Racism is big, but it is not bigger than all of us

Editor’s Note: This post is the ninth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.

By guestposter Yavilah McCoy

 

The Call to Action….

 “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost

My daughter spoke before a crowd of over 350 mostly White Jews who gathered in Brookline last evening to march, affirm and say together the simple slogan that has been sweeping our country: “Black Lives Matter.” My daughter, with tears in her eyes and a voice filled with emotion, shared what was at stake for her in a world where increasingly militarized police forces in our communities feel free to target unarmed people of color not just with guns but with deadly stereotypes and assumptions around what constitutes a criminal in our country.  She spoke of not wanting to continue being scared for her brother and father’s safety.  She talked about how much she worries about them walking home alone through the wealthy, White suburban communities of Boston that we live in to be in close proximity to other Orthodox Jews. As we have been asked, by the youth leaders of Ferguson, I stood behind by daughter last evening and supported the use of her voice.  I listened while my heart was breaking, to my child describe and decry the failure of our community and country to make a space where all our children can feel safe.  I felt proud, but I also felt a deep and compelling question emerging in my breast: What now?  Hadn’t I been working for most of her lifetime to open the doors and minds of our community to a broader consciousness of the multiracial and multicultural constitution of our membership? Hadn’t I surrounded her with role models of family, people and leaders, who lived justice with their lives and hearts, and that she could call “uncle” and “auntie” and mean it, whether she was related to them by blood or not?  Hadn’t I spent tireless hours working with the schools and institutions that she and her siblings navigate revealing the nuances of racism and providing tools for them to race forward and not backward in the way we educate and provide services to an increasingly diverse constituency of our people? More »

Jews Affirm That #BlackLivesMatter at #ChanukahAction in Brookline, MA

Editor’s Note: This post is the eighth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.
#BlackLivesMatter #ChanukahActionI spent the first night of Chanukah this year at Coolidge Corner in Brookline, MA. This was the Boston-area location for the multi-city #ChanukahAction: A Jewish Day of Action to End Police Violence event. I had a number of anxieties in advance, but it proved to be a powerful evening with moments of hope and inspiration.

My concerns began with a Facebook event wall littered with infighting that I feared would travel offline to the actual event. Could we focus on one issue, and keep the focus away from ourselves? Could we raise awareness in our own community without silencing and ignoring those who have already been marginalized? I had been to a protest organized by Black Lives Matter Boston in November, organized and led by people of color. I recognized why Jews needed to rally around the cause, but it was unclear how. Frankly, could we do this without damaging the larger movement?

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Marching for Racial Justice

Editor’s Note: This post is the seventh in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.

 

A little over a week ago, I was trying to make what felt like a huge decision. Several friends had invited me to the #EnoughIsEnough rally in Boston Common. I had never attended a rally with so many people, all over the country, behind it, and I also wondered if my presence and voice would truly make any difference. I had several discussions throughout the day about the pros and cons of attending. Etta, a colleague of mine, encouraged me to go in order to support those who are suffering from the injustices of the failure of the grand juries to indict Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s killers. As she said in a recent blog post, “In fifty years, we will look back on this moment. What will we see? How will we answer our children and grandchildren who ask about what we did to build a better future for them? Our predecessors have shown us that there are many ways to respond to the call for justice that is now resoundingly clear.” More »

Moses was a murderer.

Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.

Max Socol is an organizer and educator in North Carolina.

Moses was a murderer. How infrequently we speak of him that way. In its enormity, the decision to take the life of another person seems character-defining, yet the episode in Shemot when Moses, acting to defend an Israelite slave, kills an Egyptian slavedriver rarely comes to mind when I think of Israel’s greatest prophet.

As the turmoil over unchecked police brutality in American cities grows, I find myself confronting the raw edge of political nonviolence and political violence. I know I’m not alone. Even within the Jewish community, where so many of us (but not all of us, not by a long shot) are insulated from daily police harassment, those of us who are searching for a meaningful, moral role as allies in the struggle against racist oppression are met with competing demands that feel impossible to reconcile.

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Jew Attacked in Prayer in Brooklyn; NYPD Kills Assailant: First Reactions

The New York Daily News is reporting that at around 1:45am today, a man named Calvin Peters entered a synagogue at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and, yelling, “I want to kill the Jew”, stabbed Israeli student Levi Rosenviat, while the latter was praying.  NYPD officers surrounded him, got him to put down the knife, and when he then picked it up again, an officer shot him in the stomach, which proved fatal. This stand-off and killing were recorded on video.

