Neil Janes
Rabbi, Executive Director, Educator, Academic, Writer

Black Lives Matter – Taking Steps to Respond

I was on a webinar on Thursday night with the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 200 Rabbis learning about the American Reform movement’s response to #BlackLivesMatter and how their rabbis and congregations could respond. We heard from two Jews, both black women, speak movingly and instructively about their fear and their concern. And the unforgettable phrase we heard from one of these women was this:

Black and Brown people can’t do this alone.

This was a moment for the American Reform movement to say ‘Hinenu’ – here we are. Like Moses and Isaiah respond to the call of God to take their stand in responsibility, to pay attention to the prophetic vision of justice, so do we. And I thought what about here in the UK, aside from statements of support, what does this mean to us?

Just after Pesach, as we journeyed through the Omer, I was running a course on freedom and responsibility. We looked at the following verse from Genesis 2:7:

“The Eternal God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

This is the moment of animation of human life – the moment at which, with the breath of God, we move from being dust of the earth to sentient, conscious, decision making beings – formed with inclinations for good and bad, and set in the world to work it and tend to it. This verse is the inspiration for our prayer, which is already found in the Talmud Berakhot 60b:

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה. אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ בִּי, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִיטְּלָהּ מִמֶּנִּי

“My God, the soul – the neshama – you have given me is pure. You formed it in me, you blew it into me, you guard with within me, and you in the future will take it from me.”

Neshama – the soul. In Biblical Hebrew we do not understand this word as soul, but as life force. It is from the same root as neshimah – breath. The breath of life breathed into us by God is the animating force of our humanity. Breath both defines our own mortality and yet is our force of life from the Infinite – God. It is what makes us human. It is the heart of what it means to be human – endowed with free choice and yet also carrying the responsibility of what that means.

The breath of life – squeezed out of one man in a brutal act and recorded for us all to see. George Floyd, who could be heard saying “I can’t breathe” as he was knelt on by a police officer for 9 minutes and was killed by him, the officer concerned is facing charges of murder and manslaughter. And so the protests at which many American rabbis are bearing witness, and civil unrest, the highly charged statements of President Trump and demonstrations here in the UK too.

Some people have been in touch to ask what we are doing and how we are responding. And they’re right to ask and I can’t have taught a 7 week course on responsibility and not speak to the question being asked of us.

This is our problem – individually it’s our problem. I learnt in my Psychology degree in the first year that everyone has unconscious prejudices. That we all harbour a racist potential, even if only subconsciously. Individually we must be aware of that and accept that to claim we are ‘colour blind’ is actually not just nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense, because it gives us false confidence that we may not be racist too.

It’s also society’s problem – just two years ago we had the Windrush scandal. In March of this year, Wendy Williams’ review on the lessons learned states:

“While I am unable to make a definitive finding of institutional racism within the department, I have serious concerns that these failings demonstrate an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department, which are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism.” p.7

Now the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated in another way the extent to which not just socio-economic gaps in society are disproportionately affected by health inequalities, but also Black, Asian and Minority ethnic people. Based on the report published this week about the impact of Covid-19 on people who are Black, Asian and Minority ethnic we do not yet know exactly the full reason why the impact is disproportionate but it has prompted the Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, of the European and Human Rights Commission to say:

“People are more than statistics, and we cannot afford to ignore the broader context of entrenched race inequality across all areas of life. Only a comprehensive race equality strategy will address these issues.”

Why is she saying that? Probably because housing is an issue that effects race here in the UK – with overcrowding in homes being something that affects individuals from ethnic minorities disproportionately. The same goes for homelessness, the amount of green space and deprivation in your neighbourhood, poverty, incarceration and the judicial system. I’m sure we could go on.

