March 29, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Rosh Hashanah, 2020.
The late U.S. Congressman John Lewis once said: “You have to tell the whole truth, the good, the bad, and maybe some things that are uncomfortable for some people.” I can hardly think of words more relevant to this season of repentance. We say: B’Rosh Hashanah Yikatevun, on Rosh Hashanah, our deeds, words and truths are recorded and examined by God: the good, the bad and the uncomfortable.
A story. An uncomfortable story. When I was a teenager, nearly all the adults I knew told me that to be safe, I should stay close to the cushy suburb where I lived. Stay in your own lane, they’d say. Don’t take chances. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with my hometown Detroit. But the border I was warned not to cross was Eight Mile Rd. The adults around me warned me not to stop for gas or directions or anything across Eight Mile.
If my dad was sharing driving instructions after leaving Tiger Stadium, he’d say to go right to the Lodge Freeway or risk getting lost in the dark. I never asked if he was referring to the city’s darkened streets or the race of most of its citizens. I didn’t want to know. For well-meaning people you love don’t warn you they are about to perpetuate racism. “Don’t get lost in the dark” meant, as a white young man, I should stay on the side of Eight Mile where there aren’t so many black young men.
We Jews are supposed to know better. That pernicious idea, that the birth rate of a minority population is too high - is what ghettoized us in Europe. That fear was a rallying cry for white supremacists marching in 2017 Charlottesville, chanting “Jews” will not replace us to stoke the fear of a threatening “other.”
It’s not new. As far back as Torah, when a new Pharaoh took over Egypt, all he had to say to get his people to brutalize Israelites was “Look at those people, there are too many of them.” The Hebrew passage continues with him saying Hava Nitchachmah Lo. Let us deal wisely with them.” Now I know he meant this as a euphemism for plotting against the Israelites. But when I apply this phrase to our modern day, I want to cry out for wisdom to contend with the racism systemically embedded in American life. Hava Nitchachmah Lo. If only since I was a teenager, we’d responded with wisdom and dismantled racial inequities, can you imagine the progress we’d have made? Hava Nitchachmah Lo. If only the Jewish community used our power wisely, even looking to our own population to see a growing number of Jews of color, how might we have seen teaching anti-racism and defeating white supremacy as central to our mission?
I remember as a teenager going with my rabbi downtown to deliver provisions to homeless people sheltering from the winter cold. It was a youth group program and I went in Rabbi Schwartz’s car and confided to him that I was nervous to enter the city limits at night. He listened carefully, and then instructed me to grab a newspaper from the backseat to read the stories and scrutinize: “Who was reportedly in harm’s way? What were the stories and where did they take place?”
All Rabbi Schwartz made me do was read the paper. But a single day’s worth of news revealed an uncomfortable truth. It was this: the safe side of Eight Mile Road was only safe if you were white. In the domains of education, law enforcement, health care or employment, the structures in place where I lived favored white persons and diminished those who were black. In other words, black young men were more in danger where I lived than I was where they lived. Can you believe I was 16 years old before I learned that people were being detained or arrested on our side of Eight Mile just for driving while black or walking while black?!
Hava Nitchachma Lo! None of the stories I read were famous. There wasn’t the manifest rage on display like when an unarmed Ahmaud Arbery was shot this past February in the light of a Georgia afternoon for jogging in the wrong part of town. Nor was there tragic footage like this May when we saw Minneapolis police personnel choking to death an already subdued George Floyd begging for his life.
These were run of the mill stories that each told uncomfortable truths about the segregation woven into my hometown. One was about Detroit teachers failing to get students to meet minimum graduation standards. Another was about a black man working at a rural factory receiving death threats for dating a white woman. There was also a story in that paper of an arrest outside the mall near my dad’s pharmacy. It was a wrongful arrest of a young black student at a nearby community college, but to get to the admission of the police error you had to go to page 7. Each story was written by a white reporter on my side of Eight Mile, a border that has its analog in East Cleveland, South Central LA, and most major cities, and its been that way for decades.
