How an Israeli-American online dialogue sponsored by the Hannaton Educational Center grappled with racial justice during the Nine Days
Tisha B’Av represents our annual reflection, as a people, on the harm we do to ourselves as a society and the disasters we encounter when we cannot, or will not, control the bias and hatred in our midst. It is a time of year that demands introspection and conversation. Our sages, in their wisdom, present Tisha B’Av not as a day of destruction caused by the Romans, but, rather, a catastrophe that we brought upon ourselves through sinat hinam, baseless hatred.
Our friends, families, and fellow Jews across the US are experiencing the terrible toll that racial injustice can incur on a society. As our way of showing solidarity, and in an effort to highlight racial justice issues here in Israel, the Hannaton Educational Center hosted a fascinating webinar a few days before Tisha B’Av, bringing together Israeli and American speakers to discuss urgent issues of racial justice that affect all of us who hope for and work towards a more egalitarian and just society.
As is our way at Hannaton, we sought to present the topic from a variety of perspectives. Shai Nitzan, Israel’s former State Attorney, related to how the government of Israel has approached and sought to promote, equality for Ethiopian Israelis, while underscoring the need for the rule of law. Efrat Yerday, the Chairperson of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, highlighted key areas where Ethiopian social equality is still sorely lacking, and shared anecdotes from the Ethiopian community to illustrate symptoms of social distress. If that was not complicated enough, we invited to the panel Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Director of the Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice, to talk about the current American experience. Adding to Rabbi Ruskay’s important insights was Kendell Pinkney, an articulate and passionate African-American Jew and JTS Rabbinical student who, together with his rabbinical peers, studied at Hannaton for a month last fall as part of their immersive study in Israel. Kendell was in the unique position of having experienced Jewish communal life both in the US and in Israel, and his insights were fascinating. One highlight: when he enters a synagogue in the US to pray, Kendell said, the others there first assume he is not Jewish. In Israeli synagogues, in contrast, his Judaism is not questioned. And yet, as Efrat reminded our listeners, it took the official arms of the State of Israel, including the Rabbanut, a full 40 years to formally recognize and accept the equal status and customs of Ethiopian Jewry and its religious leadership.
There were many points of similarity and connection between the US and Israeli communities on this topic. We continue to grapple with similar questions: the balance between observing the law and recognizing the limited world views of those who write and adapt the laws; keeping people secure and safe while making indefensible decisions about who constitutes a threat; and how exactly do we define, as a society, acts of racial bias. These questions represent a very complicated reality with which the next generation of leaders – namely, those young leaders who Hannaton educates and trains through its youth education programs, pre-army Mechina, alumni programs, and diaspora educational outreach – will be expected to consider and, hopefully, make progress toward a fair and equitable resolution.
We were delighted that this engaging conversation was attended by more than 70 friends of Hannaton from all walks of life in both the US and Israel. At the end of the program, as we learned from participants’ feedback, the overall feeling was one of encouragement and uplift – and hope.