I’m just  reading this story; it’s too fresh to process and there’s a lot we don’t know.  Initial reactions and questions: More »

Open Hillel’s Open Letter to Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut

Standards of Partnership turn Hillels from gateways to Jewish identity into discriminatory gatekeepers

Dear Mr. Fingerhut,

    In recent weeks, events at Hillel affiliates across the country have highlighted the inherent flaws of Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership (the “Standards”). The Standards, which you recently assured the Knesset are enforced “rigorously,” have been deployed to silence Jewish students and communities that oppose Israel’s occupation. Recent events at Princeton University and University of Michigan Ann Arbor demonstrate that the exclusionary Standards will not stop us, as Jewish students, from exercising our right to create politically pluralistic Jewish communities.  Recent events have shown that the “Standards” are not standards at all, but rather are deployed arbitrarily by Hillel staff to discriminate against and exclude Jewish students based on political ideology. More »

“Ad Matay?”

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson.

MaNishtana is an Orthodox Jewish blogger, author of “Thoughts From A Unicorn: 100% Black. 100% Jewish. 0% Safe” and “Fine, thanks. How are YOU, Jewish?”. He blogs at www.manishtana.net.

Before I get into the topics of Michael Brown or Eric Garner which have been dominating the news cycle these past couple of weeks, I’d like to discuss something entirely different first.

As the recent massacre in Yerushalayim two weeks ago have shown us, the world is experiencing an unprecedented spike in anti-Semitism, and I’d like to direct you to just some of the alarming amounts of incidents involving the mishandling of justice when it comes to Jews.

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A Lament for Eric Garner

x-posted to Justice in the City.

 Eric Garner is the unarmed 43 year old black man, who was killed by the NYPD in Staten Island in July. The whole incident was recorded. He was placed in a choke hold and can be heard saying 11 times: “I can’t breathe,” before he died. The officer who killed him was not indicted. The coroner had ruled it a murder.

________

Then the Lord God fashioned the human,

dust from the earth,

and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

and the human became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7)

I can’t breathe.

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

into that dust,

like a female impregnated by a male,

for they join and this dust is filled with all.

With whom? Spirits and souls. (Zohar 1:49)

I can’t breathe.

Dust from the earth,

this dust is the holy land

and it is the place of the Holy Temple.

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

this breath of life is the holy soul that is drawn from that supernal life. (Zohar 3:46)

I can’t breathe. More »

Fearless Judaism: on affirmative Jewish unity

In response to Naomi Adland’s incisive piece Fear, Fearlessness, and Forward Movement, we have started a series in which different writers articulate their visions for affirmative Judaisms.  We very much welcome your voice to the mix and invite you to submit entries to editor@jewschool.com

Fear. It’s what stops us from imagining and building a better world.  The deficit model of Judaism can no longer sustain itself.  Too long we have been comfortable articulating what we seek to avoid and escape, but the time has come to embrace a Judaism with the vision and audacity to be about something worth believing and embodying.

As we know all too well from the devastating events of last week in Ferguson, fear fuels a viciously unjust legal system which perpetuates the subjugation and silencing of countless Americans.  The subject of Ferguson merits its own treatment, and I look forward to hearing more progressive Jewish voices speak out against the systemic injustice and inequality.

Especially in light of the current news, part of me feels like writing about a fearless Judaism right now veers uncomfortably to the parochial. But upon further reflection, I am realizing that refining our own self-definition and collective visions will enable us both to grow internally and also to help others break from the shackles of their own limiting, stultifying, and potentially dangerous fears. For me, an affirmative Judaism has the drive and confidence to be proud and rooted in its particularism while also embracing vibrant difference and growth.

I was at the GA which Naomi describes in her post.  One talk which felt a bit different than the others was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ keynote plenary address. In it, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the imperative of Jewish unity and accountability for each other. What struck me about his language was the refreshing optimism and opportunity for forward movement which he offered.  I was especially excited because much of the  vision of Jewish unity he advocated resonated deeply with what I wrote for the Yom Kippur sermon I delivered at Anshei Chesed of Cape Cod this past season. Below, I will share an excerpt from my sermon:
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We Need to Oppose the “Jewish Nation-State” Bill

To call a state a democracy requires that the people choose their political representation and that the state protects a set of rights that everyone has access to. There are many frightening things about the so-called “Jewish Nation-State law”, which puts Israel’s Jewish character out in front of democracy by a long shot and we very well may see this bill become law. So far, the bill was already approved by the cabinet in a vote of 14-7, and was set to hit the Knesset floor this Week, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has postponed it until next week.

The bill, which is meant to become a Basic Law (the closest thing Israel has to a constitution), is scary because it emphasizes Jewish privilege under the law in Israel, for example pushing Jewish law into the secular court system and demoting Arabic from one of two official languages down to merely being the mother tongue of 20% of the population and the regional language.

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The Vampires

Note: This is next in our series of posts on visions of fearless Jewish future, inspired by Naomi Adland’s dispatch from the GA, which we ran last week. We’ll be running one every week, and we want to hear from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at editor@jewschool.com with “Guest post” in the subject line. 

 

Just now (it’s 6 am in Brooklyn), I woke abruptly from a dream that my MFA program was requiring us all to take a workshop in which we read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. As soon as one of the workshop members started reading from the novel, the faces of everyone in the room became ghoulish, sharp toothed, black eyed. Terrified, I ran out the door of the building and into the street, but as I ran, I thought, you’ll go back, you have to go back. And I did. I turned around and went back into the building, which I think was a church, and as it turned out, there was a small group of people gathered in the lobby who had also decided they could not be in the room with the vampires.

I have a history of anxiety dreams, and of solving problems, literary ones of my own making, in my sleep. I might have been worrying about writing this piece for this series when I dreamt about the vampires, because in the awake version of myself, it’s obvious what the dream was about.  It’s so obvious, it’s laughable: You are afraid, but you’ll go back. The vampires (self hate inflicted anti-Semitic imagery or result of watching too many horror movie trailers?) might be in the same building, but we can be in another room. They can’t have the whole structure. There are more of us than of them. We’ll get it all in the end. Maybe.

Here is where my painfully obvious dream parallels end.  Judaism, particularly the observant part of it, and I are not on the best of terms right now, we have not been for a while. I could not build an organizational strategic plan based on my vision of a fearless Jewish community, but I am one hundred percent on the fact that it includes an active ingathering of those who scare us. Those who pose those questions that we can’t and/or don’t want to answer, they get a big space at whatever the table of the future is. Let everyone in, without a political or religious litmus test, if we say we want to be there, even if we’re not sure where exactly “there” is, even if we’re not sure if we can figure it out together, but that’s fine. Certainty is not a need any longer.

The future table isn’t convened by Islamophobia, or racism, capitalism, homophobia, misogyny, or people who have spent all their time sharpening one relentlessly narrow vision of a Jew. Men who claim to have beautiful politics but can neither listen nor hear simply don’t get space anymore, because it turns out, we don’t owe it to them. In the fearless future, that shit is over, because we are calling people out, and we don’t have to worry about what that calling out will do to our livelihood. Risk, intellectual and political, will be a value, but maybe even more important than risk will be accountability and challenge and, maybe here’s the center of it all : not running away, and not becoming a room or an organization or a  building or a country full of panicked ghouls, powered by fear.

Fear, Fearlessness and Forward Movement: A Guest Post by Naomi Adland

Editor’s Note: Inspired by this guest post, we’re looking for submissions from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at editor@jewschool.com with “Guest post” in the subject line. Look for posts on this subject from the Editors starting next week! 

This is a guest post by Naomi Adland, a graduate student and Jewish professional living in Brooklyn, NY. 

Three years ago, I sat down to write a personal statement for my application to the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and poured out my heart in an essay about the importance of honoring and respecting the work of those who came before us, as those communal roots are the ones that support our future endeavors. This week I had the opportunity to attend the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America with my Wexner class – my first serious introduction to the world of Federation professionals and lay leaders, and a real chance to explore what it might look like to engage with an institution that has shaped what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora. And 45 minutes before I left the conference yesterday, I was still waiting for someone – anyone – to articulate a compelling vision for the Jewish future that wasn’t rooted in fear.

In its own words, the GA is meant to “inspire and engage current and emerging Jewish leaders, tackle the most critical issues of the day and showcase the best of the Federation movement.” Despite the inherent complexity of programming for a varied Jewish community, it seems to me that delivering a compelling narrative at the GA should not be so hard. After all, the work of the Federation is integral to the health and wellbeing of our community. The Federation funds some of our most vital programs and institutions – social services for a vast array of populations, summer camps, schools, synagogues and more. I have heard the Federation system explained as the government of the North American Jewish community, meaning the GA is a three-day State of the Union address – a chance to articulate a vision for the coming year.

