Listening to the sounds of helicopters overhead for yet another night here in NYC, I received the following from Mord Maman, my brother-in-law in England, that highlights our duty to make our individual and collective voice heard. He writes to his Orthodox community, but the take home for all of us is to not be complicit in our silence.
Cheshbon hanefesh, taking a spiritual accounting of our behaviours and attitudes isn’t restricted to the month of Elul preceding the High Holidays.
The western world is going through a serious cheshbon hanefesh at the moment. Shocked by the murder of George Floyd (and others before him) the masses have taken to the streets to protest police brutality, inequality and racism which are unfortunately still pervasive at every level in society.
While we hope and pray that leaders take this opportunity to seriously address these issues, we are overdue as individuals and a community to examine how we respond.
The wrong response is to look at the protests and say “I’m not racist, so they aren’t talking to me, I’m not the problem”
There are no prizes for not being a racist. That is the bar. It’s wholly insufficient. It’s not enough to not be racist. You have to be anti-racist.
Towards the end of 2019 the Jewish community in Britain were very nervous. We were worried that a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn would be voted in as Prime Minister. Over the past few years I looked on as people brushed off the concerns of the Jewish community saying it was an occasional smear or nothing to worry about. They claimed they were not anti-Semitic themselves, that they stood against all forms or racism, and yet they were happy to dismiss the Jewish community telling them about the anti-Semitism they were facing.
However there were many people, many many people it turns out who were not happy to see Corbyn voted in and did not vote for him. Equally, if not more important, there were people, not Jewish, who stood up and listened to our voice, to our experience and fought for us, fought against anti-Semitism, refused to allow the community to be gaslighted and ignored. I felt such warmth towards these people. They didn’t turn the other cheek but stood there with us. It wasn’t enough they weren’t anti-Semitic. They were anti anti-Semitic and we will remember that.
Right now the Black community is looking for allies. An ally isn’t someone who stands by shrugging their shoulders saying “I’m not the problem”. An ally is someone who calls out racism when they see it and calls out injustice when they witness it.
And we have to start at home. We have to call out the racism we hear in our communities, around the Shabbat tables, in the shops, in the playground, in the synagogues.
To share a story.
I was once listening to a guest speaker, and something seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Then he started winding down his derasha (sermon) with a story, which again seemed to ring a bell. Then it all fell into place. In the story there was a man in a car, not any man, but a black man (except he used a derogatory Yiddish word to inform us of this person’s skin color) and then it all came together. I had heard him speak before, and he told the same story with the same derogatory word.
I waited until davening concluded and then I approached him and mentioned that I had heard him before. He was clearly impressed that I recalled him from the previous occasion. I then told him why I remembered. It wasn’t because of the in depth analysis of whatever concept he had explored or his wit and humour. It was because he had said something racist. He hadn’t expected that. He tried to shrug it off, but I pressed him and said “it is wrong to say things like that” and bade him farewell.
I should have said something the previous year, I shouldn’t have waited a year to see him again to say something. I may have never seen him again.
I have never regretted saying something about racism. I have regretted NOT saying something though.
It’s time to take a cheshbon, to take personal and communal responsibility.
The Orthodox community is wonderful, it has so much to offer both Orthodox Jews and the wider Jewish and non-Jewish community. We can be better.
I am not here to analyse the whats and the whys of how racism is manifest. You don’t need to be a sociologist to know what is racism and to know you have a choice. To not be racist, or to be anti racist.