Over 3000 years ago, on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases the Israelites from centuries of bondage as all of Egypt cries out in the wake of God’s deadly plague. They march out in song and jubilation before their masters. The brutalities and indignities of slave life finally come to an end. The Israelites are free to follow their God into the wilderness.
Over 150 years ago, on the 1st day of January, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared, after two centuries of African American enslavement, “that all persons held as slaves” within the states that had seceded from the United States “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” The brutalities and indignities of slave life, the whippings and sexual assaults, the selling and forcible relocation of family members, the denial of education, wages, legal marriage, homeownership, had finally come to an end. African Americans celebrated their newfound freedom both privately and in public jubilees.
When Pharaoh changes his mind and his armies give chase to the Israelites, God divides a sea for safe passage, and closes it to drown their pursuers. God provides water and bread from heaven along the way. Within a few months, they arrive at the mountain of God.
Two and a half years later, on June 19th, 1865, the slaves of Galveston, Texas received their emancipation from their masters. Some emancipated slaves quickly fled from their owners, while others who couldn’t imagine any feasible alternative remained to become wage laborers for their former owners. As the Civil War came to a close, Southern states began to pass a series of discriminatory state laws collectively known as ”black codes.” Slavery had been a pillar of economic stability in the region before the war; now, black codes ensured the same stability by recreating the antebellum economic structure under the façade of a free-labor system.
At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive their constitution from God, a roadmap for building community, for establishing law and order, for promoting equality, equity and justice, and for creating a physical, social and spiritual space worthy of God’s presence.
The newly freed slaves were treated by some of their former masters with fair wages. Many former slave owners treated the freedmen with contempt, disdain and fear. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”
When the time comes to realize God’s promise, ten of the twelve scouts who had gone into the Promised Land report to their community that the plan is not feasible. The residents, from their perspective, are giants. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”
The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.
God and Moses are deeply disappointed, to say the least, that the community chooses to heed the report of the ten, as opposed to the more optimistic report of Joshua and Caleb, who believe that it is within their power—with God’s help—to take what has been promised. God decides to punish the Israelites for their lack of faith to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, such that the generation of slaves will die before they enter the Promised Land.
In 1877, the “Exodusters,” blacks who fled the south, established the settlement of Nicodemus on the arid plains of northwestern Kansas. However, because of several crop failures and resentment from the county’s white settlers, all but a few homesteaders abandoned their claims. A rising population of 500 in 1880 had declined over the next 40 years to less than 200.
Forty years later it is the Israelites’ children, raised in the wilderness within the parameters of the new constitution and under the eyes of a protecting God, who enter Canaan to reclaim their ancestral homeland.
In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places. The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904. The children born to former slaves may not have known the whip as their parents did, but they suffered continuing marginalization and dehumanization at the hands of those who did not consider the 14th amendment to the Constitution–that “all men are created equal”–to include black Americans.
We, in our mostly white and Ashkenazi-centric (“Ashkenormative”) Jewish communities love to assert how we have fought for the civil rights of Black Americans through the decades, and that we are uniquely equipped to understand the experiences of people of color. There is no doubt that Jewish Americans have disproportionately supported progressive causes with their presence and their resources. But neither our historic experience of enslavement in Egypt nor our experience of anti-Semitism in all its forms through the centuries have given us unique insight into the suffering of Black Americans at the hands of a society that was created by whites for whites, and only begrudgingly made space to incorporate the “others” already in their midst. Moreover, even our immigrant experience as seekers of religious tolerance in a new world, as fraught as it may have been and continues to be, fails to educate us sufficiently to the historic and institutional inequities faced by people of color in this country.
Claims that we are not racist–that we can relate, that anti-Semitism is a problem too, that all lives matter–only serve as impediments to ridding ourselves of the systemic racial injustices and the privileges that benefit us. If we are to be ANTI-racist, allies to those who are disproportionately negatively impacted by too many systems in our country, we must listen to and we must believe the voices of those who say that they face a daily exhausting battle. We must turn within our own communities to hear the voices of Jews of color and how they have been marginalized. And we must face ourselves and our loved ones and friends honestly to confront uncomfortable truths, to engage in hard discussions, about our own attitudes and biases.
“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”
—Birmingham, Alabama, 1930
Our most senior community members were born into a world where humans were marginalized for the color of their skin. Many of our parents were raised in communities where such attitudes persisted. There are those of us who felt the sting of the word “shvartze” in our homes, even if we would never use it ourselves. Few of us knew that Jews of color existed. And if we did, we questioned the authenticity of their experience or chalked them up to being Sephardic, an “otherness” of a more acceptable yet still not-as-authentic Jewish ilk.
When a person of color walks into our synagogue, do we think “What’s their story? What are they doing here? Are they Jewish? Did they convert?” These questions reflect a racist bias, regardless of our intentions. Yet, as we remind those who equate Jewish with whiteness, we are a multiracial people and we are becoming more so. We must thus begin by asking ourselves the question: As a Jewish community that is almost exclusively white, where are we? Why are we? What must we do to enter the 21st century, to create an environment where Jews of color are comfortable and safe with us? Can we assert to Jews of color that, indeed, Black lives matter, so that they no longer need to feel marginalized or denigrated in their own spiritual homes?
