Bradley Levenberg
Bradley Levenberg

The Sin We Commit Against You: A Yom Kippur Confession for our Time

The following is the text of a Yom Kippur sermon delivered by Rabbi Bradley G. Levenberg on September 30, 2017.

I like movies. I really like movies. I like movies so much that I don’t even need for the movie to be good to want to see it. And while some have to wait a lifetime to reach a crowning achievement, I can tell you when I reached mine: it was June 28, 2005. For on June 28, 2005, one day before my daughter was born, I achieved the goal…of seeing every single movie in stock at my local Blockbuster. Oh yes, I made it through the classics – Gone with the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, Alien, Blade Runner, to name a few – and the “classics” – Basketball, Beezbo Teaches About Manners, and Highlander 2: The Quickening. Yep, I saw them all. And I’m proud.

That was the fact I shared about myself at the opening retreat of Leadership Atlanta when my classmates were asked to respond to the prompt: mention your name and tell us something that not many people know about you. And my sharing of this information led me to be on the receiving end of a lot of movie invitations and suggestions, many of which I have since seen and a few that, well, I have a bit less time these days than I did 12 and a half years ago when I was a student without any children.

One of the movies that was suggested to me was a documentary on Netflix called 13th. The film is an expose on the rise of the rates of incarceration in the United States and the connection between race relations and criminality. It is a fascinating and heartbreaking film, one that I encourage everyone to screen.

I won’t give anything away when I mention that the film begins with an exploration of the history of what it means to be African-American in this country, starting with the impact of slavery. Slavery is our original sin, that much we all know and upon that we can all agree. We literally went halfway across the world to kidnap people and bring them back here in chains on ships as slaves. And kept them as slaves. And their children and their children’s children as slaves…as people who could be beaten, raped, abused or even killed virtually at will. And they were. It took a civil war to end it… and to open a new chapter of challenge.

This opening section of the film continues to document the rise of terrorism that impacted the Black community between Reconstruction and World War II. It was especially hard to see the photographs and to hear about the beatings and the burnings and the lynchings of black men and the abuse and rape and murder of black women, leading to an exodus of people of color from the blood-soaked South. Until this documentary I didn’t realize how much the demographic geography of this country was shaped by that era; we have African-Americans in Los Angeles, in Oakland, in Chicago, in Cleveland, in Detroit, Boston and New York and very few people appreciate that African-Americans in these communities didn’t go there as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities; they went there as refugees from terror. On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Samantha Shabman spoke beautifully about our obligation to care for refugees; allow me to add to her message that not all refugees flee from outside of our borders.

As a part of my Leadership Atlanta experience, we spent two full days in a workshop on race awareness. It was there that my classmates of color clued me in on the history that I never learned, the 1917 race riots in St. Louis in which 300 black men and women were killed by rampaging white mobs, the 1919 massacre of 237 black men and women in Arkansas by white mobs, the 1921 race riots in Tulsa in which 1250 homes were destroyed and 6,000 black men and women were imprisoned, to name just a few of the literally dozens and dozens of tragic moments that were left out of my education. There is an entire history from which I have been sheltered. Though grand acts such as those that I just mentioned no longer occur within our borders, African-American men and women continue to be subjected to horrible and egregious actions that appear to be sanctioned by law.

A woman driving to her new job at a Texas college is pulled over for not using a turn signal, jailed, and then found dead in her cell. A former college football player is injured in a car accident, seeks help, and is shot dead by the police. A high school boy goes out of his house to purchase Skittles and iced tea, only to be stalked through the neighborhood by a man with a criminal record who is carrying a loaded weapon. The unarmed child ends up dead while the grown man is acquitted. A twelve-year-old is playing in the park with a toy gun; police kill him within two seconds of their arrival. A man merely makes eye contact with a police offer, and by the time he arrives at the jail, is nearly dead, his neck broken. A twenty-two-year-old woman is out with some friends when an off-duty police officer, thinking he sees something suspicious, fires into the crowd. The bullet slams into her skull and she dies. He, and the officers involved in each of these cases, is later acquitted. Even when the wound is not fatal it is grievous. Many of us should recall the story of the endowed professor at Harvard, arrested… for being in his own house.

You know their names. Sandra Bland. Jonathan Ferrell. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Rekia Boyd. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Rabbi Ron Segal challenged us in his Kol Nidre sermon to know when it was appropriate to keep silent and when it is incumbent to speak out. To quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “I come to this magnificent house of worship…because my conscience leave me no other choice.” Racism persists despite the progress we have made as a society. Far too many of us live in communities segregated by the color of our skin, far too many pockets of Atlanta remain unequal in access to quality education, housing systems, urban and suburban infrastructure. Social barriers and unconscious biases continue to feed and stall our best efforts to move past versions of racism that many of us assumed had evaporated years ago.