I was surprised to discover that the overwhelming narrative at the GA was not one of communal successes and impact, but rather one of fear. Ostensibly, the theme of the GA was “the world is our backyard.” Meant to evoke the importance of collective action, the exhibition hall was decorated like a backyard replete with picnic tables and fake picket fences. However, the three plenaries I attended over the course of two days and in breakout sessions, meals, and discussions in the hallway, the theme of collective action was consistently couched in the vocabulary of crisis. Be afraid of the imminent fall of the State of Israel. Be afraid of the dwindling Jewish population. Be afraid of BDS on campus. Be afraid of anyone who disagrees with our narrative. Be afraid of change. Be afraid.

Fear was present in the words of Michael Siegal, Chairman of JFNA, when he said he was “concerned that we have reached a plateau with interfaith families. Being Jewish is very much a numbers game, and some of the numbers should be keeping us all up at night.” It was in Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of Israel to a survivor of domestic abuse, and it was in the words of the three young women, all campus leaders, who vocalized anxiety about being Jewish on campus while standing in front of a banner branded with a swastika underneath the words “Boycott Israel.”

Perhaps there are moments when it makes sense to turn to a narrative of fear. After the complex events of the summer’s war in Gaza, the tensions of the past few days in Jerusalem, and with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, it is understandable that our communal conversations touch on themes of conflict and survival. When we are concerned for our own safety, we tend to act swiftly and respond from a place of deep emotion.

Despite the recent indications to the contrary, the Jewish community is living in a context of unprecedented safety and opportunity in a larger number of places than ever before. In committing to a narrative of fear, we miss an opportunity to elevate what Judaism and the work of the Federation is actually about. In caring for an aging population, supporting Jewish education, and strengthening the global Jewish community, the Federation is living out deep Jewish values of justice rooted in the notion of b’tzelem elohim (that we are all created in the image of God), and creating and supporting communities of joy and vitality.

Arguing that “we must support the Federation because if we don’t, Judaism as we know it will disappear” assumes that Jews who support the Federation are incapable of recognizing the value of the sacred work the Federation system is doing, and makes it impossible for those who don’t already feel a connection to the community to create one. Rather than operate from a place of fear, the Federation should be fearless – articulating a vision for the coming years that includes not just the power of collective action as a defense strategy, but the power of collective action as a way to build relationships between disparate parts of the Jewish community, that engages with complex value questions in a serious, thoughtful fashion, and that roots the work of caring for members of our community in rich Jewish values and traditions. The Federation already has a powerful legacy and a compelling narrative. Why try and supplant that with a message that is so far off the mark?

#TBT Parashat Hayei Sarah: Hebron — City of Refuge, Where Violence Goes to Die

This Shabbat’s Torah portion is Hayei Sarah, which begins with Avraham’s purchase of land in Hebron to bury Sarah.  In contemporary Israel, it is also a weekend of  aggressive, nationalistic pilgrimage for the settler movement, in which hundreds of national-religious Jews converge on the Jewish-Israeli settlement in Hebron to flaunt Jewish national power and domination, and, of course, freedom of movement is further restricted for Palestinians.  In partnership with Project Hayei Sarah, an initiative of young Jewish activists keen on generating honest, communal conversations, rooted in Jewish text and tradition, about the situation in Hebron today, Jewschool has published Torah pieces reading Hebron in a different light. For this week’s Throwback Thursday, here is my devar torah from last year, Hebron — City of Refuge, Where Violence Goes to Die. For more Jewschool writing from the past several years about Hebron, click here.

Mitzvah Day 2.0 (on Walmart)

x-posted to Justice in the City

In many Jewish communities in the United States, Mitzvah Day is celebrated annually. Mitzvah (literally: commandment, colloquially: a good deed) Day is a day on which Jewish communities come together to perform all manner of community service. Atlanta’s mitzvah day announces that it contributed 570 hours of service by 190 volunteers at 10 project sites. At Temple Emmanuel in New York City people made totes for women undergoing chemotherapy, sandwiches and 300 meal bags to combat hunger, and baked fresh cookies which were packaged with organic milk boxes for children at the local day-care and after-school programs. In Los Angeles, (which seems to have been the originator of the concept) Mitzvah Day outgrew the Jewish community and was adopted by the whole city as Big Sunday.Nov 13 2014 Save the Date Flyer

