Racial Justice Sermon: Yom Kippur morning 5776

20150823_093847As a child, growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I believed that racism was largely a problem of the past. My friends in school were from Poland, Trinidad, India, and Sri Lanka. They were immigrants, first, second and third generation Americans. They were Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu. And they loved to tell me about their cultural backgrounds and religions as much as I loved hearing about them.

Last year, when I attended a seminar on race relations in Utica, I recounted how thankful I was to have grown up in Brooklyn, which helped me to appreciate the blessings of diversity. A woman of color soon replied “I grew up in Brooklyn too. Your Brooklyn was not the same as my Brooklyn.”

This summer I had an opportunity to understand what she meant.

I traveled to rural South Carolina to join the NAACP in just one small leg of their 1000 mile Journey for Justice from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC. Between August 1st and September 16th, thousands of people joined the march which celebrated how far our country has come in pursuit of racial justice, and to acknowledge how far we have yet to go.

When Rabbi Jonah Pesner, of the Religious Action Center, asked rabbis to participate in the march, he hoped to receive one volunteer for each day. Walking 20 miles a day, after all, was no small feat. It was his dream that each day another rabbi would proudly walk alongside NAACP leaders, holding a sacred Torah scroll. He was delighted when 200 rabbis signed up.  To my delight, I was blessed to share this experience with a member of our community: Cornelia Brown, and two other rabbis from different states.

As we walked down route 1, with fields on either side, most people responded positively to our group. There were smiles, thumbs up, honks of support, fist bumps and cheers. Each of them lifted me, and gave me hope.

Still, racism was very real. Along the road we encountered a man who made a point of circling around us again and again, with a Confederate flag hitched onto the back of his pick up truck. Another man became so agitated by the sight of the march that he stopped his car, shook his head, looked up, and then floored his car backwards, into a tree. Everyone was okay, thank God, but it was a wake-up call to see how intense racism could be.

I grasped the Torah scroll firmly in my hands, and recalled the words from our morning prayer:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam hameichin mitzadei gaver.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe who strengthens our steps.

My steps were strong because of the legacy of rabbis who marched before me. Just 50 years earlier Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in pursuit of civil rights.

But my steps were stronger because of the people I was blessed to walk alongside.

One of those people was Keisha. Keisha was surprisingly energetic for her 23rd day of the march. As soon as she heard about the Journey for Justice, she decided to quit her job so that she could walk all of the 1000 miles.

But this wasn’t her first time forwarding a message of racial justice.

In 1996, Keisha was an 18 year old high school senior in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One day the Ku Klux Klan began to rally in her city. Keisha, who is African American, was one of the protestors. Although the rally began peacefully, it quickly took a turn when a middle-aged man with a Nazi SS tattoo and a Confederate Flag t-shirt ended up amidst the protestors. The protestors began to beat him in anger. Keisha threw herself on top of the man to shield him from their blows. Mark Brunner was there that day. He remarked about Keisha, “She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her. Who does that in this world?” But for Keisha it was a knee jerk response. “I knew what it was like to be hurt,” she said. “The many times that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

Months later, she would find herself in a coffee shop standing next to a white male who was thanking and praising her for what she had done. As it turns out, he was the son of the man with the Nazi tattoo. He was thanking her for saving her father’s life.[1]

I spent much of the march speaking with a white reverend who had three black children.

She recalled that she hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to race before they were born. Slowly, she realized that she and they lived in vastly different worlds.

One day they went as a family to get some ice cream. The boys were eating their ice cream, when she remembered she had forgotten the milk. She asked her oldest to get it for her. “Only if you hold my ice cream,” he said. “Why would I need to do that? We just bought it!” “Trust me,” he said. “If I go in there with this ice cream, they’ll call the cops on me for shoplifting.”

One day, she received a call from her 13 year old son. He had been arrested. As he recalls it, the police had pulled him over for riding his bike while black. He was in the correct lane, obeying the rules of the road. But they pulled him over anyway. When he asked them what he did wrong, they refused to answer, so he got up to walk away. They tackled him, arrested him and brought him to prison, on $5000 bail. His mother told me that when he got out of jail, he was different kid. He was fearful. He ran away from home, convinced that the police were coming for him. That is how deep his fear was. His white lawyer told him “Well, none of this would have ever happened if you did what you were told.” His words of hatred would later inspire this boy to become the public defender he never had, but wished he did.

The woman from Utica was right. We do live in vastly different worlds.

And I am ashamed that I just recently noticed.

Racism is so universal and so widespread that to me, it was nearly invisible.[2]

Studies show African Americans are more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. And when stopped, more likely to be frisked. And I didn’t notice.

In 2010, Justice Department filed and won a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the banks had shunted blacks in the predatory loans—subprime loans regardless of their creditworthiness. [3] It was not the only bank to maintain such unethical practices. And I didn’t notice.

I didn’t notice that people of color were less likely to be given loans, or to be awarded promotions. I didn’t notice the many poor black communities that fill the US, where students receive inferior educations, and are forced to lower their expectations. And I wasn’t the only one.

In her book Waking up White, Debby Irving recalls the childhood stories she’s swapped with people of color. “I’ve learned the ways in which many parents of color prepare their children for a hostile world,” she said. “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]

When we think of racism we often think of men with Nazi tattoos, or confederate flags. We think of members of the Ku Klux Klan or ISIL or Al-Qaeda.

