that seeing a swastika -even a crudely scratched out one- was just something that happened and I shouldn’t dwell on such a small slight. No one seemed shocked. And so I figured that I shouldn’t be either.

A few years later I found myself outside of Prague on a NFTY trip, a trip for Jewish teens. We were en route to a summer in Israel, but first as most Israel trips are designed, we stopped in Europe. I found myself in Terezin, walking the streets of a concentration camp, imagining the horrors that occurred there, wondering how the story progressed to lead our people here, to train tracks and mass graves and swastikas, wondering how ordinary people could allow these injustices to unfold. How fear kept the vast majority of the masses silent as our people faced injustice, murder, genocide. How injustice was normalized slowly, over time, from one act to another.

It was there I believe I first encountered the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, words that have long been etched into our post-Holocaust consciousness:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.[1]

Pastor Niemoller became an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime and of the church’s role in not standing up and speaking out. His words are emblematic of the blinders that we wear when something tragic happens to someone else and our hesitancy to stick our neck out for anyone but our own.

But imagine, if you will, his words going differently.

First they came for the Socialists, and I spoke out –
not because I am a Socialist, but because I am a human being.

And they came for the Trade Unionists, and I spoke out –
not because I am a Trade Unionist, but because I am a human being.

And they came for the Jews, and I spoke out –
not because I am a Jew, but because I am a human being.

And they came for me –
and the Socialists and Trade Unionists and Jews and human beings spoke out because we are all human beings.

In Bedford, when just a few years ago, we were confronted with swastikas of our own, on our elementary school playground and on the bathroom walls of our high school, priests and ministers and people of all faiths proudly stood with us and beside us, the Jewish community, in school and town meetings.

The town of Bedford became determined not to let a normalization of symbols of hatred and hatred itself take hold. Clergy of all faiths authored letters to be published in our papers. Ministers preached about it on Sunday mornings from their pulpits. We created a prayer that was read in almost every house of worship that served the Bedford community, including ours, that addressed the issue of anti-Semitism in our midst and put out a call, a challenge that we do better. People were not afraid to speak out even as they were not the direct targets of the hate.

There was an understanding, built over time with friendship and education and compassion that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. For we know now (and we must continually remind ourselves because strangely, it seems as if it is an easy thing to forget) that none of us are free until all of us are free.

There was no hesitancy. And in that, I am proud. And there was urgency. And in that, I am comforted. For I know that – now, at least - we are not alone.

Thinking back, I wonder what it would have been like had someone stood up when I was eleven and the only Jewish kid in my grade, confronted with a swastika, thinking it was relatively normal, and that I should expect it, that it was just something that happened, that it was just a silly boy doing a silly thing.

Rosh HaShanah, this season of newness – it’s about getting clear on who we are and who we want to be. It’s about getting clear on the foundations upon which our lives as Jews and as human beings are built.

Our foundations are built out of the values learned from family and culture and religious faith.

The experience of standing with and beside someone whose life history is not your own, whose oppression is not your own – that has long been a part of the Jewish foundation. We’re taught over and over again to remember that we were once strangers in a strange land, that we were slaves - and that notion, that utter embrace of that sense of ourselves as ‘other’ - that is the frame for how we are to treat those around us, those who have been other-ed at various times and in various places throughout history.

It’s the foundation for our narrative as the Jewish people and in my own formation as a Jew and as a Reform Jew and as a Reform rabbi and as a human being.

So when the call came from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism to join “America’s Journey for Justice,” a 1000-mile journey organized by the NAACP from Selma, Alabama to our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., on this, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, I couldn’t refuse.

Our Reform movement was partnering with the NAACP to bring attention to the erosion of the Voting Rights Act, to the marginalization of black lives, and to the possibility of creating a better future – together.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, our Reform rabbinical body had pledged that a Torah scroll be carried all 1000 miles on this Journey - and they put out the call: would we come, would we, the American rabbinate, come and walk in solidarity. The ask was for at least one rabbi to walk each day and take responsibility for carrying our people’s sacred scroll. There was a hope that at least forty of us would join.

I am proud to say that, in response, nearly 200 Reform rabbis have marched a segment of this journey, transferring responsibility of the Torah each day and fulfilling the greater responsibility and mitzvah of, as Heschel put it, “praying with our feet.”

It was the prophet Micah who proclaimed: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”[2]
It was time to walk humbly with God.

Reform Jews and African-Americans have long been linked as partners in the fight for civil rights.

We should recall proudly that both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s social justice arm in D.C.

And we should recall proudly that at the side of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King marched Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the President of what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and is now the Union for Reform Judaism to which our synagogue belongs. He famously carried our Torah in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, the march on which ours was now being modeled – he carried the Torah as a symbol of justice, freedom, and enduring hope.

As I prepared to march fifty years later with God’s holy word literally in my arms, another rabbi, Rabbi Debra Robbins pinned a sign onto my back with a blessing well known to me, a blessing that we traditionally share each morning as a part of nisim b’chol yom, the miracles of every day.

With each step, especially each step towards the end of that day’s long 18-mile march in the near 100-degree heat, I was praying that blessing: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hameichin mitzadei gaver. Blessed are you Adonai our God, ruler of all this, our universe, for strengthening our steps.

And God provided. For all I had to do, I realized as I marched, was look around – the strength I needed was abundant and all around us. It was around me in the people beside whom I marched.

It was in Keshia. And I want to tell you about Keshia.

Keshia Thomas had recently quit her job to walk the entirety of this march, feeling called to fulfill a life-long commitment to justice work. While her name may not yet be commonplace, you’d probably recognize her.

Her photograph in 1996 was featured as one of Life Magazine’s most iconic images of that year. Why? Because she, a black woman, a teenager at the time, risked her own life to save the life of a man who would never have done the same for her.

When, almost twenty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Keshia was there in protest. When a white supremacist and suspected Klansman wearing a Confederate flag and sporting a Nazi tattoo was spotted in the midst of that Michigan protest, the anti-Klan crowd began to turn violent. With cries of “Kill the Nazi” being shouted around them, a group of protesters chased and surrounded the man, kicking him and beating him with the wooden sticks of their signs.

And what did Keshia Thomas do?

Keisha rushed to that man’s side – the pictures taken in succession of that moment are quite dramatic – and she hurled her body through the air to cover him, to protect someone whose aim was to humiliate, spurn and destroy her.

In that moment when Keisha flung her body over that white man with his Confederate flag and his Nazi tattoo, and she held his head in protection from flying boots and sticks, she stood in courageous solidarity with the human race and for the preciousness of life. She was the antithesis of violence. She was the embodiment of radical change and hope. And she is an inspiration and a victory for human compassion.

Fast forward almost twenty years - and Keshia’s heart and body are still carrying on for justice.

It was an honor to walk beside her, to be challenged by her story, to ask myself how far I would be willing to go for my ideals, how far any of us would be willing to go.

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam hameichin mitzadei gaver. Thank you God for strengthening my steps by allowing me to march beside Keshia and learn from her story.

I also drew strength from the 68-year old veteran named Middle Passage who marched at the head of the journey each and every day. We each cradled beacons of justice and freedom in our arms, he the American flag and I our Torah.

I asked him how he had come to take on that name, Middle Passage referencing, I knew, of course, that horrific route that carried Africans across the ocean as a part of the slave trade.

He replied that it was his way of honoring his ancestors. Through taking on the name Middle Passage, he was honoring those who had been forced to endure that journey, those who had died along the way, those who had survived and gone on to live as slaves to human masters, those whose families in Africa were irrevocably broken as their loved ones were torn from them to be sold at market.

I am heartbroken to share that just yesterday afternoon at Mile 922 while Middle Passage was still carrying our American flag as he had every day since August 1st, all the way from Alabama to Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina and to Virginia where the Journey is now… at Mile 922, Middle Passage suffered a massive heart attack and died suddenly.

I only spent a short time with him, but it was enough to know that I was in the presence of a man of the highest ideals, a man full of courage and determination, a man committed to freedom for us all. He was a shepherd of his people leading them to the edge of the Promised Land. Though he could not complete the journey himself, others will now bear his flag in the final steps. His legacy will endure. His memory will be for a blessing.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam, hameichin mitzadei gaver. Thank you God for strengthening my steps through allowing me to march beside Middle Passage and share his story. I teach this Torah tonight in his honor.

About his name, Middle Passage had told me: “You have to know where you came from to know where you are going.”

How Jewish a concept is that.

We, the Jewish and African-American communities, we who have long been united both in oppression and in the fight for justice for all – we both use the stories and the hardships of our pasts to frame our paths forward.

For we know, in the words of a great man: “You have to know where you came from to know where you are going.”

In the same way that we still deal with swastikas, and moreso with the absence of a third – a third – of our people, the black community is still reeling from the effects of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, set-backs in civil rights…

Harlon Dalton teaches us, “Slavery continues to shape our lives more than a century after abolition because the link it forged between Blackness and inferiority, Blackness and subservience, Blackness and danger, has survived to this day.”[3]

Reading Debby Irving’s Waking Up White alerted me to my ignorance of how my parenting as a white mother differs from the parenting that a parent of color must do. She writes, “Trying to protect children with a worry-free childhood is a privilege of the dominant class—a white privilege. Many parents of color teach their children to keep their hands in plain sight if a police officer is near and to avoid white neighborhoods in order to avoid being questioned for simply being there. In the same way I was trained to make myself visible and seek opportunity, many children of color are trained to stay under the radar.”[4]

There’s a lot to learn and a lot to do – and we can start by initiating conversations.

I was pleased to see that there was some local press coverage of my participation in the march, which, of course, was, in many ways, the point – it was a way to initiate those conversations, raise awareness, and lend support to the issues at hand.

The comments to the articles on the whole were positive, but then there was this one. It read: “BUT will she [(meaning me)] march for Israel and the Jews?” It continued, “This is what’s wrong with American Judaism and Jews today.”

Lest anyone be confused, the answer is a clear and emphatic yes. I stand with and for our people and for Israel, our beloved homeland. There is no question.

In response to that comment, I thought of the story, passed down in Chasidic tradition, of a rabbi who was once so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son. His father, the baby’s grandfather, heard, and went down and took the baby in his arms until he went to sleep again. Then he went to his son, still intent on his books, and said, “My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it is not the study of Torah if it makes you deaf to the cry of a child.”

I promise you: we are not doing Torah – or we are not doing it right - when we ignore the sounds of cries around us.

Let us never narrowly define Torah and our Jewish obligation in such a way that we become blind and deaf to the cries around us, heads bowed.

True understanding of Torah makes us hear more rather than less, makes us see more rather than less. True understanding of Torah makes us open our hearts more rather than less.

If we stand by the side of another, does it mean that we do not also stand for ourselves? It is not a choice.

Hillel so famously said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"[5] As Hillel’s powerful words suggest, to stand for yourself is a first, but wholly insufficient step. The work cannot and can never be finished there.

I bristle at the notion… no, it’s much stronger than that... I reject the notion that when we stand beside others in their suffering, we are neglecting our own.

Had our neighbors in Bedford decided that swastikas were not their issue, no one would have stood beside the Jewish community in our time of pain. Instead, as a number of the clergy shared with me, they felt CALLED to stand beside us. Called.

Let us also stand then by our brothers and sisters in the African-American community when grief hits them. When young men are dying. When a simple traffic stop ends in death. When nine are gunned down in their church during Bible study.

Our Talmud teaches us to recite a blessing when encountering a large crowd, “Blessed is the Wise One who knows secrets” (that is, Blessed is the Wise One who knows everyone’s innermost thoughts).[6]

If God were listening in (and God is), what would God hear? If we were to truly listen to ourselves (and we can), what would we hear?

Rosh HaShanah and the entire high holy day season is about self-examination. It’s about being brutally honest with ourselves. It’s the time for what our tradition calls cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.

As a part of the soul-searching that is a necessary part of our teshuvah process, we need to ask ourselves how we are contributing to a system that favors some over others.

We need to ask ourselves how we consciously or unconsciously benefit from a system that values lives differently.