In Chicago in 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hosted a conference on Religion and Race. King wanted to enlist more people of faith in the civil rights movement he led. A Jewish scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, came to that conference and it was there that the two met for the first time. He was very much taken with Rabbi Heschel and was moved at how Rabbi Heschel, born 22 years before him in Warsaw, deferred to the wisdom and leadership of the young minister from Atlanta. At the conference, Rabbi Heschel, who had escaped Europe before the Holocaust begged Americans to see their own complicity in the muck of an insidious racist system, admonishing them to stop being “apologetic, cautious [or] timid” when seeing their situation next to their black neighbors. He said: “The Negro’s plight, the blighted areas in the large cities, are they not the fruit of our sins? By negligence and silence, we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge [and] to chastise.”
Friends, it has been 57 years since Heschel spoke those words that captivated Dr. King. There has been plenty of time for people of goodwill to stand up to fulfill the vision King and Heschel shared. But watching what has unfolded in the U.S. in only the last year, I feel indicted on the charges Heschel leveled in 1963. By negligence and too much silence, we have failed to demand, to insist, to chastise and to challenge the status quo to make clear the precious worth of each and every black life in our nation.
That feeling that we have not done enough is what drew your entire Fairmount Temple clergy team to a demonstration this spring against racial injustice. It was held down the street from temple and it was organized by Beachwood teen leaders, including two of our temple members Elizabeth Metz and Gabe Stern.
During the rally, Liz, who is a member of our temple that is also black, called on fellow teenagers to knock over structural racism. She cited derogatory terms shouted at Beachwood High School’s black football players and being victimized herself by ugly racial slurs. She said: “There is a problem in America, and for so long inequality and racism have run parallel to the Constitution. It is now our duty to support the rights…that were written to fight for us.” (“More than 1000 March at Rally for Racial Justice in Beachwood,” June 15, 2020, Jane Kaufman in Cleveland Jewish News)
I was inspired as Elizabeth Metz called out hypocrisy and privilege and demanded a non-violent protest. She acknowledged positive interactions she has with law enforcement authorities while still advocating for consequences for those who abuse their power. Since that local rally, I keep asking myself, what can I do to follow her lead? How can I stop perpetuating racism?
Judaism tells me right here and now today the first thing I can do: I can repent! Rabbi Heschel taught that repentance, known in Hebrew as teshuvah is “more than contrition and remorse for sins and for harms done. Repentance means a new insight, a new spirit. It also means a course of action.” The course of action I am taking is to search my soul for the racist ideas, attitudes and practices embedded in my heart and unearth these base instincts in order to destroy them.
This is not a comfortable thing to say. But this Rosh Hashanah I confess to you that at every stage of my life, I’ve benefited from a culture of supremacy of the white race in this nation. It’s true. Anyone looking at my life honestly would see how the white-privileged make-up of my suburban school system meant more resources would be invested in my education than in the schooling of black kids living across Eight Mile. When I was at Michigan State, no one crossed the street from me at night on the walking paths of our college campus, fearing I might hurt them. That was the experience of my black classmates! As an adult and up until today, I have lived in five major American cities, and I’ve never once perceived my safety to be in jeopardy when a police car pulled up behind me. I’ve never once been searched or padded down or treated aggressively by a store manager concerned that I might be a danger to fellow patrons. Have you?
Maybe you have. If you or a family member or a friend who is black has been damaged by racism here in Beachwood or even here in temple or in the Jewish community, I am truly sorry. We should know better. We in this community can and should be among the leaders in teaching anti-racism.
Although it is part of what repentance demands, it is hard to make restitution to those whom we have failed. But the least I can do as the leader of a Jewish institution is to acknowledge that white supremacy is both anathema to us and no stranger to us! For only if we confront racial injustice with honesty, can we turn from the ways that make Cleveland so deeply segregated and live out a path of racial equity in critical arenas such as education, law enforcement, health care, housing, employment and public leadership.