Perhaps home is where we can and must begin to do the arduous work of becoming anti-racist allies. I welcome the difficult conversations that will hopefully follow.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
On the first night of Chanukah…. On the second night of Chanukah….
Like a bad horror movie, the reports of violent attacks on Jews reached us day by day. With each candle, our anxieties increased. The seventh attack struck our Rockland community in Monsey with 5 people stabbed as they celebrated the holiday together. Lighting candles on the eighth night, we were as aware as we have ever been of the meaning of this holiday, determined to fight back the darkness, dedicated to brazenly defying the temptation to retreat into hiding.
In the light of the eighth day, we are left trying to make sense of it all. Officials and lawmakers step forward to proclaim their indignation and resolve, a reassuring fact that distinguishes our home from 1939 Germany. Reporters ask us to assess the damage, to identify the causes, and to suggest countermeasures.
Jewish resilience — founded in our peoplehood, a sense of shared destiny, a belief in the power of goodness, and faith in God — will sustain us, just as it has through the centuries. Just as it did the Maccabees. But neither Jewish might, nor Jewish power, nor even Jewish spirit will cure the societal illness we call anti-Semitism.
Over the past twenty centuries and more, this illness has presented in different ways. Depending on whether the form taken was political, social or religious, the symptoms differed in the kinds of stereotypes the illness relied upon to spread. From the Greco-Roman empires to the Golden Age of Islam, from the Medieval Ages to the Enlightenment, from socialists to capitalists, from Ukrainian pogroms to Nazi death camps, “the Jew” has been an object of hatred and marginalization, characterized according to the needs of the hater, colored to be the cause of their ailments.
Today, however, the illness is different. The world is, as we know, a much smaller place. Social media has given hate an unparalleled platform. Anti-Semitism shape-shifts by the day. Its spread is not bound to any particular ideology or political party, and its expression has taken violent form in an age when speech is unbounded, inflammatory, and empowering.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Regulating speech, punishing terrorists and pushing hatred into hiding won’t defeat anti-Semitism. There may be places in the world where anti-Semitic incidents don’t occur, but that doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism doesn’t live in the hearts of inhabitants. In fact, sadly, it most likely means that Jews don’t live there.
Anti-Semitism lives in our neighbors’ hearts and homes, in the mouths of parents and the ears of their children. And the only way for “us” to defeat it is to confront it where it lives.
A solidarity rally may comfort us, provide a forum to air our sadness and fear, help us know we are not alone. But anti-Semitism will only be defeated when our non-Jewish neighbors want to fight it. When they are willing to examine and discuss their beliefs; when schools can require and facilitate meaningful conversations among students and parents; when churches, mosques, and synagogues come together in common cause—only then will we as a society have a fighting chance to win this battle.
On the eve of 2020, may we resolve to stand against hatred; to know our neighbors and to help them know us; to build alliances outside our Jewish community with those who will advocate for the conversations and education necessary to bring days of appreciation, understanding, and light.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Thank you to the hundreds who showed up for Shabbat this past weekend to hear our message, and to know and to love one another a little better. The following is the message I shared:
You don’t know me.
As I stand here on this Shabbat morning welcoming those who have come to celebrate with our Bar Mitzvah and his family, those who chose to show up for Shabbat with their synagogue community, and those who have come from our neighborhood or larger community, Jewish or not, in order to pledge solidarity and unity in the face of hatred, I realize you probably don’t know me. Not the way I’d like you to.
If you did, you’d know that last Saturday, while I was reading a story in my synagogue about my ancestor Abraham—how he welcomed strangers into his tent, providing them food and shelter from the heat of the day—eleven members of my extended Jewish family were being executed for no reason other than that they were Jewish, and that they were learning the value of welcoming the stranger.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that while I was learning this week about my ancestor Abraham and how he purchased a burial place for his wife Sarah, how he saw himself as a stranger amongst his neighbors and thus insisted on paying the full price for his plot so no one would ever question the legitimacy of his presence in their midst, my extended family was burying its dead, suddenly feeling very much like strangers themselves and, by extension, shaking my own sense of belonging.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know the pain I feel as a result of having been offered more wishes of congratulations on my favorite baseball team’s victory than wishes of condolence on my sense of personal loss because of the murders in Pittsburgh.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that in the week ahead I’d be commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night that signaled the start of the Holocaust, sending my grandparents into flight from their home in Poland, to Russia where my mother would be born in a labor camp, then to a displaced person camp in Germany, and finally to the shores of these United States.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past week I made a donation to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the same organization that my fellow Pittsburgh community supported, because I too believe in protecting refugees, and because without its support my family would not be here today.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past Tuesday Rabbi Drill and I took our sixth and seventh grade students around our OJC neighborhood to extend personal invitations to our 35 neighboring homes to join us this Shabbat in solidarity, and again on our Mitzvah Day in two weeks for breakfast, just to know one another and share in doing some good.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that when I was growing up here in this community, I knew my neighbors by name, but my children have grown up in this neighborhood not knowing the people who lived across the street.
