Racial Injustice

I've been thinking a lot about history. As Jews, we never truly live in the present but always with a foot in the past. And we are good at remembering. We harken back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, and remind ourselves that we were once slaves in Egypt. We recall our tragedies with our victories: Amalek and Haman, the destruction of the Temple, along with the birth of Israel, the weddings of young couples, and the welcoming of new babies. For Jews, memory isn't just history, it is us. Without memory we are severed from our past, and from what makes us who we are. And although our past sometimes haunts us, it often teaches us, and should always inspire us.

Blacks and Jews (although not mutually exclusive communities) share a deeply rooted and intertwined past. In her 1991 autobiography, Deborah, Golda, and Me, Letty Cottin Pogrebin suggests that Black-Jewish relationships rest on a common history of oppression. “Both Blacks and Jews have known Egypt,” she writes. “Jews have known the certain death of the ovens and gas chambers. Blacks have known the death and terror caused by slavery.”[1] Two groups who shared the comradeship of exclusion and persecution found ourselves meeting throughout our American history. Often meeting each other in neighborhoods, jobs, and schools in centers of urban American cities—while being excluded from those same schools, neighborhoods, and jobs—we shared the commitment to organizing our individual communities around fighting discrimination and standing up for freedom, forming organizations like the NAACP and the ADL. Those of us who knew our history, who remembered what it was like in Egypt, also believed there was a promised land awaiting us in America if we worked towards it.

As the battle for civil rights started bubbling across America, Blacks and socially liberal Jews found each other to be advocates and partners for the cause of equality. While recognizing the cause was not our own, Jews identified intensely with the Civil Rights Movement as a moral imperative for the world we wanted to build. Most notably, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched in Selma in 1965 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a modern day Moses who quoted and infused life into scripture, became our rabbi too. Even PTBE's own founding rabbi, Rabbi Sanford "Sandy" Rosen marched in Selma—wearing a kippa, along with the cohort of Jews he marched with. The story is told of a young black man who asked what was he wearing on his head. While Rabbi Rosen explained the tradition of the yarmulke, the man decided, "I'm just going to call them 'freedom caps'" and put one on himself.[2]

Reflecting back on the era, I turn to a 1964 letter titled, “Why We Went” penned by a group of rabbis about their journey to St. Augustine, Florida to join the fight. A small excerpt reads:

“We came because we realize that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.”[3] 

The Civil Rights Era is sometimes referred to as a "Golden Age" of Black-Jewish relations—the time when two communities and our shared values were reflected in one another. The powerful words and actions of our past leaders still ring as inspiration and pride for who we are as Jews today, but I'm reminded too of how far in the past the Civil Rights Movement has become, and aware of how complicated that fight really was. Can we still authentically turn to it as a proof for our Jewish commitment to racial injustice today? More importantly, have we upheld the fight against racial injustice since then?

After the Civil Rights Movement, the distancing between Black and Jewish communities seemed almost unavoidable. While the systemic discrimination against Blacks never truly went away, Jews were experiencing new avenues of social and economic mobility. The painful breakup of our Golden Age relationship caused us to question whether the connection was ever really genuine? Were our experiences in Egypt—with enslavement, discrimination, and racism—ever close enough to be compared? Black Author James Baldwin answers, no. "Blacks and Jews derived different lessons from American history and have a different relationship to the American Dream. Jews came here to escape oppression; Blacks came shackled.” “The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage,” Baldwin wrote in 1967. “But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him.”

So while we acknowledge the challenges of the Black community may not be, and may not have ever been, the same challenges of the Jewish community, we still are and have always been people who answer the historical call, Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof—Justice , Justice You Shall Pursue. Wherever there is suffering in the world, the Jew hears it and responds.

The injustices we see and the sufferings we hear are related to the practices of some law enforcement agencies that permit racial profiling as a tool in policing. Reform California, a branch of the Religious Action Center and the organization of Reform Jewish communities from across our state, including PTBE, sent out this statement to describe the unfair practice of racial profiling:

“Racial and identity profiling occurs when law enforcement officers stop, search, interrogate, or seize the property of a person without evidence of criminal activity, but based on physical characteristics.  These practices humiliate and frighten law abiding Californians, while not necessarily preventing criminal activity.  Statistics from the San Diego Police Department found that Blacks were stopped twice as often as drivers from other racial groups, and that Blacks were respectively searched at three times the rate of whites. However, those searched did not correlate to a higher engagement in criminal activity."  (Reform CA) 

In response to this injustice, Reform CA is lobbying for a bill that will modernize the definition of profiling to include characteristics other than race. It seeks to create a better system for collecting and reporting information on police-community interaction, and establish training on fair and impartial policing. The bill AB 953, will help our state develop a clearer picture of what actually happens in California during police stops. While some police groups, including the Oakland and San Jose Police Departments and the CA Highway Patrol already collect and report this data voluntarily,  This bill mandates that all police officers report basic information about all stops they make. We know the job of our police officers is dangerous and hard. AB 953 is not meant to place blame on police—but to increase accountability that will make everyone, citizen and officer, more safe. 

Author Ta-Nahesi Coates’ recently wrote a book to his 15-year-old son, offering him guidance and advice for what it means to become a young Black man in America. Sadly, this advice needs to include the reality that being a young Black man puts him at a higher risk for violence, false accusations, and arrests by the hands of those in position of authority. In guiding his son, he teaches, "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 . . .It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black—what matters is our condition; what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.”[4

As Jews, as American citizens, and residents of California, it is our duty to fight a system that protects some while oppressing others. Our support for this bill is inspired by a sacred teaching from Pirkei Avot, which reads: “Yehi ch’vod chaveirach chaviv aleicha k’shelach: Your friend’s dignity should be as dear to you as your own.” We cannot live with dignity and honor when other Californians, particularly people of color, are not afforded the same dignity.  Our hearts are with those who are stopped by police based on the color of their skin, when there is no suspected evidence of criminal activity. We share in the pain of those parents who fear that their children will find themselves in a situation that escalates to violence during such a stop.  And our hearts are with the police and peaceful officers who serve and protect our communities, and who are themselves trapped in a system that feels as if it needs to rely on tools of racism and violence. Their actions, too, reflect a broken system, and it will not change until we insist on new values and priorities in terms of criminal justice.

So what can we do?

We must begin by looking inward, and working to shed assumptions that connect race with crime. As the public, we too need to remember there is not one community—Black, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, or White—that represents the face of a criminal more than another. By reinforcing racial stereotypes, we deny all American citizens their true basic freedoms. We can also continue the work at home to show respect for law enforcement. Appreciating and acknowledging our police offers and the service they do for our society is part of the social contract that allows us to function as a free nation. Here, in San Mateo, we are blessed to work with our local police department who have come to the aid of our congregation when we have needed support, especially in matters of security and suspicious activity. Citizens and police departments that interact in positive ways and seek to understand each other's needs, better serve one another when there is a crisis. Finally, race and racism in our country is not something that changes only with our hearts and attitudes, but with our actions and our fights.

By helping to sign the racial justice bill into law, the Jewish community revives our commitment to civil rights. It is simple enough to go to the Reform California Action website where you will find all the info you need to send an email or make a call to Governor Brown’s office and let him know you stand for racial equality.  It will take only a few minutes and you can be part of a strong wave of Reform Jews acting together for social justice and a better California.  I have more information on handouts which I'm happy to share after services.

Our fight for racial justice today renews our historical relationship with the Black community and revives our commitment to our partners in the fight for social justice and change. This summer a group of my rabbinic colleagues, marched from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC through a program organized by the NAACP called America's Journey for Justice. They marched for a criminal justice system that weighs all lives equally and lets our young people know we care about the injustices they face.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religion Action Center affirms, "Just as Reform Jews who marched 50 years ago in Selma and throughout the Civil Rights Movement understood that racism and racial inequality undermine the social fabric of our communities, we know it is still true today." And so Blacks and Jews took the chance to join hands and march together again. As we did, we carried our Torah scroll to represent the values that guide our march. And the police, state troopers, who joined the march for security ended up carrying the Torah too. We know marching alone isn't going to solve the challenges of race relations in our country. But marching serves as a reminder of our past, and carries our history into our future. As we march forward together, let's hope we can look back and see progress.

Shana Tova.

[1] Pogrebin, Letty Cottin. Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America. Anchor Books, 1991. Page 113

[2] Rabbi William Braude, "What I learned in Alabama about Yarmulkes," Rosh Hashana sermon, Septermber 27, 1965, Temple Beth-El, Providence, Rhode Island. Used with permission of Temple Beth-El , Providence, RI. (http://jwa.org/media/what-i-learned-in-alabama-about-yarmulkes)

[3] Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine, June 19, 1964. From the papers of Rabbi Michael Robinson. Permission to use granted by Dr. Eugene Borowitz .http://jwa.org/media/why-we-went-joint-letter-from-rabbis-arrested-in-st-augustine

[4]  Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Random House Books, 2015. p 17-18