One would have to be blind not to see how, over the last six months, black Americans have been failed by leaders in protecting them during the pandemic. Data collected since March shows a continual rise of black Clevelanders dying from COVID-19 and they are not alone. The CDC has also demonstrated how in Washington, DC, black residents are less than 1/2 the population but they comprise 80% of the COVID-19 deaths! (“D.C.’s Black Residents Make Up Less Than Half the Population, 80% of COVID Deaths,” Jenny Gathright, May 11, 2020 on npr.org)
Now certainly a densely populated city like DC and the fact that many black citizens have essential jobs has adversely affected the population. But that doesn’t explain the same staggering trends in data from Milwaukee, where they represent 26% of the population but 70% of COVID-19 deaths!
Scholars trace troubling health care disparities between white and black Americans to a critical period just after our civil war. I remember memorizing for my middle school social studies class how the Reconstruction Era gave black Americans the opportunity to be freed from slavery and to have a voice in government and be elected to legislatures. My teachers explained how the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction Act lifted the U.S. out of the business of oppressing black people. It wasn’t until college coursework that I discovered how opponents of the integration of black slaves into society such as the Klan were able, in subsequent years, to restore structures of white supremacy that Reconstruction had intended to defeat.
I am embarrassed to admit, it was only this year that I learned why the health of black citizens was so adversely affected by Reconstruction. It’s because no one could profit from the labor of black bodies. You tell me: how much has changed? We have more incarcerated young black men today than were ever enslaved. Why? Might there be a profit? What a hideous and uncomfortable truth!
This summer, our partners in Greater Cleveland Congregations put a spotlight on another uncomfortable truth, the challenges for black Clevelanders in staying safe from COVID-19. GCC ran a study and found that when COVID-19 testing began in Cleveland pharmacies, nearly all of the locations for testing at CVS, Rite-Aid or Walgreens were located in suburbs. The pharmacies for testing were not easily accessible by bus. The majority of the pharmacy testing sites were far from black neighborhoods and had policies requiring anyone seeking a test be in a car when swabbed. GCC came out publicly against the structural racism of this approach to hold the drug store chains accountable. GCC sought out and received grants to do its own testing in the parking lots of GCC churches closest to minority neighborhoods where people should have an expectation that their pharmacies want them to be safe from a dangerous virus!
I am so proud that we are part of an entity galvanizing our power to build a healthier, more equitable and more just Greater Cleveland. For we in the Jewish community have something unique to contribute to the struggle in this nation to defeat racial injustice. Our heritage is abundantly clear that within every human being is God’s image. When we fail another human being by leaving in place punishing racial inequities, it is not enough to say we are sorry. The Torah commands us to follow through and love our neighbor, not just the one who lives closest to us. The prophet Isaiah demanded that we cross borders that might otherwise frighten us and extend ourselves to those who are in need, opening eyes that are blind and bringing hope to the imprisoned.
To love our neighbors, to open blind eyes, to dignify the lives of the incarcerated and those re-entering our society, this is a list of tangible actions Jews can stand up and fulfill in 5781. We can bring these prophetic Jewish values to the meetings of our city councils, to the deliberations of our school boards, and to the decisions rendered every day that affect the lives of persons of color by doctors, judges, police personnel, school superintendents and by leaders of our faith communities.
Let us learn from the life of Congressman Lewis to not just listen to uncomfortable truths but take action and respond to them and fight injustice wherever it lives. For this year racism was revealed as a raw and open wound. It’s been hard to see the wreckage of the abuses of racism destroying black lives. No wonder so many stay in their own lanes, don’t invest in black neighborhoods or patronize black-owned businesses. No wonder so many pay lip-service to anti-racism while telling their kids not to drive past their city’s version of Eight Mile. Our prayers today give voice to that feeling. In a moment, we’ll open the ark to admit ”eyn banu ma’asim,” our actions have not been enough.
But admitting our complicity is not the best we can do! Hava Nitchachma Lo! We can learn from the damage we have caused or that benefited us at another’s expense. We can make things right. With God’s help, we can make the New Year ahead the one when we tore racism from our souls and demanded of our penitent communities that a better day, a day where racial injustice is defeated, must dawn. Keyn Y’hi Ratzon. That day cannot come soon enough!
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