“It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” We’ve thought about these words from Rabbi Tarfon in chapter two of Pirkei Avot (ethics of our fathers) a lot in the past few years. As racism, anti-Semitism, and government-sanctioned bigotry become the norm, we ask ourselves, “What can we really do? How can we even start fixing this broken world?”
As Jews, we are taught to create a community that is welcoming to all. In the Torah, it is mentioned more than thirty times to love the stranger and treat them with respect. We are implored by G-d, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” (justice, justice shall you pursue, Deut. 16:20). After the atrocities of the Shoah and the deaths of over 11,000,000 people, we are obliged to act to make sure that something like the Holocaust never happens again.
But how do we pursue justice? How do we welcome the stranger? How do we stop the continued persecution of all oppressed and marginalized groups?
This Saturday, August 12, neo-Nazis from the National Socialist Movement, neo-Confederates from the League of the South, and white nationalists will come together for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville has been the focus of a vitriolic attack from the alt-right ever since the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove a statue of terrorist Robert E. Lee from a city park in April.
Jews can help. Congregate Charlottesville, a local interfaith group that includes the Charlottesville synagogue, has issued a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to show up to protest the white supremacist rally.
Ignoring racism and oppression doesn’t make it go away; remaining silent because it isn’t directly affecting you at this moment doesn’t mean it isn’t pervasive. If you disagree with the alt-right, but you don’t voice your disagreements out loud, and you don’t do something about it, you are giving the alt-right the room it needs to flourish. You are giving the alt-right the time it needs to turn its ideas into sentiments that go unchallenged, that are accepted in everyday conversation and in public discourse. In not saying anything, you are part of the problem. But it’s easy to become part of the solution.
Taking action didn’t start or end with the Women’s March. Join Congregate Charlottesville on August 12, and if you can’t be in Charlottesville, get active in your hometown. Find out about groups that are organizing for social justice in your community and get involved. Ask your synagogue to become a sanctuary for immigrants facing deportation. There is still work to be done and this isn’t the end. We may not finish the job, but we must not – we cannot – desist.
Talya is an educator in Boston. She is active in the Moishe Kavod House.
Esther lives in North Carolina where she runs a radical beit midrash and is a member of IfNotNow.