This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Shabbat Hagadol services on Friday, April 7, 2017. We encourage you to respond with comments or questions below, and to share if you wish to raise awareness in the community.
In recent weeks, many of you have asked Rabbi Caruso or myself what exactly we are doing raising our voices to speak out against the deal proposing to spend hundreds of millions of community dollars to renovate the Quicken Loans Arena. People began this winter by asking us, among the leadership team of Greater Cleveland Congregations, “Are you against the Cavs?” The answer is no, we are fine with the NBA champions Cavalier basketball team playing in an upgraded basketball arena. What GCC is unhappy with are the terms of the deal and the way in which our leaders have shown no attention, through the negotiations to reach this deal, to the struggles being faced in neighborhoods around Cleveland.
People have asked us why we have spoken out in public rather than privately negotiate with community or team leaders. The answer is, “we did speak to county and public leaders and the Cavs, and when the deal was announced this December, we approached community leaders again, asking them to take into consideration the hardships being faced in neighborhoods all around Cleveland. We, your rabbis, together with the other pastors and community leaders in the GCC, asked leaders, in addition to renovating the Q, to bring much needed development into distressed neighborhoods beyond the confines of the districts immediately around our Cleveland sports stadiums, courts and fields.
They said they’d “get back” to us. They said to just give them “one more week. They said, “let us consult with our team” and then they said nothing, and proceeded to do nothing to follow through on the commitment to work with us for both the Q to gain its renovation and the entirety of Cleveland to benefit.
What has arisen since is a bit of a ruckus between GCC, our county, the City of Cleveland and Cavs leadership. It has all reminded me of the back and forth we speak of around our Passover Sederim. Think about the exodus story for a moment. In it are the featured faith leaders of the Torah, commissioned with holy intention and undergirded by prophetic purpose. They demonstrate in private and then in public to the powers that be. They try to convey to leaders in Egypt that beyond the fancy structures built in Egypt, that there is oppressive pain being wrought on the population in and around Egypt.
The story we tell during Passover is a retelling of the call to public leadership in ancient Egypt. Moses and Aaron, backed by their community, tell Egyptian powers-that-be to no longer deny the oppression and heartache that existed in their midst. In our observance of the Passover holiday we symbolically travel a journey from degradation to glory. We remind our people, harrowed by our history, that those who are hurting can ultimately escape beleaguered conditions.
In that spirit, the volunteer leaders and members of GCC had been engaged in listening campaigns for a couple of years now, first with 1500 men and women in our county about the joblessness situation in Cleveland. Then this fall we spoke to 5,000 people in an active listening and canvassing campaign on doorsteps and porches of homes around Cleveland, and there our GCC volunteers learned so much. Canvassers in Cleveland neighborhoods heard from their neighbors how degraded they have felt about the state of criminal justice, education, and lack of investment in projects that would combat blight, violence, addiction and improvement in community mental health.
So please hear this. When you see community rabbis and pastors speak out regarding the Q deal, know that what we are doing is not against the Cavs. It is the follow-thru on our commitment as faith leaders to raise our voice for the voiceless. We are striving to speak up for the many disenfranchised individuals and families we have met in neighborhoods, in schools, and in distressed areas all over Cleveland. We have heard people in despair, and are acting on their burning desire to say what Moses is commissioned to say to Egypt’s leaders in his age. Our message is an echo of the four words that even the children in our early childhood center associate with Passover, the words ‘let my people go.’ Let my people go. Let them go, from degradation to dignity. Let them go, from a sense of being invisible, to a sense of being seen and known and understood and responded to in their community.
In January, Rabbi Caruso and Pastor Richard Gibson published an op-ed in the paper showing how scriptural teachings compel each of us to realize a high moral position. They wrote that our prophet’s teachings “charge us to call out inequity, benign or intentional neglect, and imprudence from the very leaders who are tasked to act responsibly for the citizens they represent.” I remind you of this tonight because I want you to realize, that the noise and disruption you are hearing as GCC campaigns against the current deal, is really a calling-out of leaders to morality, to attention, to prudence, to responsibility, representation, to a sacred trust. As Rabbi Caruso and Pastor Gibson reminded us, we are called to reflect on the words of the prophet, Haggai, who said:
“Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways!” “You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.” Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways!”
– Haggai 1: 4-7
Consider your ways. What are we really doing? In what ways are any of us making sure that others around us receive attention and care ? What are we doing to deliver that attention to the neglected parts of Cleveland. I think the prophet Haggai is also encouraging us to consider what would it look like and sound like if all of us made sure that all human beings in our midst, all over Cleveland, were kept satisfied, fed, dignified, held and protected?
This is hard work. But it is what Jewish tradition demands. This final Sabbath before Passover, Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath, is one that begs us to ready ourselves, to clear the Chametz, the vanities and puffed-up individual ideals of self-importance that can get in the way of our thinking clearly and acting properly. During the preparation for Passover, we are to destroy the chametz, to get those things and get them out of the way so that the Passover experience of not owning or even holding onto let alone consuming and sharing chametz is something we don’t just talk about. It is something we make sure we achieve.
And it is hard work. But it is work that is valuable, work that is of spiritual meaning to be sur. Yet it is not meant that denying ourselves leavened products, eating the bread of affliction intentionally is going to be a simple pleasure. No, it is about being disruptive to the daily way we do business and consume on this planet. It is about standing up and being different in view and in practice than others, and declaring that you are different from others, or that you are willing to say “no way” when others are offering either their assent or worse, their indifference.
That my friends is what motivates GCC, the coalition of synagogues, churches and mosques, to rise up in this time where most of our public county and soon-city leadership are fast-tracking this deal to passage. The majorities of elected leaders of these communal leadership bodies in our county and city are willing, it seems to me, to act indifferently.
