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Juneteenth, Jews, and Joshua

06/19/2020 03:46:42 PM


Shabbat Shalom. Today is Juneteenth, the celebration of word reaching the last outpost of slavery that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. Although it is widely celebrated in Black communities, I and many white people were only vaguely aware of it until this year. Thanks to a combination of factors and the admirable work of Black leaders, there is a lot of talk about this day and what it means, what freedom means in this county, and how we can all better uplift true moments of liberation in this land. As Jews, we turn to Black Jews in particular to teach us about these issues, and I encourage you all to seek out the many articles that have been written by Black Jews this week, or around this day in recent years, published in the Jewish press.

            In the meantime, I’d like to share the statement our movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, issued a week ago about our values as Reform Jews in relation to this critical moment in our socio-political life as Americans.

Reform Statement on Black Lives

Throughout the past 400 years, Black people in America have been enslaved, subjugated, disenfranchised, murdered, and discriminated against. From generation to generation, white Americans, including white Jews, have failed to own and end the systemic racial injustices on which the nation was founded, and instead have actively or passively perpetuated these injustices.

Our Jewish tradition is replete with instances of moral reckoning when we are asked to be present and accounted for. “Ayecha?,” we are asked. “Where are you?” We respond with a full throated, “Hineinu.” “We are here.”

As Reform Jews committed to the spirit of this teaching, we say unequivocally, Black Lives Matter.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to commit to a human and civil rights movement, working to end systemic racism against Black people and white supremacy.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to recognize that we are a racially diverse Reform Jewish Movement, and that our diversity is a source of our strength.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is for white Reform Jews to pledge to be in solidarity with Black Jews and Black people from all backgrounds against racial injustice and to act accordingly.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to recognize the imperative to live with complexity and know that we can be steadfast in our love of and support for Israel while working side by side with those who hold differing views and express them respectfully.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to accept discomfort, knowing that actions or inaction of white Jews have contributed to ongoing racial injustice.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to move beyond allyship and commit to long-term solutions both internally in ourselves, our own organization, and externally in our communities to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to acknowledge that Black people risk their personal comfort and safety every day in white dominated institutions, and that white Jews must commit to risking their personal comfort and even safety in the struggle for racial justice.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to ensure that People of Color can be whole, never expected to choose between aspects of their identity and celebrate the multifaceted nature of humanity.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is to commit to individual and organizational antiracist trainings, identifying specific antiracist hiring practices and lay structures, and outlining goals around specific racial justice action steps.

To affirm that Black Lives Matter is for white Jews to reflect on their own thoughts and behavior, to build meaningful relationships with Jews of Color and People of Color generally, and to work for reforms that will achieve real, lived freedom for Black people.

We affirm that Black Lives Matter.


D'var Torah

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shelach-Lecha, in which we read about the spies Moses sends in to the Promised Land for pre-invasion reconnaissance. Ten of the spies come back with reports of terrifying giants and a reluctance to risk trying to conquer the land. Joshua and Caleb alone stand by their faith in God’s assistance and encourage going ahead with their plan to take the Promised Land. For this, Joshua and Caleb are rewarded and everyone else is condemned to die in the wilderness.

            There are many angles from which to be concerned about the way reward and punishment is meted out in this parasha, as we discussed in Thursday’s Torah study. However, I think the essence of the parasha is incredibly relevant for the current moment. When an opportunity arises to bring about great change and liberation, will we charge forth despite our fears, or will we cling to what we know, despite its pitfalls?

            For years, the podcast Judaism Unbound has been suggesting that we may be on the precipice of a change in Judaism as we know it akin to that which our ancestors experienced with the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE. Maybe (hopefully) not one as abrupt or violent, but with the demographic changes in communities, the increase of digital programming and online communities, and the immense access to information that was previously unimaginable to your average Jew in the Pew, the synagogue and membership model of Jewish community that has work for the last 70 years, and is based on a fairly natural evolution of the synagogue life of the previous thousand years or so, is becoming less and less relevant for large swaths of American Jews. Now with the pandemic and quarantine, we are seeing these trends that have been in development for roughly a decade accelerating and becoming undeniably clear for many. This is an hour of change – will we draw back or cross over, my siblings?

            Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement has been in the consciousness of some since its inception following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. It saw a spike in attention around 2014 and 2015 with the Ferguson Uprising and the lack of indictment against Officers Wilson and Pantaleo in the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in close succession. But it seems only now, with people out of work with more time to pay more attention to social issues beyond their own, people already agitated and ready to see the failures of society, are the calls for drastic change in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems becoming widespread across the country. The is an hour of change – will we draw back or cross over, my siblings.

            It hard to say what Jewish life will look like after the pandemic, but we cannot simply go back to what we were doing before. We will continue to build our online community and create innovative learning opportunities for anyone anywhere who wants to engage with our Jewish community, even when we return to some in-person gatherings.

            It is hard to say what community policing could look like with fewer weapons and more social resources, but the time is past due to restructure our communal priorities and evaluate how they are differently applied to different people and neighborhoods. We will continue to push for the lived experiences of our Black siblings to be heard and believed, and their leadership trusted when it comes to addressing these issues.

            The majority of Israelites gave in to their fear and lost their chance to be a part of something great and momentous. Let’s not do the same now. Please join me and many like me in planning and working toward a future that can be widely inclusive, radically just, and fueled by faith in something greater than ourselves. May we all be Joshuas and Calebs, seeing the risks in front of us and choosing to fight for what we believe in anyway. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  


Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781