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We have work to do

Are our black neighbors comfortable? Do we stop ourselves from making racist jokes and refuse to tolerate them at all? Examining our own conduct is our first step forward
Overhead view of an anti-police brutality Black Lives Matter protest rally on Third Avenue on June 2, 2020, in New York City. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Overhead view of an anti-police brutality Black Lives Matter protest rally on Third Avenue on June 2, 2020, in New York City. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

I bought my house 12 years ago from a very nice family. They had many friends and seemed clean cut and down to earth, so I was surprised when a neighbor came over to greet us on our second day and told us he was so happy that we were there and the family before us was not. “They were so strange,” he continued. “They were actually happy when a black family moved in next door. Who would be happy about that?” I just stared at him. I wanted to respond something along the lines of, “Why do you think it’s okay to say what you just said?” Instead I rationalized his rhetoric: different generation, fear of change, etc. I chose not to see it clearly for what it was, racism.

Given that interaction, I should not have been surprised when my black neighbor, the pastor of a major church in Brooklyn, told me earlier this week that in his 15 years living on this block, there are still some neighbors who will not say hello to him. There are people who look at his children and make them feel like they don’t belong. These neighbors are all Jews.

We have some work to do.

This week, many community leaders and communal institutions have put forth important statements that first and foremost express outrage at another victim of police brutality. They empathized with the black community, showed understanding of their pain, and expressed frustration that they and we are still facing these issues. The statements of community leaders also rightfully condemned those who have turned to violence and looting in response. I was not only proud to see the principal of my children’s yeshiva march with the protesters in Far Rockaway, but encouraged by the many people who posted and reposted the picture of him doing so.

However, many people chose to post about the looters, Antifa, lack of social distancing, criminal behavior of George Floyd, and the belief that Jews are unfairly policed for social distancing while blacks are not. Many of these posts contain truths, important critiques of what has happened this week, and legitimate concerns. But posting these issues now — while so many of citizens are in pain and trying to effectuate real change — is, at best, missing the forest for the trees, or, worse, helping those who would like to prevent real change from happening. We all know that many have manipulated the death of George Floyd for their own political agendas or as an excuse to loot, but we let them win if we pay more attention to their agenda, than to the thousands of peaceful protesters who need to be heard.

Right now, is not an easy time to look past our own troubles and concerns. We are tired of being home, frustrated with cancelled camps, plans, weddings and bar mitzvahs. Anxious over financial losses and uncertainty. And this week raised new concerns and fears and left many of afraid and not at ease.

The concerns ran the gamut, but as a yoetzet halacha, I was receiving the concerns relating to mikveh. “Is it legal for me to go given the curfew?”; “How can the mikveh stay open? It’s not safe!”; “how could the rabbis tell women they should go?!”; “We have been assured by the commissioner that it is both safe and legal.” These concerns were timely and needed to be addressed. I spoke with Rabbi Hershel Billet, senior rabbi of Young Israel of Woodmere, and his wife, Rookie Billet, also a yoetzet halacha. Rabbi Billet and Rabbi Kenneth Hain had consulted with Rav Hershel Schachter, who paskened that if a woman feels uncomfortable going to the mikveh at night because of the potential danger, she would be permitted to go during the day on the next day (day 8). The precedent for this is found in the Talmud Niddah 67b, where the Gemara states that a woman can only go to the mikveh at night, and immediately follows with stories of rabbis who decreed in particular circumstances that women should go during the day on the eighth day, for example when there was danger due to wild animals, bandits, or freezing cold conditions.

The halakhic and safety concerns of our community must continue to be addressed as they come up in a thoughtful and timely manner. But it is also time to push past some of our own personal troubles and concerns and drive our community to address difficult questions. How does the Jewish community relate to other minority communities? Are we fulfilling the Torah obligation to not oppress those who are different and to extend love to them? It was beautiful to see a Jewish presence at the Far Rockaway protest, but let us look a little deeper before we pat ourselves on the back. If our black neighbors feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in our own communities, there is still work to be done.

The work begins with being willing to see. Making sure to see and acknowledge our neighbors and all people who are not part of our “community,” but maybe could be. We need to look at ourselves honestly. Do we practice what we preach? Do we treat everyone like a tzelem Elokim –– created in the image of God — both when they are in front of us, but also when they are not? Do we stop ourselves from making racist jokes and not tolerate them as well? Let’s look at ourselves as a first step to being part of a positive step forward.

I am proud to be a graduate of and longtime supporter of an institution that didn’t wait for social disruption to look at these issues. Nishmat, the Israeli flagship institution for women’s Torah learning, promoted the value of educating ALL Jewish women from its inception. Twenty years ago, Nishmat inaugurated an award-winning program that welcomes Ethiopian-Israelis, immigrants, and children of immigrants, into its beit midrash while preparing them for college and professional advancement. It’s created a cadre of thoughtful leaders and role models for the Ethiopian-Israeli community and for the integration of Israeli society.

This week on social media, I saw many complain that certain politicians or groups have a double standard for us. They hold Jews to a higher standard. I don’t know whether this is true. But if the standard in this country includes racism, belittling, politics before people, vandalism, acts of desecration, looting and violence then I want us to be held to a higher standard.

About the Author
Lisa Septimus is a Yoetzet Halacha for a consortium of synagogues in Manhattan and of the Five Towns. A graduate of Stern College’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies, she subsequently served as the program’s shoelet u’meishiva. She teaches Talmud, Chumash, and Ethics at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, NY, where she also coordinates informal education programs and serves as Dean of the Class of 2016. In her active role as rebbetzin at the Young Israel of North Woodmere (NY) she is integrally involved with adult education and youth programming. She has taught at The Jewish Center in Manhattan, Riverdale Jewish Center, Drisha, and Yeshiva University’s Summer Learning Program. She and her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Septimus, are the parents of four young children.
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