Rabbi Penzner's Kol Nidre Sermont 5776: Do It Anyway: A Jewish Approach to Race and Racism Today

We began tonight’s service, even before the chanting of the Kol Nidre, with a disclaimer.

By the authority of the heavenly court

and by the authority of this earthly court

with the consent of the Everpresent

and with the consent of this congregation

we hereby declare it permissible

to pray with those who have transgressed.

This disclaimer speaks of our collective guilt in a spirit of all-encompassing love. Over and over, our liturgy proclaims

The Eternal, the Everpresent

Is a compassionate and gracious God,

Patient, abounding in devotion and truth,

Assuring steadfast chesed for a thousand generations

Forgiving transgression, iniquity and sin,

And granting pardon.

As I reflect tonight on the events of this past year, of the ways that violence has torn open the thin curtain that shielded white Americans from the experience of black Americans; as we ponder the inexplicable deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the good, pious, welcoming people of the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, the list tragically goes on and on; as we contemplate the small acts that each of us commits, often unwittingly, that perpetuate racism in our society, I know this:  talking about this is very, very difficult. For all of us. For some, the pain is personal, perpetual and yet invisible to outsiders. For others, the fear of being labeled a racist paralyzes us and in some ways, creates even further divides. Yet, we are lovingly permitted to pray together, lovingly welcomed as we assess our lives and assess the life of our bleeding country

Our task on Yom Kippur is to hold one another lovingly as each one of us faces our personal failures. As one sage put it, “We are not good despite our imperfections; it is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good.” This means that we are permitted to pray with one another not despite our sins, but because of them; because that is how we come to love each other. Who was the sage who spoke these words? Jay Smooth, New York deejay and video blogger (illdoctrine), Jay Smooth, author of the Ted Talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race,” Jay Smooth, son of a black father and white Jewish mother.

I hope that by the end of this Yom Kippur, we may not stop worrying and love discussing race, but we are all a little closer to having the conversation, so that we can recognize our imperfections and become a little better.

My experience may be somewhat like yours. I grew up in the suburbs in the Midwest, among white, Protestant families, where my parents, who were progressive Democrats, registered as Republicans because it was the only way they had any influence on who would govern our state. Where I protested the Christmas tree in the junior high library. Where the high school football team and cheerleaders and drill team were the stars of the pep rally every Friday afternoon. For all these reasons, I grew up thinking I was the one who was different.

But when I’m honest with my younger self, I know that there were others, people I judged because they were different too. The freaks and geeks, theater people and evangelicals and other weirdos. The world was much more diverse than the division I believed was simply between Christians and Jews.

My understanding of diversity expanded in college, where I was part of the founding of the campus Gay-Straight Alliance, a new universe to a Jewish girl from Kansas. Living on my own in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, I saw the rainbow of minorities in everyday life, and experienced the urban poverty that I had not witnessed before.

Yet is has taken me decades to understand that while I enjoyed and endured being different, as a Jew, I had benefited from being white. Despite my sense of being an outsider, I wanted what those suburban families had:  financial stability, power and acceptance.

In the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred a dramatic national conversation about race in America, and the many ways that race divides us.  The disparities between whites and blacks in America are glaring:  Disparities in the criminal justice system, with poor access to legal counsel, out-of-proportion incarceration rates and more police killings of unarmed blacks than unarmed whites. Disparities in wealth, with higher unemployment rates and lower median incomes among blacks. Disparities in access to health care, to doctors and to hospitals that result in more illness, poorer outcomes and a higher rate of infant mortality. Worse housing and educational opportunities, with more kids of color living with lead paint and suffering high levels of toxicity in their blood, and more kids of color in underperforming school districts. Why do so many of these disparities begin with poverty?  Poverty plays a role because racism was built into the systemic and institutional fabric from America’s founding. American racism has a particular historical flavor, steeped in the trauma of slavery, baked in the heat of Jim Crow, solidified in the 20th century division between white and black. Advantages that helped grow the middle class, like the GI Bill, bank loans, and job preferences, were denied to the African American community in the North as well as the South.

But racism is not confined to the poor; men and women who live in wealthy suburbs get pulled over for minor driving violations and are stopped by police while walking in a predominantly white neighborhood where they happen to live.  I know a middle-aged black woman whose car was struck from behind by another car filled with white youth. When the police arrived, they first spoke to the young white men, they approached her car, arrested her and took her to jail. In Dedham, Massachusetts.

