The Black Jews Are Tired

June 1, 2020Chaim Harrison

As I write this, Shavuot has just come to a close. As fulfilling as it was to engage in Tikkun Leil Shavuot programs facilitated by the Reform Jewish community, a lot weighs on me. With COVID-19 continuing to ravage Black communities and racist violence all over the news, I almost feel like it’s Yom Kippur instead – the time when Jews are supposed to be most aware of their own mortality.

I’m a Black man living in America, and I have never felt more mortal than I do in 2020.

In February, two white men murdered Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog in Brunswick, GA. Further, the county’s district attorney may have attempted to bury the case because one of the killers used to work for her office.

Last week in New York City, a white woman threatened birder Christian Cooper after he asked her to leash her dog. "I'm going to tell [the police] there's an African-American man threatening my life!” she said before calling.

And just one day later, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd by crushing his neck with his knee as three other officers stood by. The officer has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, but the other officers have yet to be charged at all. Floyd’s crime? He allegedly paid for groceries with a counterfeit $20 bill.

Anti-Blackness also appeared in a more subtle form. Recently, I wrote about the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on Jews of Color. In response, two white men referenced my article in their own, which downplayed the presence of Jews of Color in our communities (insinuating, therefore, that there is less of a need for Jewish institutions to assist us). 

When Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and I responded, as did many other Jews of Color, the authors’ response (directed only to Rabbi Jacobs and not to me, the Black Jewish co-author) was that they had been “vilified,” their work “seriously misrepresented,” simply because Jews of Color stood for ourselves. 

Between these acts of anti-Black violence and the insidious claim that very few Jews of Color even exist (insinuating, therefore, that there is less need for Jewish institutions to assist us), I am angry, I am despondent, and I am completely and thoroughly tired.

It’s been said that “racism is so American that when you protest it, people think you are protesting America.” I’m tired of that mentality and the structures and culture that coddle it. I’m tired of Black people’s demands for justice being met with defensiveness and derailing the conversation. I’m tired of white people showing more concern about riots (which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the language of the unheard”) than the racism that inspires them. (Further, I’m tired of white supremacists inciting riots and then blaming Black people for them – but that’s another story entirely). And I’m tired of these same individuals clutching their pearls when Black people do protest peacefully: when we take a knee, march in the streets, or simply declare, “Black Lives Matter.”

Most importantly? I’m tired of silence.

My anger is not just reserved for avowed racists but for the “good” people who witness their racism and say nothing. I can’t help but recall that the original title of Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel’s memoir Night was Un Di Velt Hot Geshvign, Yiddish for “And the World Has Remained Silent.” Dr. King made it clear that we must repent “[n]ot merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people…”

Despite all of this, I refuse cynicism.

I firmly believe we are God’s partners in creation, compelled to fight against chaos in all forms – including racism. I believe we can succeed in this fight, but not without white people – including white Jews – doing their part.

If you are white and want to do good, here’s how to start.

When acts of racism (like the ones mentioned above) occur, reach out to your Black friends with support, a willingness to listen to their needs, and the courage to act on their behalf, including: financially supporting antiracist initiatives; calling out racism on social media; showing up to march with (and protect) Black protestors; and calling out other white people on their racism.

Further, our congregations and Jewish institutions must instantly speak out against acts of racism whenever they occur and follow up with action. We must prove that our prayers are not just poetic gestures; they are the centuries-old sacred fuel empowering us to stand firm in the face of the Pharaohs of our day.

In short, antiracism must be as integral to and synonymous with our Jewish communities as reciting the Sh’maSh'maשֵׁמַע Jewish affirmation of belief in one God. Lit. "Hear/Listen/Understand." The affirmation of God's unity is found in Deuteronomy 6:4. .

I also implore every congregation to take the Union for Reform Judaism’s Audacious Hospitality congregational assessment, which we will provide in the coming weeks (Learn more about it here.) Our communities cannot be complacent or willfully ignorant about the ways in which we fail to include or advocate for marginalized groups, including Jews of Color and People of Color on the whole. We must honestly assess our implicit biases, our underwhelming actions, and even the harm we may have caused. This, in and of itself, is a form of t’shuvah, repentance.

Black Jews are tired, and we have been tired for a long time. But most of us – more than most, I’d say – are nonetheless hopeful.

We’re hopeful that despite being ignored and failed in the past, our allies will do the work we are often too exhausted to (but do anyway). We’re hopeful that our leaders – who speak of tikkun olamtikkun olamתִּקּוּן עוֹלָם"Repair of the world;" Jewish concept that it is our responsibility to partner with God to improve the world. A mystical concept of restoration of God's holiest Name to itself and the repair of a shattered world. Often refers to social action and social justice.  and b’tzelem Elohimb'tzelem Elohimבְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִיםLiterally "in the image of God;" the concept—from Genesis 1:27: “God created humankind in God’s image”—that because all humanity is created in the image of God, each person is equally valued.  (the idea that we’re all created in the image of God) – will act to repair the world by screaming in the face of racism, rather than sitting in silence; that they will act as though the Black faces they’re defending are the actual faces of God.

We are hopeful that our Jewish community will take every story of racism – within or outside of the Jewish community – as a personal challenge to do better by us.

Please do not let our hopes be in vain.

Read the Reform Jewish community's recent statement about persistent systemic racism and see "Strangled by Police: Psalm of Protest 17" by Reform Jewish liturgist Alden Solovy. In the coming days and weeks, the Reform Jewish Movement will continue to share information about ways to act for racial justice. 

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