A Difficult and Crucial Cheshbon Hanefesh

This message on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is from Rabbi Andi Berlin, guest rabbi, shared on Yom Kippur, 2020. 

On Yom Kippur, we are commanded to do some very difficult work: the work of Cheshbon Hanefesh – literally, an accounting of our soul. While all year long we want to be self-reflective, as evidence by the weekly prayers we say, Cheshbon Hanefesh is a much more intense version of taking stock of who we are, both on a conscious and subconscious level. We are meant to look deeply and sincerely into all the nooks and crannies of our psyche – purging what does not belong and increasing or adding that which should exist within us. This work is so important, in fact, that we have an entire month, the month of Elul which precedes Rosh Hashanah, to stare unblinkingly into the recesses of our soul. Yom Kippur is just the final day of this work, an entire day set aside to know the entirety of ourselves.

We all know that the reason we tap our chest for Al Chet, even when the sin is not one we may have actually committed, is because the whole community is responsible when transgressions exist within it. There is a sin, a violent, old, pervasive sin that has never left our society. Not only are we tangentially responsible for this sin, but if we truly do the work of Cheshbon Hanefesh, we will discover we are perpetrators of it.

As many of you know, I grew up in Shaker Heights. As you are all aware, Shaker can be an idyllic setting for a childhood, and because my family moved away when I was 14, Shaker exists as a sort of “Brigadoon”[1] for me…a magical place that has remained fixed in time, frozen in my memory. But, even as a child, I knew Shaker was not idyllic, that it could not exist separate from reality, unaffected by the harsh truths of the world around it.

My older brother, Ian, and I attended Moreland Elementary school, what is now the Shaker Heights Public Library. While in the early 20th Century the Moreland neighborhood was mostly Jewish, when Ian and I attended in the 1970s and early 80s, it was majority African American. In fact, this is what brought us to Moreland; we were part of a volunteer busing program called the “Shaker Plan” that was aimed at integration.

Growing up as a white[2] kid in a majority African American setting taught me hard lessons about race at a very early age.

If you walked across the long stretch of lawn in front of the school and dashed across Lee Rd, you could run into the pharmacy and blow your allowance on candy. It didn’t take me long to realize that Ian and I were the only kids not watched and trailed as we meandered the aisles. Teachers had the “talk” with us students. They warned us not to stand out, that if there was a group misbehaving and cops looked over, they would notice black[3] kids first. Perhaps this is why I was so aware of what was happening. But even the teachers could not avoid behaving this way.

My 3rd grade teacher had, what seemed to me at the time, thousands of books lining her shelves. I would dawdle when it was time for recess just to run my hands along the spines of these books, reading the titles and guessing at their contents. Sometimes, she would let me take one home with me and I would hide it from my siblings lest it got dirty or torn. I would beam with pride when she said, “You take such good care of the books.” That is, until it finally dawned on me that other kids had to return their books to the shelf when the school day was over. They did not get to take them home overnight.

When I became an adult and started the intensive practice of Cheshbon Hanefesh, it also occurred to me how odd it was that I was always in the top math and spelling groups. Anyone who knows me knows how much I still struggle with math and spelling. Thinking back, I realize the few white kids in my class were all in these top groups. I didn’t deserve to be in a top group, but my skin color bought my ticket.

Moreland was idyllic in other ways. We were in the middle of the “Black is Beautiful” renaissance. We learned about John S. Rock[4] and Angela Davis[5]. We sang “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”[6] and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”[7]. We celebrated Black art, history, poetry, and culture.

It may seem to make little sense how, in the middle of this racially aware school, I still benefited so much from white privilege. But it actually shows how white supremacy is so very much ingrained in the American subconscious.