Because past versions of racism cannot just evaporate; they are a part of our national psyche, a part of our collective history. And the same stereotypes and prejudices that have kindled those kinds of tragic events are still alive in us. We’ve been schooled in them as well. It’s the part of us that determines what neighborhoods we DON’T want to live in, the part of us that locks the doors when someone of color approaches, that clutches our purses; that justifies our fear by saying, “He looks like a criminal.” It’s called implicit bias and before you begin to believe I’m talking about everyone but you…I’m not. I’m talking about you. And I’m talking about me.

We need to deal with the implicit racial biases that we all possess. The way I understand implicit racial bias is the way Al Vivian, son of Civil Rights icon C.T. Vivian, explained it to me. He taught me that our brains are designed so that we can make quick decisions. According to recent studies, there is anywhere from 10 million to 11 million bits of information coming to us at all times. Think about all that your eyes take in, the temperature, the pain in your body, the sesame seed that is in your teeth, the sounds you are hearing, the many smells that confront your nostrils. 10 million to 11 million bits of information coming to us at all times. We can only analyze, at most, 40 bits of information. So what our brains do is they make decisions for us based upon patterns that have been established over a lifetime. If we’ve been told that certain groups cannot be trusted, when we see people coming in our direction who belong to those groups, we will make decisions based on those implicit racial biases as opposed to logically and rationally thinking things through.

We must confront our implicit racial bias and the first step to doing so is to stop denying that we posses implicit racial bias. NPR’s This American Life recently ran a story in which they highlighted the work of police psychologist Josh Correll. Dr. Correll tested hundreds of men and women in uniform by flashing pictures of white and black men on a computer screen. Some of the men are depicted holding weapons and some are depicted holding a wallet or a can of coke. And the police officers must decide instantaneously, shoot or don’t shoot. Dr. Correll reported his findings: “For most of us, we would say things like, ‘oh, you know, I like black people. I like black men. I don’t have anything against them. I don’t have any negativity toward them.’ That’s an explicit report of an attitude and explicit reports go through an editing process. When I flash a picture up on a screen and ask you to respond in 630 milliseconds, you don’t have time to edit. It’s like everybody has this gut response that is, ‘oh, black means threat.’”

And by everybody, he really means everybody, regardless of race. Dr. Correll’s findings show that police officers are more likely to see images of black men as threatening, even though police officers usually make the correct decision to shoot or not shoot. The test is online, and so far, over 5 million people have taken it. But I have bad news for those who are hearing these comments with a healthy detachment: for the rest of us, untrained people like you and like me, the test results are far worse than they are for the police. By clear margins, 70% of white people are more likely to shoot a black man with a wallet and we’re less likely to shoot a white man with a gun. And if you are wondering, 50% of those who identify as African American who took the test were similarly more likely to shoot a black man with a wallet and less likely to shoot a white man with a gun.

Implicit racial bias isn’t only a problem that confronts the white community.

If step one is admitting and recognizing implicit racial bias, then step two has to be confronting our implicit racial bias, an idea that Temple Sinai member Arnie Sidman explores in his excellent text, “From Race To Renewal: It’s Not All Black and White.” We need to surround ourselves with people who have different life experiences and engage in deep dialogue. Biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are. We need to walk toward our discomfort. We need to expand our social circles. We need to expand our professional circles. We need to ask ourselves, honestly, how many relationships we have with people who don’t look like us, who have a different history from us. As we become in relationship with people who are nothing like us, we must also have them tell us about their life and what it is really like being them; about what their realities are in America. And if we can understand that the experiences that form our character are different than experiences that form the character of others, we may be able to better understand the basic assumptions we make about others…without even knowing it.

And once we have accepted our implicit racial bias, and once we have made the effort to confront racial bias by getting into relationship with others, we need to hear their story, and not their story through OUR lens but through THEIR lens.

I recently had a conversation with a dear friend, an African-American woman, who is a successful attorney. I asked her to tell me what it is like to be the only person of color who has ascended to that level in the firm. “Brad,” she told me, “I pay a price every day for being the first. Let’s start with the fact that my face is on every catalogue and I’m introduced to every new major client who engages our firm…so that we can demonstrate how diverse we are as a firm. And let’s continue with the fact that I have to fix my hair a certain way and that still, white people in my office ask me if they can touch my hair. But it goes beyond the aesthetic: I have to fight for projects of prestige, and I have to tolerate the harmless but insensitive questions of co-workers. I have to explain Kwanza every year to every new person who starts in the office and I celebrate Christmas. I know that I worked hard to get here, and I am smart, and I deserve the seat at the table that I have earned. But every day I find reason to believe that it doesn’t matter that I work twice as hard as every other white person in the office…I’m here because of the color of my skin.”

Or the experience of another friend, the white father of an adopted black 7 year old, who cannot sleep for he is haunted by one nagging question: “At what age will people stop thinking my son is adorable and start thinking of him as a threat. Is it when he is 10? 16? 22? And I don’t know how to prepare him for a world in which the same white people who see him and comment on his cuteness will some day look upon him with suspicion and judge him negatively for being a black boy in a white world.”

