Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Fifty years ago, the images of the violent beatings of non-violent marchers beginning their walk from Selma to Montgomery marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. This year, images of children in bathing suits being manhandled by police and people at prayer being gunned down in their house of worship were some of the many reminders that there is still much work to be done. I am a white Jew, who works on issues of race and inclusion, but we need not be part of institutions or organizations to make change. Ahead of the Martin Luther King holiday, here are five simple suggestions of commitments individuals can make in his honor.
- Move beyond the adoration of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. As important and inspirational as Rabbi Heschel and the Jewish legacy of engagement in the Civil Rights Movement is, contemporary Jews need to beware of abusing this piece of our history. Past involvement is no pass on contemporary responsibility. Nor should we over-romanticize Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Many Jews were involved, including rabbis. But many more Jews were not involved. This history is important but dwelling on the past is not enough, we need to engage the contemporary realities of race as complex and challenges as they may be. Take action in the present.
- Diversify your sources of information. What we know depends on where we get our information. Whether you listen to NPR or watch Fox News, now is your time to expand. Overwhelmingly sources of information in the mainstream come from white commentators and tend to focus on similar stories. With the web and social media finding different voices is easier than ever. Of course you won’t agree with all that you read and hear, but expanding the conversation expands our ability to understand. Love “Star Wars”? Read this commentary. Reading mommy blogs? What about one of these? Listening to podcasts? You get the idea.
- Diversify your sources of Jewish information. Twenty percent of Jews in the United States are not both white and Ashkenazi, yet this diversity is not easily seen in the Jewish mainstream. I know this firsthand: My extensive Jewish education brought me into minimal contact with Sephardi voices or experience and virtually none that were Black or Latino. Bringing lesser-heard voices into the mix has expanded my understanding of what it means to be Jewish in the best possible ways. Jewish&, a sister blog of this one, puts diversity at the center with a wide range of authors and points view. Encourage your synagogue to add more diversity to the line up of speakers they bring. There are comedians, poets, artists, and academics whose expertise who can speak to any aspect of Jewish life. There are great movies to see like “Little White Lie,” “400 Miles to Freedom” and “Blue Like Me” that speak to the complexities of the Jewish experience. Make a commitment to expand you sense of Jewish.
- Look beyond Black and white. The demographic shifts in the United States mean that in the foreseeable future there will be no single majority ethnic group. The impact of this on culture and community is still up for debate but in this period of transition we have the opportunity to open up our minds and hearts to this diversity. Black-white tensions may not be at the center of racial concerns in your community but there are likely other racial issues that need attention where you live. Paying attention to those and understanding them will help you have perspective when issues flair up or action is needed.
- Take local action. Racial paradigms are woven into the national narratives and institutions of the United States. Most of us as individuals are not empowered or able to act on a national scale. Moreover when we look only at the big picture we often overlook the work that needs to happen in our own communities. Consider the issues in your own community: transportation, gun violence, education etc. If you bring a commitment to challenging racial paradigms to work on these or similar issues, you will make a difference for yourself and for your community. Dr. King was a believer not only in racial justice but in social justice. The two were and still are intertwined. Honor him by taking action locally.