Here’s my sermon from today–didn’t get audio and waiting for the live stream to be up in the archive to share the video.
When I was in sixth grade, a classmate of mine drew a swastika on the cover of one of my text books. I’m not going to name him, because it doesn’t really matter. And because I don’t think he really understood what he was drawing. And because he’s a nice person. And because we’re facebook friends and I don’t want to shame him. I saw him at our last high school reunion and had a great conversation about religion and our own personal journeys. I think that, at the time, when we were in sixth grade, he wanted to pick on me, knew I was Jewish, and knew that drawing that particular symbol was a way he could accomplish that—I doubt he really knew why. I don’t really remember how I responded. I think I erased it and tried to move on. I’m fairly certain that I didn’t tell a teacher or my parents.
The phenomenon of victims of hatred based acts, due to any kind of hate, no matter how small or large the act, not saying a thing, is a common one. More than half of hate crimes go unreported, according to the Department of Justice. Perhaps because those who are the receivers of such acts don’t want to make waves, or are embarrassed that something happened to them, or because they don’t think anything will realistically be done about it…too often, things happen and no one says a thing. Which has the effect of the perpetrator of the act never learning that what they did was wrong. And of any sort of real, systemic change being slow, because few realize or recognize the reality of what happens to individuals.
For this particular instance I shared, I think I just wanted to move beyond it. Maybe to pretend it didn’t happen. I’m fairly certain that this man does not recollect this incident—I don’t think it was a defining moment of his childhood, and I don’t think he did then or does now actually hate Jews.
But quite frankly, the fact that this was a fairly innocent act, and not a hate fueled statement, actually makes the whole thing all the more frightening to me. Because it shows that a swastika is a common enough symbol, that even someone who was neither Jewish nor a Nazi knew that it was antisemitic. Because casual antisemitism was a thought that crossed the mind of this boy in the mostly white middle class suburb where we grew up. Because such an act of hate was not something that likely had a lasting impact on him. Because while I understood that this symbol on my book would worry the adults in my life, I wanted to hide it. Because, to this day, I still think he’s a nice guy. A nice guy who drew a swastika on the cover of my text book.
Antisemitism, prejudice, various forms of hatred have existed in this country since the beginning of its history. But we’ve been able to largely pretend that they no longer exist, or that they aren’t at all wide spread. Until recently, at least.
When our JCC had repeated bomb threats earlier this year. When news of swastikas defacing all sorts of places became regular news stories, including some drawn on message boards outside of some dorm rooms at my alma mater, Brandeis University, just this week. And this summer, when we all watched images of torch bearing white nationalists, wielding confederate flags and nazi flags, marching in the streets of Charlottesville, VA. Shouting, “Jews will not replace us. YOU will not replace us.” Forcing the members of a synagogue that was along the path of their march to leave Shabbat services through a back door, sneaking the Torah scrolls out to keep them safe, as well. I don’t need to go into the violent details of that day, which woke a lot of us to a realization that racism in this country is a real and present problem.
For many of us, the color of our skin does not mark us as different, so we often don’t think of ourselves as victims of racism. But, in fact, by virtue of our connection to Judaism, our whiteness is conditional. We, of course, are able to hide our Judaism—we are able to pass as white. But our passing whiteness doesn’t remove the hatred that exists. Charlottesville made it clear that racism and antisemitism not only go hand in hand, but are one in the same.
We live in an odd time, in which Jews can and have risen to the highest of positions, but at the same time, face roadblocks and hatred. While the glass ceiling may have been shattered for us, we still exist within glass houses, and have been taught not to throw stones. Which, when stones are cast in our direction, becomes challenging. And when stones are cast at others—because of their difference—we may want to help, but we don’t want the hatred to spread to us. And we’re not the ones who are hating. And we’re not sure what to do. And, all too often, we do nothing.
The words of Martin Niemoller echo in our heads:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
A message both powerful and troubling, speaking to the need to speak out for others—and yet limited to speech and so focused on inaction, that they serve more as a confession than as an inspiration. Earlier this year, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz wrote the following in response to Martin Neimoller (z”l):
First they came for transpeople and I spoke up — because God does NOT make mistakes!
Then they came for the African Americans and I spoke up—
Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.
And then they came for the women and I spoke up—
Because women hold up half the sky.
And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—
Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.
And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—
Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.
And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—
Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.
They keep coming.
We keep rising up.
Because we Jews know the cost of silence.
We remember where we came from.
And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—
and THAT just won’t stand.
Indeed, the hatred we see in our world cannot stand—we must speak out and we must stand up. Whether the hatred is against us because we are Jews, or against others because of the color of their skin, racism is real and we cannot stand for that.
We can do better.
We can start by listening. To noticing hateful acts when they occur. And to really hear when others point out racism that they’ve seen or experienced. To not argue against it but to accept that the person experienced it, and consider how we can help them, or even how we ourselves can act differently. And maybe even ask questions so that we can learn more. And enter into dialogue to better understand.