Yet another friend relayed that he no longer knows what to convey to his 12 year old son. “Brad,” he cried, “they’re killing black boys. What do I tell my son to do if a police officer tells him to stop? He’s a good boy, he’s not getting into trouble. But my community, and my family, don’t know that seeing flashing lights is a guarantee that we will come home. Instead, we hear stories and see videos that those flashing lights mean you now have a 50/50 chance to get out alive. You don’t understand, and I’m glad you don’t understand. But I am angry and frustrated because I don’t know how to do the basic job of being a dad; I don’t know what to tell my son to keep him safe.”

Or the experience of the basketball star whose home was vandalized with a racial epithet just this past summer. In a press conference following the act, Lebron James commented, “It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of America and hate in America, especially for African Americans, is lived every day. Even though it is concealed most of the time, you know, people hide their faces, will say things about you and when they see you they smile in your face. But it’s alive every single day. This just goes to show: no matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough and we’ve got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African Americans until we feel equal in America.”

Consider the white supremacist summit taking place today in Tennessee. Consider the “Stop Killing Us” banner unfurled at a Cardinals game, a response to the clearing of Jason Stockly, a St. Louis Metro PD officer, of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith, a clearing that happened on September 15. Know that Jason Stockly was heard on a police cruiser camera moments before the incident saying he was “going to kill this guy don’t you know it.” Consider that he didn’t use the word “guy.” Consider that officers in the Michael Bennett incident won’t face discipline. Consider the racial slurs found on dormitory message boards bellowing to five black cadet candidates at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School this week. Consider these incidents and tell me that we’re doing okay. By the way, all of these incidents, each of those that I just mentioned…are the headlines just this morning on USA Today. Imagine what tomorrow will bring.

Since we in the Jewish community know what discrimination is and what it looks like and what it feels like, we have an obligation, not a choice, an obligation – to engage in the work of combatting racism. We should take great pride in the work of the Anti-Defamation League; the American Jewish Committee creates and supports dialogue between communities, including the Black/Jewish Coalition. The Religious Action Center has been involved in many national actions and has recently been engaging local communities on a whole new level.

Buy we did not come here today to tout our accomplishments; Yom Kippur is a day in which we arrive to confess our sins. Al Cheyt Shechatanu L’fanecha… for the sin we have committed against you by not doing more to welcome and embrace those who are both Jewish and people of color into the Sinai community. Al Cheyt Shechatanu L’fanecha… for the sin we have committed against you by standing idly by why our neighbor lies in the street bleeding…an injunction against which we are commanded in Torah. Al Chayt Shechatanu L’fanecha, for the sin we have committed against you by distancing ourselves from our neighbors, an injunction against which we are commanded 36 times in Torah; we should welcome the stranger and offer support for those who are marginalized in our communities. Al cheyt shechatanu l’fanecha…for the sin of not using our privilege…an injunction against which we are commanded not from our Torah but from our history, the history to which we are heirs: the history of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Jews who used their privilege in 1964 to register Blacks to vote, the history of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched arm-in-arm with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior in Selma, Alabama, the history of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, whose work for civil rights led to the bombing of The Temple in 1958, the history of Kivie Kaplan, a white Jew who became the head of the NAACP, the history of Joachim Prinz who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 and who said, “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

We who have privilege and position must do more to stand up with and 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.

Paul Kivel in his text, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice, offered a call to action that I extend to our community today. First, we must, WE MUST, assume that racism is everywhere, every day. Just as economics influences everything we do, just as gender and gender politics influence everything we do, we must assume that racism is affecting daily life. That includes learning to see the effects of racism; to notice who speaks when we are in interactions with people of color and to notice code words for race. We already notice the skin color of everyone that we meet: now, we must notice what difference it makes.

Secondly, we must understand the connections between racism, economic issues, sexism and other forms of injustice, and allow that understanding to lead us to action.

Third, we must find that our confrontations cannot happen alone and that we need to find appropriate partners to whom we can turn for support and to plug us in to other established groups. This is about relationships, and we must be in relationship with those who have backgrounds that are similar to ours and with those whose backgrounds are different. That involves taking risks. It is scary and difficult and may bring up feelings of inadequacy, a lack of self-confidence, a fear of making mistakes. But it is time for us to be bold and to act with courage.

And finally, and most importantly of all, we must talk with our children and other young people about racism.

This is not about party, this is not about politics. The knee was about racism before it became about tweets. People are dying. They are dying. And they are dying on our watch. Until we decide that the problem is our problem, we will saddle the next generation, and the next generation, and the next generation with undoing our sins.

We are better then the world we inherited. We are better than the world we have created. We can do better and we SHOULD do better and we must do better. May we rise to the challenge. May we rise to our potential. Amen.

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.
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