Ta Nehisi-Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, was composed as a letter to his fifteen-year old son. He describes the experience of “living in a black body” that is so different from my own. It’s painful to read his story with its undercurrent of fear that, one day, one small mistake, letting out too much anger, moving a little too quickly, and he could wind up in prison. Or dead.

What makes it even more painful is realizing that my own safety, my own good health, my own comfortable neighborhood are in many ways a by-product of denying those essentials of the American dream to so many others. It’s hard for me, and many Jews I know, to imagine that we are racists. When I hear “racist” I think bigot. A person who says and does hateful things. Someone who is overtly offensive. I was brought up by people who loudly decried bigotry. But a racist need not be a bigot. As long as we believe that we have earned our place in society without acknowledging our role in propping up a racist system, we will continue to perpetuate it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said in the opening address at the first conference on Religion and Race in 1963, Some are guilty, but all are responsible.

Eric Goldstein’s book, The Price of Whiteness, documents how complex the race issue has become for Jews. For much of American history, up to the 20th century, race was a description that designated nationalities of immigrant populations:  the Irish race, the Italian race, the Jewish race. In the 20th century, the idea of race changed into the arbitrary distinction of skin color. There were simply two races: white and black.

Yet for Jews, this change has been full of ambiguities, if not downright discomfort. Throughout our history in America, we have sought acceptance. At the same time, we cling to our difference. Jews are uncomfortable being lumped in as “white,” even as we enjoy the privilege that such acceptance has brought us. Jews feel kinship with the underdog, the minority, the downtrodden. Yet it’s easy to imagine that our people’s economic success in America has come about by virtue of hard work and ingenuity.

Jews have prided ourselves on our role in the civil rights movement and the so-called historic black-Jewish alliance. Yet, African Americans did not experience our role as an alliance then, and they do not understand now our sense of being minorities or outsiders.

These tensions require our attention. Fifty years after joining the March on Selma, Jews need to face up to the disparity between our self-image and the image that black Americans have of Jews.

And even when we are aware, we might slip up from time to time. Though it’s embarrassing, or even disturbing, we can only learn and grow if we hear and accept that we’ve made a mistake.

Jay Smooth urges us to move the conversation away from “am I racist” and to focus on “did I do something racist.” In a comic analogy, he tells us “you think of being a clean person…. something you maintain and work on every day… when someone suggests that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth we don’t say, “what do you mean, I have something stuck in my teeth?  I’m a clean person!” 

Over and over in the Yom Kippur prayers, we ask God to remove our wrongs, mechay p’sha-einu. Rabbi Seth Reimer explains “this does not mean that we wish to deny the wrongs we have committed or pretend that they did not happen. Instead we are summoned to boldly confront ourselves and the effects of our deeds.”  When we tell ourselves, I’m not a racist, we let ourselves off the hook too easily. It’s only by facing our mistakes, small or large, that we truly do teshuva, and that gives us the opportunity to grow.

At the same time, when we look into the communal mirror, we will discover a wide variety of Jews among us. A study in 2004 showed that 20% of the six million American Jews are African-American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian, Sephardic, Mizrachi, or mixed race.  It’s time our Jewish communal images, in posters and books and videos, reflected that diversity, honoring the unique experience of all Jews, including experiences of racism and anti-semitism, and the potential for lack of acceptance in both communities. For instance.

A black Jewish college student described how people tell her she doesn’t look Jewish. Eventually they get used to it, but they refuse to believe that her younger brother, who is very dark skinned, is really Jewish.

A white Jewish student on campus told the Hillel advisor that she is uncomfortable identifying herself as a Jew, because others claim that it’s a way to mask her white privilege.

I hope that these stories disturb you, as they disturbed me. On this Kol Nidre night, when we examine the vows we have made, and failed to fulfill, I urge each of us to find a way to enter the conversation about race. I don’t want any of our children to deny our Jewishness just as I don’t want anyone to deny their identity. Let us use Jewish practice to look deeply into the society in which we live: to face the truths, to imagine how it might be different, and to work to change it.

I want to warn you. We will meet with failure. Whatever we do, it will not be enough. We will not eradicate racism. We will not end police brutality. We will not eliminate the inequity. The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice--but doesn’t guarantee it. In Jewish terms, Mashiach is not waiting around the corner.

We need to be prepared that these evils may not end in our lifetime, but our children can surely see glimpses of it. They have seen the victories for same-sex marriage and the end of DOMA. Like college students in the 60s who protested the War in Vietnam and who lived through the civil rights battles, young people today have seen our worldly dreams being deconstructed—shattered and rebuilt in new ways.

Unlike my upbringing, where there were simply Jews and Christians, black and white, for the next generation, there are no binaries. There are multiple identities, fluid gender identities, open borders between human beings of every race, ethnicity, religion and background.

Fluidity is the new truth, laying bare the lies we accepted out of naiveté. We tried to create comfortable, safe, prosperous homes and worlds for our children. We tried to open their minds to literature and culture, to push them to be critical thinkers. But we did it all within the safe, comfortable boundaries we sought to bequeath to them.

Our children already know differently. They know that the future is hardly secure. The vines and fig trees themselves are threatened. Climate change, the wealth gap, dislocation, and refugees are the new cultural norms. None of us are truly safe. Our children know all that. And, I find great wisdom in their idealism and their youthful enthusiasm. They want to be teachers and policy makers, organizer and agents of change, despite the fact that they know the limits. Though they are not romantics, they do it anyway. Do justice, act with love, walk humbly.

I was inspired by the youthful vision and vitality described by journalist and blogger Courtney Martin in her book, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists.  After telling the story of eight young activists, Martin provides a way forward, based on what she observed in these eight stories. Here are five teachings she shared from their lives.

1.      Acknowledge suffering

Start by simply being with the other, to feel their pain without trying to fix it.

Cultivate empathy. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Especially when talking to someone you disagree with, accept that they are imperfect and don’t hold that against them. Focus on their gifts. As Akaya Windwood wrote recently about Walter Scott, and the police officer who shot him, Michael Slager,

“The only answer I’ve been able to imagine is to focus on our collective kinship. What if Walter and Michael had recognized their (inevitable) common ancestor? What if they knew themselves as the cousins they most certainly are? What if Michael, in seeing Walter’s broken tail light had said to himself: “I need to pull my cousin over because I want him to be safe”? What if Walter, in seeing the lights in his rear view mirror had said: “Oh, there’s my uncle - he must want to see how I’m doing”? I can’t be certain, but I imagine that the scenario might have had a vastly different outcome.”
She concludes, “What if we refuse to see each other as anything other than the relatives we really are?”  

2.      Understand backward but live forward

Some people get stuck in the past—whether romanticizing or demonizing those who came before. But our future will inevitably look different from the past, and our current response to institutional racism has to fit our own times. Just as we rely on the lessons—for better and for worse—learned from activists of prior eras, we have the opportunity to shape the legacy that the next generation will carry and cherish and critique and build upon.

3.      Begin with self-awareness and continue in community

When the Israelite slaves left Egypt, they did not all come to realize Divine Power at the same time. After every miracle, some people remained fearful while others gained faith. But as each one was awakened to see beyond themselves, they became the Children of Israel, an empowered people, because their faith brought them together. We must build and nurture communities of awareness, and join in coalition with others if we are to have any hope of making change.

4.      Dream unreasonably but proceed strategically

Abraham. Sarah. Moses. Miriam. Joshua. Deborah. Isaiah. Micah. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Theodore Herzl. Our ancestors were people of vision. They were prophets and dreamers. But without Torah, without a plan of action, their vision would have died centuries ago. We have survived because of visionary and strategic leaders. Real change requires both.

5.      Cultivate impatience and endurance

This is the essence of Judaism, born out of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, tempered by destruction and exile, strengthened by an abiding belief in a future when the world will be repaired and justice will reign supreme. And it is a commitment shared by many people of faith. Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”                 

These form the bedrock of our faith in the future, our hope for change, our commitment to make a difference. These are the enduring values that have been passed on from one generation to the next. It will be up to them to craft their own vision and their own reality. But it is up to us to continue to try, as Courtney Martin says, “do it anyway.”

The place to start is to have the conversation. Keeping in mind that how we talk to each other is perhaps more important than what we say.

As Courtney Martin teaches us with honesty and with hope:

“If white people want to belong to the beloved community, if we want to be part of the tide that is turning thanks to people of color-led movements like #BlackLivesMatter, then we have to show up as bold and genuine and imperfect. We have to be weary of our fragility. We have to be intolerant of our own forgetfulness. If it feels difficult, and it does to me, you’re probably on the right track. Dismantling centuries of dehumanizing institutions and practices—both in the world and within ourselves—can’t be a simple process. The good news is that transforming your fragility into courageous imperfection is the beginning of a lot more joy. It’s the beginning of a lot more connection. It’s the beginning of the end of racism.”

For the small changes, we do it anyway.

For the quiet successes, we do it anyway.

For the sake of the future, we do it anyway.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Yom Kippur 5776

Posted on September 25, 2015 .