All the Mitzvah Day projects seem to be well-intended and worthwhile (at least the ones I’ve seen). However, I want to suggest that the vision of Mitzvah Day is too narrow. There are some commandments which are not included in any Mitzvah Day or Big Sunday I’ve seen. These are the commandments to protest against injustice, and to treat workers fairly. Therefore, I would like to think that this Thursday, (November 13) in front of the Walmart in Pico-Rivera (Los Angeles County), will be Mitzvah Day 2.0. Workers, clergy, and community members will be protesting against Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers and demand that Walmart pay its employees at least $15 an hour, and that they have access to full time employment. More »

Sodomy on the Loose in Florida

by William Friedman

“This was the sin of your sister Sodom . . .”

If you’re familiar with the way the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is used in America nowadays, you’d probably complete this sentence by saying “homosexuality.” But the story, which we read this week in Parashat Vayera(Genesis 18:16-19:38), never clearly spells this out. Last week, when we read about Lot’s decision to live in Sedom (Hebrew for Sodom), the story was foreshadowed: “The people of Sedom did evil things and sinned greatly against the LORD” (Gen. 13:13). And this week we read: “The scream of Sedom and Amorah [Hebrew for Gomorrah] was great, and their sin extremely severe” (Gen. 18:20). But the Torah is pretty sparing with the details of their evil and the severity about their sins. More »

The Poor of Your [Eternally Undivided] City Come First

We don’t notice it here in the quiet neighborhood of Katamon. If it weren’t for my newsfeed and the sounds of firework-like explosions and helicopters I hear each night, I might not know anything out of the ordinary was happening in Jerusalem. I can’t honestly say I wish this were different. I invested so much emotional energy this summer in trying vainly to protect my children’s innocence as sirens wailed and rockets were mercifully blasted out of the sky. Now that Jerusalem is quiet, I’m incredibly grateful that my children have returned to their routines, their biggest anxieties caused by the mean girl in class and the upcoming math quiz. The last thing I want is for their blissful ignorance to be shattered again by violence. I get why so many people here just want to enjoy the renewed calm.

Except that things are not calm. Ever since the horrific killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir last June, the rioting throughout East Jerusalem has been nearly constant – so much so that it has become the background noise that many of us simply tune out. Until the internal violence explodes into our West Jerusalem world, we feel like it’s just not our problem.

But this is not just “their” problem. It is ours, and not only when “our” innocents are killed.

I’m sure Hamas and other groups bear much of the responsibility for inciting the current violence. I’m upset and angry about this, but there is little we can do to wipe out that influence at its source. What we can and must do is take responsibility for our own part in creating and perpetuating the increasingly bleak atmosphere of frustration, despair and hopelessness which has served as the breeding ground for the current unrest:

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Thanks, But No Thanks: A Response to “We Still Need Healing and We Still Need Each Other”

by Danya Lagos

I would like to thank Lizzie Busch for her thoughtful response piece to my post “Therapy and the Jewish Left” and for assuming in good faith that my intention in the piece was not, in fact, to drive a wedge between the personal and the political, as nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if we want to talk about the personal and its relation to the political, when I call for the Jewish Left to relegate its overblown therapeutics regimen to the sidelines in favor of immediate direct action, I speak precisely from my own vantage point as a Jew operating largely on the margins of the traditional sites of class, ethnic, and gender privilege within in the North American Jewish community that Busch suggests might have been missing from my analysis.

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In Response to “Therapy and the Jewish Left”: We Still Need Healing and We Still Need Each Other

by Lizzie Busch

Disclaimer: I am the daughter of a psychiatrist. I hope that this will not make me too biased in responding to Danya Lagos’ blog post “Therapy and the Jewish Left”.

When I initially read Lagos’ blog post, I reacted strongly against it. In large part, I was reacting to the basic feminist assertion that “the personal is political”. We cannot separate our political work from our personal feelings. Upon reading more carefully, I assume that Lagos wouldn’t disagree: their argument seems to be that the Jewish Left is focusing on trauma and care to the point that it becomes navel-gazing, and that navel-gazing is happening at the expense of true organizing and political work.

That may be true. My dad’s friend, the late psychiatrist Arnie Cooper, tells this joke:

Q: What’s the difference between the American Psychoanalytic Association and the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union?

A: Two generations. More »