I was blessed to grow up in the small town of Bloomfield, Connecticut.
In my mind it was idyllic. In fact, in 1970, the year when I graduated from high school, it was designated an All-American city and was featured in Look magazine for creating a community in which blacks and whites lived so beautifully together. I rarely experienced racism or anti-Semitism. My classmates still marvel at the near perfection of our hometown back then.
We knew that there were parts of America that were broken. But we lived in a wonderful bubble of friendship and respect for all.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, of course I was distraught and confused. And so, I willingly added my voice to those who led me towards justice and equality; to share what we had created in my beloved Bloomfield. I believed that I could be part of making America a greater place for all. America could become more like my town.
When I was a teenager, my Judaism guided me toward the fight against racism. It was clear to me that Jewish teachings noticed the imperfections in the world and commanded me never to stand idly by. It demanded that I look beyond my own existence and repair the greater world.
In those years, we did improve our world in many ways as we attacked racism. We won a few battles, but we never won the war — too many of the inequalities that racism desires and preaches still exist. To ignore this is to be quite naïve. And those inequalities exist because we have forgotten to continue to look beyond ourselves and to continue to listen and learn. We have forgotten to care for others beyond our own circles. I, myself, have lived in my own Jewish bubble and have only responded with empathy; little more.
And now, the brutal killing of George Floyd cries out to my Jewish soul and tells me that I must become part of a greater solution. If my Judaism means anything, then it is telling me that my voice must be as strong as those whom this vulgar act impacts even more, my brothers and sisters of color.
As Jews, even though we have known the scourges of anti-Semitism, most of us have benefited from white privilege. Like me, most of you have empathized with others, but, too often, we’ve done so from a distance. Racism has murdered so many, too many, but the impact on our individual lives is far less than the impact upon millions of others.
There is something wrong with this limited empathy of ours. When any of our brothers and sisters cry out in pain, we must be there to respond and help. We are told in Deuteronomy, “You shall not distort justice.” And when distortion exists and we do nothing in response, we become part of the problem.
When anti-Semitism does raise its ugly head, we cry out with the hope that people of other faiths are listening and listening well. This is exactly what we, as Jews, must do now for our fellow Americans of color. We must listen and listen even more and learn even more. The first act of showing our desire to overcome the evil of racism is to let our brothers and sisters know that we are listening.
But that can never be the end. Listening and learning are for the sake of understanding what needs to be done and what we, yes, we, need to do. I am speaking to the entire Jewish community. No more can we stand idly by and only empathize. We need to act, and we need to fight in the right ways to outnumber the voices of those who hate.
No more. No more. No more. I hear the cries. I see the tears. I feel the anger and overwhelming frustration and I want to be a part of the solution. My Jewish soul demands that of me. Your Jewish soul demands that of you.
So let us begin the process of becoming part of the solution. Let us listen even more and learn even more and let us know how to act, as individuals and congregations and organizations. And so, I offer you a meaningful way to start the process of listening, learning, and acting. I learned so much from Courtney Ariel in her article “For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies.” She teaches us to listen more and talk less. She writes, “resist the need to respond with a better or different insight about something that you read.” It’s not enough to want not to be a racist. There is a lot more that we need to learn about systemic racism in this country.
Ms. Ariel teaches us to ask when we do not know, but more importantly, to do the work ourselves first. “Do the work to educate yourself,” she writes. “Ask questions within relationships that feel safe and do so respectfully.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Ariel when she says, “this is holy work, the work of justice, the pursuit of it.” She urges us to keep trying even if we make mistakes. With compassion and empathy that lead to action, we can all be the kind of allies that are needed in this struggle for true justice. There are better ways out there to respond to injustice wherever and whenever it is found. And so I pray that we can all become a more blessed community by becoming the greater blessings we are capable of being for all others on our hometown we call Earth.