Yes, I used the term “white supremacy”. In her book, Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad explains:

People often think that white supremacy is a term that is only used to describe far-right extremists and neo-Nazis. – – – In white-centered societies and communities, [white supremacy] is the dominant paradigm that forms the foundation from which norms, rules, and laws are created.[8]

Layla F. Saad’s book is meant as a journey for non-black, indigenous, and people of color. It is a journey in discovery of one’s own relationship to white supremacy. It is painful to think about how we have benefited from white supremacy, but to ignore it is to walk away from Cheshbon Hanefesh – to walk away from facing difficult truths about ourselves and our society.

There are not enough neo-Nazis and self-labeled white supremacists in this country to perpetuate the amount of individual and institutional racism that exists. Most perpetuation of white supremist policies and behavior is done by those who probably do not intend to do so. Which means we, all of us, are probably holding onto to subconscious or conscious beliefs that allow racism to grow in this country and to ignore this is to ignore the entire obligation of Yom Kippur – Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of our soul

I began working through the book over the summer thinking it was not truly meant for me – I am super-aware of racism, both conscious and subconscious, and how in functions in our society and in me. Well, I was in for a surprise. Working the book forced me to face some hard truths about myself, specifically as a white-Jew.

By the way, why do I say “white-Jew”? As we are all hopefully aware, Judaism is not a race. Jews are every color, shape, race, and nationality. One thing we can all do right now to be anti-racist is to stop saying that someone does or does not look Jewish. So, I use the term “white-Jew” to refer to Jews who are white – like me.

If you work through “Me and White Supremacy” as instructed, you will read and journal one chapter a day (they are very short chapters). The book is meant to take 40 days to complete. What I learned from this book would take 40 sermons to share. However, as a white Jew, there were two chapters in particular that had a profound effect on me. They are, “You and Exceptionalism”[9] and “You and Optical Allyship.”[10]

How often when someone speaks about this country’s treatment of African Americans, have you thought, “yeah, well it hasn’t been so great to the Jews either?” Or when people of color discuss how whites have mistreated them, you think, “But, I’m not white, I’m Jewish.”

While it is true that those who label themselves as White supremacists dislike Jews just as much African Americans, it is also true that white-Jews have benefited from white supremacy. Yes, it is dangerous to be Jewish in this country. This does not change the fact that white-Jews have been able to experience privileges because of our whiteness, even as we fight off anti-Semitism. Just like I was always placed in the highest math and spelling groups as a child, as a white person, I have a greater chance of getting a bank loan, buying a house, surviving childbirth, living through a police encounter, graduating high school, beating a criminal charge, earning a higher salary, inheriting inter-generational wealth, and not being eyed suspiciously when I walk down the street like my African Americans counterparts.

If, when discussing racism, we excuse ourselves from the problem because we, too, have been oppressed, we are practicing a form of “exceptionalism”. Though the chapter on exceptionalism concentrates mostly on whites who believe they do not have to look at themselves because somehow they have avoided all of the subtle and overt racist messaging in our country, this chapter spoke to me as a white-Jew who often resists being lumped in with other whites. However, as Ms. Saad explains:

If you believe you are exceptional, you will not do the work. If you do not do the work, you will continue to do harm, even if that is not your intention. You are not an exceptional white person, meaning you are not exempt from the conditioning of white supremacy, from the benefits of white privilege, and from the responsibility to keep doing this work for the rest of your life.[11]

Yes, Jews have disproportionately supported civil rights. We can be proud of the rabbis who marched with Dr. King and still show up time and again for racial justice. And yes, Jews have been and continue to be assaulted with hatred and violence. These are truths that lives alongside another truth – white-Jews still benefit and hold views from the racist beliefs and policies that pervade our country.

When we practice Cheshbon Hanefesh, truly staring at our own difficult beliefs, we will also realize that just because some people of color hold anti-Semitic views does not give us permission to ignore racism in ourselves and in our communities. By exempting ourselves from purging racism because we have seen anti-Semitism in parts of the African-American community, we are punishing all African-Americans and people of color for the beliefs of a few, and we are punishing ourselves by not looking into our souls as we Jews are required to do. We are also abandoning ourselves…Jews who do not pass for white. Racism affects Jews in this country, and unfortunately, in our synagogues!

