April 17, 2024
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April 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Like many of you, I watched the George Floyd video and felt sick to my stomach. Why again? Why have things still not changed? The shock gave way to anger—at the police officer, the disregard for human dignity and the sheer injustice of it all. And then came the sense of helplessness. What can I do? This is too much. After giving much thought, I’ve decided that the best I could do is to talk to my community. So, nu, let’s talk.

There is no question that since the Civil Rights movement, the relationship between the Jewish and Black communities has become tense. Usually, when these conversations come up oat a Shabbos table, there’s the inevitable anecdote about Black anti-Semitic trauma. Either someone was roughed up as a child in New York or has read about the coalition between BDS and Black Lives Matter or the latest article about Hasidim being beaten for the simple fact they are Jews. And then the conversation ends; how could it not? Who wants to be the person who says “Yes, your/our trauma is real, but…”? It is far too awkward, too real. But the time has come, we have crossed the rubicon.

Beyond trauma and decades of accumulated tension between our communities, there’s something very simple that stops us from making progress: the feeling that this has nothing to do with us. After all, the battle is against the “racists”; surely, we educated Orthodox Jews of the northeast are not among their rank.

And so, we think ourselves patur. But that is a mistake: here, silence equals complicity. To think that not being racist is “good enough” is to misunderstand modern day racism. Typically, fighting racism is thought of as calling out “the racists.” In this vein, the job of society is to stop them from causing any harm. In this model, Derek Chauvin, the police officer that murdered George Floyd, is just that—a bad apple. Yet, society did its job. It refused to accept his behavior and he has been fired and jailed. Why, then, still the outrage?

It is not just that he was one bad apple too many. Rather, it’s becoming blatantly clear that the system itself is stacked against people of color. The “bad apple” model doesn’t explain why Blacks and Latinos are being hit disproportionately by COVID-19 (both economically and in sheer death rates). It doesn’t explain why the mass incarceration system targets people of color in its war against drugs when drug use rates are the same across racial lines. And it certainly does not explain why most of the Derek Chauvins of the world come out unscathed. Look no further than the Ahmaud Arbery case for proof. Or Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Treyvon Martin….

Once we understand that modern day racism does not just occur because of abuses of power but is rather the result of our laws and statutes, it becomes clear: if we are not actively fighting against them, we are complicit. Hopefully, we are not active participants, but to be a bystander is no solace. And it’s not like we didn’t do it once before—who among us isn’t proud of the Jewish role in the Civil Rights movement?

In order to fight racism, to actively be anti-racist, the first step here is to listen. To do that, we need to have a meaningful relationship with the Black community. Teaneck, my hometown, is a municipality that is only about half Jewish and with significant Black and Latino communities.

And yet our interactions with our non-Jewish neighbors is limited to the occasional hello, if that. Frankly, that’s insane. In all my years in Teaneck, my only significant social interactions with non-Jews were in the Youth Advisory Board (YAB). It’s an incredible institution that gives the town’s youth a voice in the civic process. There, Jewish, Black, Latinx, Muslim, and White Christian students work together to make the town a better place. But it’s not enough. We need a systematic push for collaboration. We need schools, shuls, rabbis and lay leaders to spearhead programs that encourage integration. We need to free ourselves from the fear that any interaction with another group will devolve into assimilation. We are a strong people and we must use our strength to help.

We must be there with our kippahs and chai necklaces when there are protests; we must be there with our pockets when there is a need; we must be there with our political might when the time comes. And the time is now.

This is a time, I think we all agree, of cheshbon nefesh. Thankfully, I’ve seen rabbis schools, and communities step up to the plate and engage in deep introspection. Conversations abound about inclusion in our schools, whether weddings really have to be ostentatious as they are, or if our communal resources can be better used. These are tough conversations and I, for one, am glad we live in a community that cares enough to tackle them. But it’s time to look at our relationship with the wider community. Are we, as guardians of the Torah of Avraham, truly looking at the Other and seeing Tzelem Elokim?

The answer, I hope we can all agree, is that we can do better. This is not an easy task but an essential one. To bring Mashiach, an era when everyone recognizes the Divine in all of Creation, requires active participation. We, as a community, must create a world where “wolf” and “lamb” means more than a restaurant. Let’s begin.


Rafi Jacobovitz grew up in Teaneck and graduated from Frisch High School, class of 2015. He recently graduated from Cornell University and will begin work at Facebook.

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