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Race in America: We must all listen more intently

We Yeshiva U. professors know lecturing on Jewish suffering won’t actually combat persecution, so we’re hosting ’teach-ins,’ to determine how the past can energize our present
UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 13:  "Leaders of the protest, holding flags, from left Bishop James Shannon, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath." Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington Cemetery, February 6, 1968. Published February 7, 1968.  (Photo by Charles Del Vecchio/Washington Post/Getty Images)
Leaders of the protest, holding flags, from left: Bishop James Shannon, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington Cemetery, February 6, 1968. (Charles Del Vecchio/Washington Post/Getty Images)

The eruption of pain, anger and frustration pouring out across our country in the days and now weeks after the brutal murder of George Floyd made me see that I clearly have a lot to learn and understand about race in America.

I write this as someone whose main area of research is the early modern Atlantic world. This is the time and place that gave birth to the Atlantic slave trade, the harrowing matrix of terror, dislocation and forced labor that began in the 1500s as European traders began buying African slaves in exchange for European goods and shipping their human cargo to their new found American colonies to serve as the crushing engine of the agricultural economy of the New World. The brutal reality of the slave trade is woven into the fabric of my teaching and writing.

And yet the visceral power and fury of the protest unfolding on America’s streets showed me that there was much more for me to understand — beyond books and art and testimony. I realize again that this is about the lived experience of being an African American in our country and that it is time I listen more intently.

The waves of protest reached the quiet town of Teaneck, NJ that I have called home for almost 15 years. There was a Black Lives Matter protest. I was happy that my shul was on the protest route. We decided, like many other businesses and institutions on the route, to offer water and snacks to the marchers. I went to join and I was deeply moved by two elements in particular. First of all, this was an all-Teaneck event: all races, persuasions, ages and creeds. Secondly, I was struck by the force of the messaging on the posters carried by the marchers:

Why are we still protesting?

Will I be next?

These are existential questions for many of our fellow Americans, and I need to witness that question. I need to absorb it and be present to it.

Early on, a group of my colleagues and I wanted to express our empathy, our pain and concern. We believed that being historians of the Jewish experience could prepare us for fighting this fight. We understand the vicissitudes of persecution and marginalization. We understand how violence and terror can rain down on a marginalized group and also how those persecuted peoples can tap the fountains of courage and creativity and forge a new path for themselves.

We believe that in learning about Jewish suffering we can be prepared to fight against the persecution of others. We wanted to express our outrage and solidarity and we wanted to say it in words. And we realized that it would ultimately be a static message that would do little to deepen our community’s understanding of the issues at hand, and do less to empower us –as individuals and a community- to engage with these existential questions and forge a path towards positive change. Instead, we decided to do what we do best: teach, dialogue, process, and engage. We dreamed up an evolving series of “teach-ins,” where we would consider how the past can help illuminate and energize our present moment.

The result is a series of talks with YU faculty and prominent guests to explore moments of crisis, civil unrest, persecution and violence towards the marginalized and bursts of creativity, resistance and seismic social and political change. In dialogue with students and the wider community, we hope that this exploration of the past will empower us to engage the challenges we face today.

Last week, Rabbi Saul Berman gave the keynote address for this series: “Lessons from Selma 1965 for America in 2020.” Rabbi Berman offered a stirring reflection on his own involvement in the civil rights movement and explained its deep roots in Halachah and Torah values. For those interested in engaging with Rabbi Berman’s challenging vision of Jewish activism and responsibility towards our neighbors there will be a recording available in the next few days.

Next Thursday, June 25th at 1 p.m., we will explore questions of art and identity when Prof. Jess Olson will join in conversation with Jon Madoff, the founder of the Jewish Afro-Beat orchestra Zion80 and the innovative music label Chant Records. Crisis and Hope: YU Voices will meet every two weeks through the summer and into the fall, and we hope it will be a forum to explore big ideas and to offer us the tools to orient our way in these troubling times.

These conversations must be had — please join in.

About the Author
Ronnie Perelis is the Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University and the director of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs of Yeshiva University. Prof. Perelis explores the complex relationship between Iberian and Jewish culture in his scholarship and teaching. Perelis believes that the past can inform and energize the present.
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