Here’s the problem: if we do not do Cheshbon Hanefesh, this self-reflective work of looking at our own internal messages, then when we show up in spaces meant to advanced anti-Racism, we could cause more harm than good.

How many of us are guilty of posting our anger at aggression toward people of color on social media, but have not followed up by doing the hard work of being anti-Racist?

When reposting articles or statements of support for African Americans, how many of us have made sure to repost African American voices and voices of color?

Have any of us started groups, petitions, protest, or funds to respond to the pandemic of racism, without first researching what might already exist in the African American community?

When we show up as allies before doing the necessary self-reflective work, we are in danger of another phenomena Ms. Saad discuses; “optical allyship.”

In June, the social media site Instagram was filled with black squares. The effort was called Blackout Tuesday and was meant to show solidarity with black victims of police violence. But what ended up happening, was people shared their black squares with the hashtag BlackLivesMatter, or BLM. For those who are not familiar with social media algorithms, tagging BLM with blank screens flooded the BLM movement with BLANKNESS, in effect silencing the real voices of BLM. Organizers were not able to share vital information with the public because a search for BLM resulted in thousands of black squares, rather than announcements of how protestors could remain safe.

People were so eager to prove their allyship and thought they knew what was best for Black Lives Matter that they actually put black lives in jeopardy.

Before we broadcast our allyship, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing so in order to prove that we are anti-racist or if what we are doing is actually supporting the effort of those who are affected by racism.

According to Latham Thomas, as quoted by Ms. Saad, optical allyship is “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally,’ it makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress.”[12]

Real allyship requires staring at ourselves, staring at aspects that make us uncomfortable, embarrassed or defensive, it requires Cheshbon Hanefesh. Real allyship also requires action, it requires risk.  As Fredrick Douglass summarized, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”[13]

In a conversation with colleagues about anti-racist work, Rabbi Rebekah Stern[14] explained to us that one of the risks we could take is to “put our bodies on the line alongside those whose bodies are always on the line.” I had not been attending protests for fear of catching Covid-19. Hearing Rabbi Stern flush out Frederick Douglass’s statement in this concrete way was a punch in the gut. Couldn’t I put my body on the line to fight the very racism others of my race perpetuate?

For many of us, marching with a crowd right now may be too big a sacrifice. However, there are other risks we should not avoid. Naming biases at work and among our friendship groups. Fighting for economic justice even when it may hurt our own financial success. Ensuring wealthier school districts accept inter-district transfers so that more students have access to well-funded education. Calling out remarks we hear Jews making to each other, remarks that make our fellow Jews feel other. Supporting movements like Black Lives Matter even though in its past it may have held policies that offended us.

Today is the day for Cheshbon Hanefesh, taking account of our souls. While we should be introspective all year, on Yom Kippur we devote the entire day to it. Today, let us not beat our chest as optical proof of our contrition. Rather, let’s feel the tapping, tapping against our hearts and vow to stare inward, vow to take account of our own relationship to white supremacy, so we can truly ally and do our part in the struggle for justice…for everyone.

We encourage you to comment below or to share the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigadoon

[2] When writing about race, there is much debate about what should and should not be capitalized. I have chosen to follow journalistic standards and use lower case when describing race.

[3] See note #2

[4] John Stewart Rock (1825-1866) was an abolitionist, lawyer, dentist, and doctor. He is credited with coining the term “Black is Beautiful.”

[5] Angela Yvonne Davis (1944 -) is an activist, professor, and author. She was wrongfully prosecuted for capital felonies and jailed for a year.

[6] J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson

[7] James Brown

[8] Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy, (Illinois, 2020), 13

[9] Ibid, 67

[10] Ibid, 155

[11] Ibid, 71

[12] Ibid, 157

[13] Fredrick Douglas (1818-1895) was an orator, activist, suffragist, abolitionist, writer, and statesman.

[14] Beth El Congregation, Berkeley