The murder of George Floyd has got us, in the middle of a pandemic, thinking about the fraught topic of racism in America. Sadly, this non-biological scourge is just as viral as any infectious disease, and educating ourselves more deeply on the topic seems a good way to fight it.
As Jews, we’re called to fight racism on many grounds, one of them being that the Torah begins with an account of the creation of the universe and all humankind to show that we are all part of one human race. When one part of humanity suffers, we all do. More, the first account of fratricide in the Torah shows that we are our brothers’ keepers, and when we ignore our responsibilities to them, we are culpable; their blood cries out from the ground. That was achingly evident in the video of George Floyd, who cried out for his mother as his life ebbed from him.
One of the aspects of Judaism I’ve always admired is our open-mindedness when considering the other, those who are not from our nation. In Biblical times, when the world was more tribal and xenophobic, the Torah calls on us no less than 36 times to act in a non-intuitive way: to love the stranger in our midst, making sure their rights are as important as our people’s. The Torah often couples this exhortation with the reminder that we were slaves in Egypt, a move that calls on us to engage in radical empathy, first imagining ourselves as slaves and then putting ourselves in a stranger’s place. Rachel Farbiarz, in a post on My Jewish Learning, emphasizes:
“[E]mpathy is work... there is something awkward and uncomfortable about its habit. We must be schooled in its compulsory nature no less than 36 times...: ‘It was you who were a slave; it is you who knows the heart of a stranger.’ Moses... helps us internalize that empathy is not always and already there... It is rather an iterative effort that demands rehearsal and repetition.”
On a recent webinar with Dimensions CEO Yavilah McCoy, a Jew of color who has been doing diversity training for over 20 years, she stated that while there’s much work to be done to integrate our communities, we don’t need to wait to work with or live among people of color in order to fight racism. We can do so by educating ourselves and acting in ways that diminish rather than perpetuate racism’s perniciousness.
I’d like then to introduce a series of articles about race, so we better understand the neighbors with whom we share our town and states, those whose ancestors were slaves who built America and who continue to be persecuted and discriminated against because their skin is black. Let’s enter into the act of empathetic imagination that requires truly listening to the story of the other.
Here are three excerpts for your consideration. Initiate a discussion at the Shabbat table about the texts, exploring what the experience of African Americans has been in this country and what makes it different from our own.
Excerpt 1: From “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” a speech by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852:
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God...
The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!
Excerpt 2: From the Princeton and Slavery Project, slavery.princeton.edu
“Under the New Jersey state constitution, passed in 1776, aliens, free African Americans (male and female), as well as white women were given the right to vote. This expansion of suffrage remained in effect until an 1807 law limited suffrage to free white men with fifty or more pounds of property, a restriction that held until 1875.”
Excerpt 3: On the practice of redlining, from “Why minorities in N.J. are more likely to be denied mortgages, explained,” NJ.com, updated Jan 30, 2019; posted
Feb 16, 2018
“From 1934 to 1968, the Federal Housing Administration perpetuated segregation by considering ethnicity and race when determining mortgage eligibility—a practice known as redlining—making it difficult for minorities, particularly black residents, to move into better neighborhoods.
“The Home Owners Loan Corporation drafted maps of communities to figure out which ones were worthy of mortgage lending. The maps were color-coded, and the lowest-rated towns, typically rejected for their non-white composition, were outlined in red and categorized as ‘hazardous.’
“The visual representation became a verb—redlining a community indicated that it was cut off from essential services. Though this practice was banned in 1968, data indicates that redlining still exists....
“Fifty years after Congress took steps to ensure every American had an equal chance to own a home, a new analysis finds people of color are routinely being denied mortgages at much higher rates than white applicants, particularly in Camden and its suburbs.
“An analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found black and Asian applicants in Camden were 2.6 and 1.8 times more likely than whites to be denied home loans, even after adjustments for income, loan amount and neighborhood.”
Tikvah Wiener is head of school of The Idea School, a Modern Orthodox, project-based learning high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. She lives in Teaneck with her husband and family.
By Tikvah Wiener