And we need to ask ourselves how we can disrupt that system, taking heed of our history as strangers in a strange land in order to create real change.

Tikkun olam, repair of the world is our obligation and our mission. So how do we act upon it?

Let me share a small piece of what I know is happening locally - all with opportunities for deep involvement.

In response to the incidents of anti-Semitism, Bedford created a Bedford Embraces Diversity committee whose aim is to promote an appreciation of difference within the town. Bedford also has a standing taskforce to help our schools look more seriously at how we are handling diversity in our classrooms and genocide education at the higher levels. Get involved.

In Lexington, a new local dialogue group is starting with an intentional focus on race. And every year, the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association gathers the community together for an Interfaith Thanksgiving service. This year, the focus will be on diversity and difference as a follow-up to a spring town-wide conversation on race – and we, here at Isaiah, are hosting. Get involved.

In Arlington, there’s a Diversity Task Force looking at a broad spectrum of issues, including socio-economic and class diversity as well as an emergency response team that mobilizes in response to human rights violations and hate crimes. Get involved.

And if your town isn’t actively talking about these issues or you want your town to be doing more, may I humbly encourage you to start the conversation.

Here at Isaiah, I’ll be leading a discussion this fall utilizing Bryan Stevenson’s New York Times best-seller, Just Mercy, which provides a closer look at racial bias in our criminal justice system and a new lens to help us understand mercy, justice, and redemption. Come and take part.

Beyond Isaiah, we are blessed to count ourselves as a part of the larger whole that makes up the Reform movement. As a means to get at the tikkun, the repair needed for racial justice, our movement has identified voting rights, economic inequality, and criminal justice as particular areas of focus and has created an advocacy agenda based on our Jewish values for each.

What is most important is that you feel empowered to advocate for issues of justice as you see fit. The battles for civil rights are far from over. Talk to your leaders and elected officials and let them know what you think and believe.

And if you feel called, remind our leaders about America’s Journey for Justice. The physical journey is nearly at an end. The marchers and our Torah arrive in Washington D.C. IN TWO DAYS where they are expected to be greeted by members of Congress. Learn more. Share the news and tell someone. Tell everyone. Start a conversation.

It’s a long journey we are on – all of us.

When we are overwhelmed with all of the work we need to do, let us remind ourselves that while it is always probable that Goliath will win, sometimes David does.[7]

Though the odds favor Goliath, our text and tradition teach us to strive with hope in our hearts. When we do, we can remember that David has a chance… and so I’m betting on him. And I’m betting on us.

Rosh HaShanah is about hope in new beginnings, new chances, new opportunities.

And that ultimately is what the story of our people is all about. Slavery to freedom. Redemption and new beginnings – which is probably why while I was participating in, what I have to assume, is the longest hafakah or Torah procession in history, the Torah felt much lighter in my arms than it probably should have been. The sacred story of our scroll is a meta-narrative about hope. And movement. And freedom. It’s about believing that we need not stay stuck where we are forever, oppressed and held down. That we matter.

That there is something infinitely better if we march. And move. And open our hearts honestly to love and justice.

When we look back in history to this period of time when we were still unraveling the racism in our midst, where do we want to say that we were… what do we want to say that we were doing?

Redemption did not only happen once upon a time. It has the possibility of happening all of the time. It unfolds each and every day. And we can be a part of it.

“Standing on the parted shores, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. [And t]hat there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands [and] marching together.”[8]

Shanah tovah.

[1] Rev. Martin Niemoller. Many versions of this poem exist. The one that I have used here in the one used by the United States Holocaust Museum.
[2] Micah 6:8.
[3] Harlon L. Dalton, Racial Healing, 156-7.
[4] Debby Irving, Waking Up White, 19.
[5] Pirkei Avot 1:14.
[6] Talmud Bavli, Brachot 58a.
[7] Drawn from Marshall Ganz building on Rambam’s definition of hope as described in this interview: http://www.servicespace.org/blog/view.php?id=16893
[8] Michael Walzer, adapted from Exodus, as found in Mishkan T’filah.

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