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.
It seems lately the world is on fire. And every time things calm down, there is a new incident. Another black man is hurt, harassed or killed by a white member of law enforcement. I am a white, Jewish, woman living in the South and I am struggling to figure out what to do.
What I don’t want to do is to co-opt the conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement to be about my struggle. Many have written about this topic including Sally Kohn who writes in the Washington Post and says, “In his searing new book, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates implies that it’s not his job — or, by extension the job of other black voices or leaders — to coach white folks, let alone worry about their feelings. Which it’s not. The whole point is that we white people should be the ones thinking more about black people — their feelings, their experience and their reality, which can be dramatically different than our own. But at the same time, Coates concludes his text noting that structural racism won’t change until white people change.”
Kohn goes on to interview several black leaders who repeatedly say the most important thing a white person can do is to show up; to be more than an ally sharing support on the sidelines, but to stand shoulder to shoulder as a comrade in the fight at rallies or protests.
I would like to be an excellent comrade. But I don’t live in a place with rallies or protests. This doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. I believe it means I have to show my camaraderie differently. Truthfully, I don’t totally know what it means but the system feels so broken and I owe it to myself, my kid, my country and my God to do better than this.
After much consideration, there are three things I’m now trying to do to be a good comrade even when I am living outside of a major metropolitan area where the struggle still exists but in much quieter, more subtle ways..
First of all, the response to “black lives matter” is “yes.” It is not “all lives matter” or an argument about violence within the black community or about any other response which side steps the power of the statement, black lives matter. Those three words should result in an “a ha!” moment where everyone realizes and fully understands that historically black lives have not mattered as much as white lives. And all lives should now and for all times matter equally but they have not. That realization should bring about a sense of urgency to make it right. Any other response denies that we live in a country with institutionalized racism where our black and brown brothers and sisters are held back, repressed, threatened and then blamed for it over and over again.
Secondly, I am working on talking with my friends, family and congregants of all colors about race. My friends and I don’t talk about race; not my white friends, not my black friends, not my brown friends, not any of my friends, and I think we need to. If I am not having an honest conversation with myself and with those I love and am closest to about privilege and oppression, how can I ever hope to move the needle on the conversation in any of the larger communities of which I am a part? This means sharing a conversation about race thoughtfully and intentionally through social media, Wednesday night trivia with my friends, and my sermons at my congregation. This is a frightening proposition. Not everyone is going to want to talk about this topic or will at first feel comfortable. The goal is not to ruffle feathers but to deepen dialogue and bring about change.
Lastly, I have been reaching out to the black leaders in my community to ask how I can help. When the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was attacked last month, I called the head of the local LGBTQ organization and asked what do you need? With this most recent spate of shootings, it’s long past time to do the same thing with the black community. As Sally Kohn pointed out, it is not the job of my black colleagues to help me figure out what I need to do to help change our nation. However, it is my job as a helper and a friend to offer support and to ask the question, what do you need?
We live in interesting times. Right now I believe it is time for each individual, group and community to figure out what role they have in this unfolding drama. What is yours?