But most racism doesn’t come from extremists at all. It comes from the fabric of society itself. And since society sends us constant messages about the inferiority of people of color, and about how we should fear the black man, if we don’t go our way to combat these feelings, racism exists in each of us.

At one time slavery and Jim Crow laws offered tangible evidence of racism, but according to Debby Irving “today’s racism lives hidden beneath the surface, in individual hearts and minds. Today’s work to dismantle racism begins in the personal realm. Until I begin to examine how racism has shaped me, I had little to contribute to the movement of righting racial wrongs. My cultural markings, invisible to me, screamed “Caution!” to those outside my culture. It explains why, for so many years, my best efforts stagnated or backfired. Until I examined how racism shaped me, I had little hope that any person of color would want to engage with me around a problem I saw as theirs. Only when I began to explore and share my personal struggle to understand my racialized belief system did people of color start opening up to me, engaging with me in our common struggle.”[5]

Only when we share stories with one another—only when we see the fullness of one another’s struggles can any positive change come to fruition.

The Temple in Israel was a holy structure. It’s holiest component was the ark, because it contained the Ten Commandments. Above this ark there were two figures called Cherubim, facing one another.[6]  It was a great risk to showcase these figures so prominently. After all, the Israelites had been told not to make any idols, especially after the incident of the golden calf. These figures could very easily be mistaken for an idol. So why did God wish to introduce them?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that when God spoke to Moses, God did it between the two cherubim. “The message of this symbol was so significant that it was deemed by God himself to be sufficient to outweigh the risk of misunderstanding. God speaks where two persons turn their face to one another in love, embrace, generosity and care.”[7]

I went on the march because I wanted to do something about racial injustice, but I knew that first I needed to look into the faces of people who were suffering, so that we could come face to face one another in love, embrace, generosity, and care.

Each service we read the words of the V’ahavta which tell us to place the words of Torah upon our hearts. Our sages ask why we place them ON our hearts. Why not IN our hearts? And the answer: because sometimes our hearts are closed. We place the words on top of our hearts, and they stay there until one day our hearts break open and the words fall in.

Just like the Torah, stories of our fellow human beings lay upon our hearts. We must now crack our hearts open so that they can change us for the better.

We must see how our brothers and sisters of color are dying at alarming rates.

We must recognize that we have replaced Jim Crow laws with mass incarceration.

We must acknowledge that although our country is supposed to be the land of the free, until all people can vote, until people of all colors have the same access to education, and jobs, and security, we are not yet the home of the free.

Martin Luther King once said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”[8]

When we hear the pain of our fellow human being, we no longer have the privilege of standing on the sidelines. As Elie Wiesel taught us “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

So what do can you do?

  • This afternoon, at 1pm you are invited to reflect on this sermon, and to discuss racism with me, in the back of the social hall.
  • You can be an advocate. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in support of the voting rights act, which took away barriers people of color had to overcome in order to vote. Just two years ago, the Supreme Court undermined that bill, when it ruled that areas with disenfranchisement problems could make changes to election procedures without seeking clearance from the Department of Justice. Supreme Court Judges thought that in 2015, we didn’t need such provisions.

But they failed to see just how pervasive racism continues to be. Many communities have tested the limits of the their new power by introducing and sometimes passing restrictive voting laws which have limited citizen’s access to the voting box—especially citizens of color, who are poor, elderly or who are students. Today we are passing out postcards that can be mailed to Congress, in hopes that Voting rights can be reinstated. I encourage you to send them in.

  • We are blessed this year that a student from Hamilton, Lily Wasser, is serving as an intern for the Jewish community. In coordination with leaders in the area, she is helping me to foster productive dialogue between Jews and people of color, so that we face to face one another in love, embrace, generosity, and care. I hope we will have many exciting announcements, and opportunities to participate throughout the year 5776. In this way, we hope to follow the great legacy of Rabbi Bamberger, who worked tirelessly for racial equality in Utica, through the organization Bridge Builders.
  • October 21st is Utica’s Abolition History Day, to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the start of New York State Anti-slavery society. Speakers will include Rev. Robert Williams of Hope Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, Dr. Kathryn Maria Silva, Assistant Professor of African and African-American History at Utica College, and our very own Mary Hayes Gordon, from the Oneida County Freedom Trail Commission. Flyers can be found the lobby, and you are encouraged to attend.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidim, taught “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to find each other find one another, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light pours forth from their united being.”

Today we are separated by the color of our skin. We truly do live in different worlds from one another. But when we meet face to face, our worlds will collide, and all of us will be brighter for it.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

[1] Catherine White, “The teenager who saved a man with an SS tattoo,” BBC News Magazine, Oct. 29, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24653643

[2] Shirley Chisholm in 1970 said “Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.

[3] “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Neisi Coates, June 2014 Issue of the Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

In it, Coates points out that Affidavits later found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and their subprime products as “ghetto loans.” “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past, but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”

[4] Debby Irving, Waking Up White p.19

[5] Irving p.192

[6] Exodus 25:20

[7] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, to Heal a Fractured World, p. 54

[8] Martin Luther King Strength to Love, 1963.

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