This is our problem also as Jews. Our texts do contain ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) and ‘don’t stand idly by the blood of your fellow’ (Leviticus 19:16) and we are all ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27). Yes. But we need also to tease out the possibility that in our communities, which have a strong sense of in group identity, we might also unwittingly (or actually deliberately) create an environment that is not just unwelcoming to non-Jews but also to those who we are unconsciously assuming to be ‘not Jewish’ – black Jews and Jews of colour.

What I’m suggesting is that our community might be racist towards black, Asian and minority ethnic people. And we might also, as part of that, be racist to our fellow Jews. In spite of how diverse we may think we are and welcoming we are, you know what, we might also have a problem too. In fact, not might, we all do, unless we deny the possibility that we have inbuilt prejudices – we have a problem.

So there’s a problem and it’s our problem. But now what do we do with that? Where do we start in unpicking the complex issues of racism, systemic injustice, communal politics and individual attitudes? Well here’s what I think:

First of all – it may be our (my) problem, but it’s not me that experiences the racism. Most of us will agree ‘racism is bad’ – well I hope so anyway. The first thing I must do is stop and listen. And if we don’t have the relationships that are strong enough with people and organisations to ask them if we can listen – get over the shame and change it.

In light of the need to listen, some steps we might look to take include amplifying the voices of Jews of colour – by which I mean stepping out of the limelight and giving it to others to be heard. We might also consciously invite more leaders who are black, Asian and minority ethnic to speak and we should listen to them. This is not a quick fix issue – it’s going to take time to build trust. But now let’s assume it happens, now what.

Second – realise I am the ally in this fight for change. I have personal and leadership responsibility to change, but I must also recognise that in my eagerness to want to act I might be another white person who dominates a space. As Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in America writes, in the article linked to above that partly inspired me in the content of this sermon:

“White Jews should not rush to make immediate decisions without Jews of Color at the table…with respect to antiracism, though, white people should take cues from leaders of Color, particularly those who have been doing this work for many years and will continue to do so well beyond this moment.”

He goes on to say, “When we are given the gift of multiracial or cross-racial dialogue, we can practice taking up less space and sitting with our discomfort (including processing our emotions with other white people).”

Third – we should seek to be partners in justice efforts by groups already working in the field. If the spectre of antisemitism in the Labour party has done anything for us as a community it has reminded us that we have power. Power that is institutional, power that is connected and power that is in our voice of our people. Once we understand where the issues lie and choose to participate in making change, we need to partner with others whose voices we should champion and bring our people with.

Fourthly, we should be aware that as Jewish communities, representation of Jews of colour is poor to non-existent and the voices of Jews of colour are rarely heard. We should take steps to change that. Within our communities – bringing their voices forwards and standing behind them in support.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman the new President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in his statement on the subject tells us to express adherence to the principle in the Torah to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Amen to that. So, in summary, here’s how I think we can start here in the UK:

  • Listen to voices of black, asian and minority ethnic people and if you don’t have relationships, get over your shame and make them, then listen, really hard, and learn.
  • As someone who is a white Jew – take up less space and let the voices experiencing racism be heard.
  • Use our power as a community, having learnt that we have power from our experience recently of antisemitism, to be an ally.
  • Change our own community and the experience that Jews of colour may have being in our synagogues.

There’s more to do and there are clearly specific issues that need addressing. But let’s start and see where the journey takes us. To be filled with the breath of life – Nishmat Chayyim – empowered with the infinite, the image of God, that’s a responsibility that we cannot shirk.

May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

About the Author
Rabbi Neil Janes is part of the rabbinic team of West London Synagogue of British Jews and Executive Director of the Lyons Learning Project. He was ordained by the Leo Baeck College in 2006 and as part of his studies he learnt at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. From 2006-2010 he was the rabbi of Finchley Progressive Synagogue and from 2011-2015 he was one of the rabbis of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St Johns Wood. Rabbi Janes is researching for a PhD studying rabbinic literature at Kings College London. Neil is a lecturer at the Leo Baeck College teaching Talmud and Midrash. In addition to his MA in Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Neil also has a BA in Psychology and Education from Cardiff University.
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