–They are asking permission to pass over the joblessness and addiction and mental health concerns touching the neighborhood around our synagogue’s former home on Euclid Avenue. The area around our old spiritual home has very little meaningful development of business, jobs or programs to help its neighbors.
–They are asking us to assent to their passing over the blighted homes in many Cleveland neighborhoods, places such as 93rd and Kinsman where a fourteen year old young woman named Alianna DeFreeze was abducted earlier this year and then taken to a blighted home not far from her own, by a man intent on assaulting and then killing her.
–They are certainly “passing over” the Governor’s office in Columbus, where it is clear that in just a few weeks, severe budget cuts will be announced, cuts that will further strangle projects that invest in our most distressed areas.
All of this passing over is supposed to be worth it because in about 10 years, the basketball team we support, may, you’ll forgive my pun, act so cavalier as to walk away from Cleveland.
Really? Are Cleveland’s rabbis and pastors, each approaching precious holy days, all just supposed to pass over the concerns we have come to share, the heartache that GCC volunteers discovered in talking with thousands of Clevelanders, just for the sake of not displeasing the ownership of one of our sports teams, enough that in a decade, they will not walk away from Cleveland?
Surely some in the Jewish community say, yes, “step aside.” I can respect that others, perhaps some of you here tonight, hold a different point of view than I do. I can see that by GCC stepping aside, you could see some short term gains for business entities and construction workers in Cleveland. Some feel that such short-term gains of the deal are beneficial enough that we should overlook the long-term concerns of a city as loaded with as much conflict, poverty, and distress as Cleveland.
Others are simply bothered by hearing the clash of voices at city and county council meetings. You are seeing the strong coalition that is GCC standing out with a prophetic voice against this deal. The deal itself is not simple, and it can be confusing. But one thing that I don’t respect in all the debate that has thus far and that may still continue is this.
When GCC assembled twice in the last month, once in Slavic Village at the Elizabeth Baptist Church and a second time on a bus trip to Detroit to stand outside Quicken Loans headquarters in civil protest, in each of those cases, our keynote speaker was a woman named Doneesha Cooper.
You may or may not recognize Doneesha’s name, but you will in a moment. Doneesha is the mother of Aliana DeFreeze, assaulted and killed in a troubled neighborhood in Cleveland this fall. These were the first two times this bereaved mother was ever raising her voice to demand something better for her neighborhood than the idea that funds spent down by the Q will trickle her way. She was dignified and caring and respectful in each of her comments, and we applauded her and asked for our public leaders to hear her with careful consideration.
But not once, not once in these recent weeks, has anyone from the county, the city, or the organization proposing this deal, called us at GCC to ask about Mrs. Cooper. They know we have been a source of solace to her. But not once have those proposing this deal contacted us to say, “We disagree with your approach to our renovation of the Q. But what can we do right now, to help this grieving, despairing mother and others like her?
On this Shabbat Hagadol, this sacred Sabbath before Passover, I want you to keep Mrs. Cooper in your prayers. On this this awesome Shabbat, I want you to know that it is the fact that I have heard dead silence from leaders of the county and city about ways in which they would like to help or work with Mrs. Cooper, that prompts me to redouble my personal volunteer efforts. As a faith leader in this part of Ohio, I may or may not win this debate. But I see the Q renovation deal as proposed as highly flawed. And I would like the public record to reflect that when it came time to make this misguided deal, there was dissent.
On Shabbat Hagadol, we read the prophet Malachi’s words, intended to inspire and provoke us to action. In the teachings of Malachi we read:
Behold, I am sending you Elijah the Prophet, before the coming of that great and awesome day of God- a day that is hagadol v’hanora – that you may turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, lest destruction smite your land. (Malachi 3:23-24)
These powerful words tell us that a great day is coming, the day of the prophet Elijah’s arrival is near. You will, I hope around your Seder tables for Passover, at the very least, open the door for Elijah. But what Malachi teaches us is not that opening the door for Elijah is not just to be “kind” and “hospitable.” It’s not just a gesture or a ritual we should do by wrote. Rather we get ourselves to commune with Elijah for nothing less than to guard against God cursing our communities with destruction. Parents and children, people of all generations, those who agree and those who disagree and those who agree to disagree about so many issues and conflicts facing our city, community, county, state, nation and world, we are commanded here to come together, to share concerns, to open our hearts, and make this Passover one that is gadol (great) and Nora (filled with awe and reverence for God’s will.
Michael Walzer, American Political theorist, ethicist and author writes:
Oppression, deliverance, Sinai and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the political world. The “door of hope” is still open; things are not what they might be- even when that they might be isn’t totally different from what they are…[but] We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibilities of politics and about its proper form:
-first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
-second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
-and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together, and marching.
I pray we will get to a more promised land. I pray tonight for a new deal, a better deal to emerge. I pray for assistance and investment and hope to be directed to more than just one district of our city. I am not asking you to agree. But I am hoping you’ll understand and see why these teachings are so compelling tonight, in this moment before this Passover. I hope you do.
The city of Cleveland seems poised to pass this proposed deal on Monday night, April 17. Will you consider helping me to show Cleveland leaders that there is dissent. At the least, perhaps you might find it in you to step forward to acknowledge that Cleveland’s problems make many of its residents feel that they are eternally in Egypt, and that the only way to get out from the status quo is to join together and march together.
As Passover begins, let us rejoice in the freedom we have to take action and speak our minds, to cause a ruckus when it is warranted, to stop a collision when we see it coming, and to do what we have to do, unified across all lines of diversity to make of our community a better world, a promised land, the land in which we live, The Land, Cleve Land, Amen.