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Listening to our neighbors

06/04/2020 09:48:48 AM


This week, our attention has turned to the voices of our Black brothers and sisters who are calling for change in our society. And it is a good thing that their voices are in the spotlight because American society often ignores, downplays and dismisses the voices of minorities. More often than not, it’s not a conscious choice. The Implicit Association Test created by psychologists Greenwald, McGhee and Schwartz (1998) studies this very fact; how people can have biased racial preferences that can even be subconscious. This type of racism is not necessarily intentional, but something that is ingrained and institutionalized in our society. And thus, time and time again, Black Americans die by the hands of our criminal justice system, and American life continues. While we want to believe that our country and justice system are egalitarian, they’re not. They should be. They could be. But they aren’t. There are many men and women in our government and police forces who work hard to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods. They work hard and live by an inspirational and aspirational code of ethics. But there is something broken in the criminal justice system. There is a racial bias that is undermining the principles of our society.

As the voices of our Black neighbors are raised, it is important that we as a society are present to witness and listen. I am learning every day, and it is important to make room in our hearts for the experiences and testimonies of each other. We know as Jews how important it is to raise our voices to call attention to injustices with the hope that others will listen. Now, it is important for the Jewish community to listen. To be clear, listening doesn’t mean condoning looting and violence. Rather, it means stepping back from the impulse to solve others’ problems and recognizing that our experience of life can sometimes be privileged and different from that of others.

In Parshat Naso, our Torah relates the way a person who has wronged his neighbor can atone for his or her sin. An important part of the process is for the person to confess the wrong that was committed. “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done” (Numbers 5:6-7). The Hebrew words to confess one’s guilt is v’hitvadu and is written in reflexive mode, teaching us that in order to truly admit a wrong, the person must first confess to themselves that what they did was problematic, and only then can that person move on.

The current movement is a reaction to the death of George Floyd. But there are numerous other Black individuals who have died at the hands of racial bias in our country, some of whom we know by name, and many others who we don’t. This past Tuesday, I stood on the steps of our capital with a group of interfaith clergy listening to the testimonies of mothers who lost their sons to police violence. Their stories were only a sampling of many more, and the names of their sons were foreign to me.

Some voices in our Black community have implored others to read up on racism in America. To be honest, I have lagged in this department. I would love to provide a recommendation, but I myself can only rely on an internet search. So I implore you to do your own search, to seek your own experts, and to share those recommendations with me and with others. I personally will be starting with “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Additionally, you can read this article by my colleague and former Georgia and Alabama State House Representative, Reverend Anthony Allan Johnson, “What we in the Black community need from the Jews right now.

Other voices in our community ask us to rally, and to stand up for the lives of others. In an age of the pandemic, it is heartbreaking that a powerful way to stand up for some lives would put others at risk. As an organization, we have not encouraged participation in mass gatherings where social distancing may not be maintained, and instead are focusing on responding in ways that are consistent with our general policy on gatherings. If you do choose to go, please be careful. This Friday, Rabbi Heller will join other clergy and Atlanta officials to pray for peace for our nation, for our city, and for our community.  

In an age of the pandemic, it is a tough choice to choose to stand up for some lives, while putting other’s at risk through compromised social distancing. Still other voices ask us to sign petitions on or to donate to organizations like the NAACP or Campaign Zero who work to find policy solutions to end police violence in America. To heed any of these voices would be a step in the right direction.

Of course, the intersectionality of voices calling for change allows for a plethora of ways to take action, some of which I have philosophical differences with. However, it’s important that this doesn’t stop us from speaking out and standing up against injustice. 

There is much being asked during this time. There are many voices that have been raised and are in the spotlight. It is important that we listen and begin to move the needle.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784