It’s been virtually impossible this past week to not be aware that something is happening with the NFL, other than football games, as some players from every team knelt or stood arm in arm with teammates during the National Anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year, to protest racial oppression. At first, he sat during the anthem. But then, Nate Boyer, a former green beret and NFL player, wrote a public letter to Kaepernick, in which he expressed, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.” Kaepernick responded by inviting Boyer to sit down and have a conversation—and then the men talked. Eric Reid, another player, joined them. According ESPN, “Boyer, Kaepernick and Reid agreed that the divided nature of the country right now is making it difficult to communicate clearly about complicated issues. They hope that people see and understand their conversation, and that it will lead those who can effect change to have similar discussions.” It was out of that conversation, honoring the views of each of the 3 men, that the 3 men collectively decided that Kaepernick should kneel instead of sit—an act still problematic to many, but one that was formed out of 3 people having a complicated conversation, which can lead to others having such discussions, which is the only way that we can see change. And they’re right.
Change needs to happen. And change is difficult and sometimes messy. But change is necessary. And we can only see that change when we hear each other, when we listen to each other, and when we try to understand the perspective of another. To learn to use the experience of others in order to notice and respond to the racism around us.
We should do better.
Let us be aware that this is a problem that exists even within the walls of synagogues. A rabbinical student, my friend Eric Uriarte, in his recent student sermon at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, spoke about his experience as a Jew of Color. He said, “When we take off our Jewish garb, our skin color and our ethnic markers continue to make us the target of white supremacists. But when we put them on, I’m sorry to say, those same elements can make us feel excluded in Jewish spaces.” His experience is not unique. For many Jews of color, they have been welcomed into Jewish spaces with questions of their legitimacy as Jews—what they are doing there, what their Jewish background is—or assumptions are made that they do not know how to follow a service. That they must be at the synagogue for another reason, other than to pray. That because of their color, they must not be Jewish—or not really be Jewish.
None of these stories are ones that I have heard about this community. But I’ve heard enough such stories—and even witnessed some—that I recognize Jews of color not feeling included is an ongoing challenge for the Jewish community as a whole.
We must do better.
I am not suggesting that racism is the fault of any of us. I am not suggesting that any of us are racists.
But let us remember that the Hebrew word for sin, het, actually means missing the mark—it’s an archery term. And that definition recognizes that even when we are trying our best, even when we are aiming to get things right, sometimes we make mistakes. We must be open to that idea, and we must determine to continue to try. We must know that even though we are not racists, we might sometimes do something or say something that has been perceived by a person of color through the lens of race. Just like we can name moments at which someone innocuously said something to us or around us that we experienced as antisemitic, even though they didn’t mean it, we must be open to the idea that sometimes we have unintentionally participated in racism.
And I do believe that we bear a communal responsibility. Our liturgy on these High Holy Days reminds us of that with the plural language of our confessional prayers; words that we all read, even if we ourselves have not committed a particular act. We have gone astray. We have sinned. We have done these things. We might not have acted through hatred based prejudice, but we still confess. We might not be racists ourselves, but we know that there are others who are. We may not be the cause, but we still participate in, and sometimes even benefit from, a system in which racism is inherent and bias is real. Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha—for all the ways through which we have missed the mark in ending racism, we pray for forgiveness. And we resolve to change.
We will do better.
We must speak out. Just as thousands are marching against racism in Washington today, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about last night, I am protesting racism through my words today. I hope that we all take our place in the chain of Jewish tradition of Kivie Kaplan and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and speak out against the systemic racism that still exists. This is the prophetic voice that must inform us. This is the fast, as Isaiah reminds us, that is demanded.
We must speak out and we must also speak up. We must not stand for racist comments—and let it be known when we observe racism happening. And we must do this for ourselves, as well.
Allie Gurwitz, a student of mine from San Antonio is now at Georgetown University. In response to swastikas being painted around her campus, she recently posted the following:
I don’t normally post things like this on Facebook but as Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” To whatever individual or group is responsible for the growing number of swastikas being painted in different locations on campus: I am not afraid. We are not afraid. The Jewish community at Georgetown is strong and proud. Your hate has no place here and will not be tolerated. Spread love today.
She’s right. We must speak out. We must not be afraid. And we must combat hate through love. And darkness through light. To pursue justice is our sacred mandate. Our holy task is to bring the light of justice into our world. We are taught so many times in the Torah that we must care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Through our communal history, and through our personal experience, we must remember that we will not stand for hatred expressed towards us nor towards anyone else. We must act in accordance with building the world that we want to see—to be the light for justice so that we can know a world of justice. A world of righteousness. A world of peace.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.
Ken Y’hi Ratzeinu, may this be OUR will.