Winter is coming. (Yes, I am a fan of Game of Thrones.) And while this winter may not be ushering in the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, I do believe we are on a dangerous path. When I was a child, winter meant shoveling my own driveway and going to my neighbors with a friend to ask if they wanted their driveways cleared or their cars cleaned off. Today, winter means locking your doors, lowering your shades and communicating with a friend virtually.
I do not believe that we find ourselves today in the winter of 1938 Nazi Germany. Most importantly, the police and the law are here to stand with us and to protect us, as they have been throughout this week. Our Town Supervisor and neighbor Chris Day is with us today to assert that an act of hatred against one of us is an act of hatred against us all. Our sisters from the Dominican Convent in Sparkill are here with us to share our pain and our mission in combating violent acts of hate with loving acts of kindness. Our Rockland Human Rights Commissioner Constance Frazier is with us today to share our outrage and determination not to let our community be home to those who target the weak, the aged, the young, those of a particular religion, gender, race, sexual identity or political persuasion.
If you don’t know me by now, I bear partial responsibility for not knowing you, for not introducing myself and giving you the chance to know me and what I value.
If you don’t know me by now, let me share with you that my faith commands me to love my neighbor and my tradition teaches me that I cannot love whom I do not know. In the days ahead may we come to know one another, so that our love for one another and for our neighborhoods, communities and country will truly come to be stronger than the hatred that seeks to tear us apart.
I can go to the polls this Tuesday and vote according to my values and who I am, but that is not going to change my relationship with you. And so I beg of you—as we leave here today and as we head to the polls in the week ahead to elect those with the power to shape our communities on a policy level—to knock on a neighbor’s door this week, to make an introduction, to maybe even extend an invitation, so that we may know one another again.
Earlier this evening, more than two hundred people gathered at the Allison-Parris County Office Building in New City to speak out against the rise in hateful action and rhetoric. After the terror of Neo-Nazi white supremacists spewing anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic speech in Charlottesville, VA, Rockland Pride Center joined forces with the Jewish and African American communities to stand up for acceptance and understanding. You can read more on Facebook and watch a video of the rally at Unite the Fight, #UnitethefightRockland.
I share with you here, in part, my words in the hope that it will motivate all of us to take action in some large or small way, every day.
When I was a kid of twelve or thirteen, some of my friends got into a big fight, choosing up sides and being mean to each other. I remember growing so tired of the whole situation and complaining to my dad, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”
My dad answered, “Tough. You have to deal with it… because they are your friends and they matter.”
I’ve gotten a little bit older since then, and my circle of concern has gotten a bit broader. Today, not just my friends and family matter. All people, because we are all created in God’s image, matter. But some days, I really want to say, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”
That’s when I hear my dad’s voice reminding me: You have to deal with it, because people matter.
We have gathered on an auspicious day, the first day of the new month of Elul, when Jewish people look forward to the New Year and attempt to return to our best selves in a process called teshuva, repentance. We cannot do it all at once. But each of us can effect change one degree at a time.
This hopeful thought can allow us to say, “If we are able to change ourselves by one degree, then all of us together can change the direction of our country with that same one degree of change.
Consider the fact that we all showed up here in New City today. Instead of turning on our neighbors, instead of finding differences, we are committed to identifying all that brings us together.
We have gathered for freedom, democracy, and our trust in justice. This week in the Torah portion we read: צדק צדק תרדוף
Justice, justice you shall pursue. The way that we pursue justice now is by rallying together and uniting the fight.
When Brooke Malloy, Executive Director of the Rockland Pride Center, asked me to speak tonight, she suggested that I share how the Jewish community is feeling now after the events of Charlottesville a week and a half ago. I can’t speak for the Jewish community as a whole, but I can tell you how I am feeling. My response is encapsulated in the story of the president of the Charlottesville synagogue who stood on the front porch with two hired guards while white supremacists and neo-Nazis walked by shouting, “There’s the synagogue. Let’s burn it down!” and “Jews will not replace us!” As a congregational rabbi, nothing steals my breath as much as the fact that fifty people inside, finishing their Shabbat morning prayers, were told to sneak out the back door of their synagogue for their safety. In the United States of America.
As I thought about what Brooke asked me to do here, however, I realized that sharing my story is only the beginning. My work against hate must continue by asking questions instead of telling. What does this violence and hatred mean to you as a gay person? As an African-American? an Hispanic or Asian or a person who came from Haiti or Dominican Republic?
Our task is to prove that love truly is stronger than hatred despite the evidence of the past weeks. Love arises from knowing the other. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing God to remake me in His.”
Let me return to the idea of one degree of change. As Rabbi Scheff taught in his sermon this past Shabbat, we could create change if all of us dedicate ourselves to get to know one new person every day, a person we do not know, a person who might look different from us. Try looking someone in the eyes who is in your office or in your class or at the store where you shop… someone you have never spoken with before. Say hello. Tell them who you are. Ask them who they are. And let us change the world together one degree at a time.
Because love is stronger than hate.
With prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill