We can all feel the shift in race relations in our country. The brutal calmness of George Floyd’s murder, witnessed by the nation, and the ensuing actions of the Black community, supported by its allies, have created the opportunity for real change. Our society must seize that opportunity.
To that end, last night the Board committed TBI to increase its efforts toward an anti-racist Jewish community and an anti-racist America. To signify our commitment, the Board authorized TBI to sign the open letter at notfreetodesist.org. Please read the letter and associated FAQs to get an idea of the kinds of actions the Board expects TBI to take. While TBI cannot achieve all of the commitments in the letter because of our size and demographics, the FAQs make clear that is not a stumbling block. The Executive Committee believes the letter will be a powerful guide for our anti-racism efforts. And many, many Jewish organizations have signed the letter, so our small voice will be added to theirs and made stronger because of it. As part of the commitments in the letter, the Board approved the following public statement, which we will post on social media:
Black lives matter. We are committed to building an anti-racist Jewish community and an anti-racist America. We have engaged in some of this work before, but not enough. We are working internally on a plan to guide our increased efforts toward those goals. We must do this work because, as Rabbi Heschel teaches, in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible. We know it will take time, but as Rabbi Tarfon teaches, It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, nor are you free to desist from it.
Of course, making public statements is easy. Much harder is doing the work. Some of the work will be done in community, but much must be done individually. I approach my coming education with some fear, for all of us have biases and prejudices, be they explicit or implicit. But fear should not deter us from doing the work. As Marie Curie wrote: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Understanding requires listening, and listening is the first thing needed from white people now. Listening is an acknowledgement of the harms white people have caused, an education in the ways white people have caused them, and the first step on the long road to our ultimate destination: stopping those harms.
When a family sits Shiva after a death, visitors are expected to follow the family’s demeanor. If the family sits in silence, so do visitors, and when the family tells funny stories, the visitors respond in kind. At its essence, Shiva is an overt transfer of conversational power to the bereaved. The job of the community is to listen. Something akin to Shiva is needed from white people now.
I made my first public appearance before our congregation at the Sunday vigil following the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting, when both Rabbi Ruhi and Mindy, who was President at the time, were out of town. The sanctuary was overflowing. Recall how comforting it felt to be wrapped in the arms of the entire community—Blacks, Muslims, Christians, secular, LGBTQ. Recall our gratitude for true expressions of support, our skepticism of empty rhetoric. I remember thinking that, while antisemitism was on the march at the fringes, and while the fringes were becoming mainstreamed, it was a blessing that the police were protecting me, a blessing Jews have not had at many times in our history, and people of color don’t have now.
In my remarks there, I said: “Jews are not the perpetrators of antisemitism, and so can’t bring about its end it without the help of others.” And that is true of racism against people of color in our country. White people are responsible for that racism, so white people must be the ones to stop it.
White-privileged Jews can play an important role in allying not just with Jews of color, but with all people of color. We have a tradition impelling us to pursue justice. We have historical and more recent experience with antisemitism. We are sensitive to the ways a dominant culture can privilege the majority without the privileged even being aware of it. And each American Jew has recently felt the tangible fear of “It could have been me” when we are attacked simply for being Jewish.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that the experience of white Jews with antisemitism in America lets us know how people of color feel. The pervasiveness and violence of racism, both overt and systemic, is far beyond anything I have experienced during my life as a white Jew in America. But I am saying that white Jews may be better positioned than many white people to see that white privilege exists, to understand the ways white privilege causes harm, and to know that what people of color are saying about their harms is true, even if we as listeners haven’t experienced their truth. And so it is incumbent upon white Jews to listen to people of color, both Jews and non-Jews, to receive their message, and to help get their message delivered to the broader Jewish community and white America, so that real change can happen.
The Board looks forward to working with you to help end racism within the Jewish community and in America.