The Question And The Answer

A sanctuary is many things to many people. For some it is a place dedicated to the creation of positive Jewish memories – a space where we celebrate joyous lifecycle events such as Bar/Bat Mitzvah, weddings, baby namings and Brit Milah ceremonies. In some communities, the sanctuary is the scene of Religious School assemblies and music classes and opportunities to take in Bibliodrama. Some communities host guest speakers and performers on the bima, further transforming sanctuaries into spaces of culture and learning.

A sanctuary is also a place where we come for refuge, refuge from the storms. We come together in this space amidst our worry, seeking reassurance. We come together in this space after tragedies seeking comfort.

Sanctuaries can also be the place where we wrestle. Occasionally with the words of the prayerbook, written by different people with different agendas and theologies and occasionally with a very different world-view than our own. We come here to wrestle with God, for part of being in a covenantal relationship with God is that we do not need to blindly follow but instead question and seek as well. It is a space in which we wrestle with ourselves, confronting hard truths from which our distraction shields us. Here? In this space? We can admit our weakness even as we dedicate ourselves to growing and being stronger and better people.

I had some grand illusions, or perhaps grand delusions, about our Shabbat service at Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia on August 18. When my friend and colleague at the Schusterman Foundation inquired as to my thoughts about a Shabbat evening of Unity, the latest chapter in a series partnership between The Schusterman Foundation, RepairTheWorld and OneTable, I thought that Temple Sinai would be a wonderful host and partner. These evenings seem to be prompted by one agenda: instead of veering from the difficult conversations and relational moments, we need to accept the challenge of embracing a story that is dissimilar in some ways from our own. I imagined tapping into my network and the networks of colleagues to have a massive group at services who have never been in a synagogue before. My delusion was that I thought it would be universally well received. What a lesson I have learned.

I knew that our congregants would show up. We were and still are in need of some response to the events in Charlottesville, VA. We still grapple with the images to which we were exposed and utter, publicly and privately, the familiar refrain: How could this happen? How could this be happening in 2017? I knew that this initiative would be quite compelling for my faith community and, sure enough, they didn’t let me down.

My challenge came when reaching out to my non-Temple Sinai, or shall I say, non-Jewish, networks. While many individuals lamented that they already had commitments, it was the comments from others that contributed to my sleepless week. One friend with whom I spoke offered a stirring rebuke. “Look, Brad, I get it. The Jewish community is shocked and you are reaching out to people of color to be a part of this dialogue. But where was the Jewish community when my community needed an ally? When yet another black man was murdered by the police…where was the outrage of the Jewish community? When we were marching in the streets I looked for allies and there was a sea of people who looked like me and I didn’t see ANYONE who looked like you.”

Or this response from a friend who works closely with an agency serving the Hispanic community: “My community feels under attack from the President and policies of his administration. When he targets our youth leaders who are DACA recipients, we look to our allies. I didn’t see allies from the Jewish community coming to our side.”

Or this response: “Brad, the Jewish community was all over Facebook when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. But when the LGBTQ community marched on the Georgia Capital during this past legislative session, there was not one non-LGBTQ rabbi standing by us. And the Jews who WERE there? They were not with us because they are Jews.”

Throughout this week I have been on the receiving end of a good amount of criticism. While my friends expressed personal support, the rebuke was stunning: when we needed an ally, the Jewish community was not by our side.

I recognize that the Jewish community has done a lot of good in standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others. After all, in many communities, my own included, there is a healthy contingent of Jews and Jewish organizations present at the PRIDE parades. The Jewish community en masse supports the ADL; the American Jewish Committee creates and supports for dialogue between communities, including the Black/Jewish Coalition. For Reform Jews, the Religious Action Center has been involved in many national actions and has recently been engaging local communities in a whole new level.

But for a good number of us, myself included, we have not been good allies. We do well with the sponsored initiatives, we do well when our movements are recognized as partners. But by and large we have not cancelled our plans to participate with those who feel threatened when they needed somebody from outside of their community to demonstrate an act of solidarity. We are great about forwarding articles and clicking “like” on Facebook, but those actions, lovingly mocked on Saturday Night Live when Louis CK was the host, are simply not enough. We are great about sending checks but there is more to be done – and there is more important work that needs to be done.

We who have privilege and position must do more to stand up with others, not for others as our tradition has taught for so many years. As has been stated by others wisely and with brevity: We can’t let those who have the most to lose stand the tallest. We need to be present at the marches, we need to attend the services, we need to be present at the rallies at court-houses and when we see something on the news we need to put on our shoes and head to the scene. We need to reach out to our friends when their community feels threatened. Because when it comes down to it far too many of us have privilege that we are not willing to use. And in case you are wondering, the definition of privilege that I am using is simple: it is when you have the luxury to decide whether it is a convenient time to stand up to injustice.

The crowd that evening was more diverse than I had feared but not as diverse as it should have been had we been the allies we profess to be. And there are those who were in attendance NOT because the Jewish community has stood by them but because they knew that it was the right thing to do and the sanctuary remains the place they needed to be because they know what it means to be a good ally to us. And though I am disappointed from the honest response from some on my network, I cannot fault them, for the words of Pastor Niemholer come to mind: First they came for the for the Communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.

Today we can offer a modern interpretation: First they came for the disabled, and I didn’t speak out, for I am not disabled. Then they came for the immigrants, and I didn’t speak out, for I am not an immigrant. Then they came for the critics, and I didn’t speak out, for I am not a critic. Then they came for the Black community, and I didn’t speak out, for am not a person of color. Then they came for the LGBTQ community, and I didn’t speak out, for I am not an LBGT or Q individual. And in Charlottesville they came for the Jews, for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

My friends, a powerful and appropriate phrase begins our Torah portion this week: Re’eh Anochi Notayn Lefnaychem ha-yom Brachah u’Klalah. See, this day I place before you blessing and curse. This moment presents us with the same. Will we accept the blessing of tumultuous times to rededicate ourselves to being good allies? Or will be cursed with yet another missed opportunity such that when they march again – and they WILL march again – we find ourselves adrift and alone.

May it be your will, O God, that we accept the blessing of being in relationship with those not like us. May we accept the challenge to use our privilege for the betterment of others. May we accept the spirit of this night, this Shabbat of Unity, of Relationship, of authenticity, to be fully present for others.

The first question from the Bible is asked by God to Adam within the safety of the Garden of Eden. God asks, Ayeka? Where are you? When we are asked that question, may be know that there is only one correct answer: Hineini. Right here. By your side. I am here.

About the Author
Rabbi Levenberg joined the Temple Sinai clergy in 2006. Rabbi Levenberg was recently inducted into the prestigious Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel Board of Preachers (2017) in recognition of his work in the arena of civil rights. He is the proud recipient of many awards, including the Michael Jay Kinsler Rainmaker Award for his work of inclusion and advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community.