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by Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
The Vidui, the communal confession of sins that we chant on Yom Kippur, is actually an elaborate acrostic. The ancient litany makes its creative way through the entire Hebrew alphabet, enumerating all of the ways that we have missed the mark, from Aleph to Tav, the Hebrew A to Z.
The opening lines frame the entire list:
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’ones uv’ratzon/ For the wrong we did before You under coercion or of our own free will
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’imutz lev/ For the wrong we did before You by hardening our hearts
Al chet shechatanu lefanecha bivli da’at/ For the wrong we did before You unintentionally, without knowing
Whether under coercion or of our own free will, whether awarely or unintentionally, when we participate in a wrong it is still wrong, and our tradition demands that we make an accounting of it and commit to not repeating it.
Tonight I want to speak about the collective sin of racism, and our responsibility to combat it. I speak tonight as a Jewish American, a citizen of a nation whose great wealth was built on the enslavement, exploitation and degradation of African Americans; a nation that rationalized and institutionalized the intolerable treatment of African Americans by claiming their inferiority to those of lighter skin tone; a nation that, despite much progress, continues to be separate and unequal.
I speak tonight humbly, knowing that many other sins infect our society, equally demanding of our attention, knowing that I am taking advantage of my pulpit tonight to speak on only one deserving topic out of many. I speak tonight humbly, after much reflection, trusting that I should speak my mind.
I speak tonight as an American Jew, my Ashkenazi blood only recently elevated to the status of white people. It is within the memory of many in this tent when Jewish immigrants and their children were not considered white, but rather dark, swarthy, and foreign, when quotas kept us out of the privileged institutions of our country. Many of us know that a century ago Ralph Whitehead chose Woodstock for his utopian arts colony in part because no Jews or Blacks resided here.
I speak tonight as a Jew, compelled by our own ancient story of slavery and degradation to work for fair and just treatment for all.
I speak tonight as one who can usually comfortably ignore racial inequities in our nation, but this year the continuing, insidious reality of racism has forced its way into my consciousness, and I realize that I have been unaware. But my lack of awareness is no excuse; we just chanted, “For the wrong we did before you unintentionally, without knowing.” And so I confess my wrongs and commit to action.
My consciousness has been raised again by the shameful perversion of justice in the murder of Trayvon Martin.
My consciousness has been raised again by the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a moment that changed American history for the better, a moment when the phrase “I have a dream” entered our national lexicon.
My consciousness has been raised again by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act that was created to ensure that every American had the right and the means to vote, regardless of skin color. History can march backward as well as forward. Dr. Martin Luther King, quoting a 19th century abolitionist preacher, used to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Just over two weeks ago, at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama reworded this phrase, and said, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
The forces of racism, like the forces of anti-Semitism, do not disappear on their own. Ideologies of domination and hatred are incredibly resilient, reinventing themselves as conditions change. Our constant vigilance is required.
My consciousness has been especially raised this year by a brilliant book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by civil rights lawyer and scholar Michelle Alexander. Michelle Alexander makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that over the past few decades we have, mostly unawarely, been participating in a society-wide reassertion of racial inequality in our country through the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of darker skin.
Alexander argues that in the wake of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in dismantling the Jim Crow laws that kept African Americans legally disadvantaged, a new strategy developed over time that continues to keep much of the African American community in the position of an underclass. The centerpiece of this strategy was the War on Drugs, and its selective and prejudicial enforcement, primarily against African American and Hispanic males. The statistics speak for themselves:
• From 1970 to 2005, the United States prison population rose by 700%. The United States has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world – more than Russia, China or Iran.
• African Americans make up a little more than 12% of the total U.S. population, but nearly 50% of all those behind bars.
• 1 in every 106 White males over the age of 18 is incarcerated. 1 in every 15 Black males over the age of 18 is incarcerated.
The majority of these crimes are for drug dealing and possession. And so we must ask: do Blacks use drugs more than Whites? Do police sweep liberal arts college campuses with the same frequency as poor urban neighborhoods looking for illegal drug use? How about Woodstock? Clearly, the game is rigged, and African Americans are the born losers.
But as I learned from Michelle Alexander, the damage extends far beyond prison terms. She writes: “Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights . . . than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”
My jaw dropped repeatedly as I listened to Michelle Alexander’s words. I didn’t know! For the wrong we did before You unintentionally, without knowing. Of course there are men and women who are convicted of crimes where removal from society is an issue of public safety. But I didn’t know that even after a jail term, those who have been labeled criminals – and their families – face permanent roadblocks to the most basic rights and services. I didn’t know that the communities in which these families live fall further and further behind, creating a powerless and mostly permanent underclass in the United States. And I didn’t know that these laws are enforced disproportionately against African Americans.
It’s easy not to know. We have elected an African American President and have an African American Attorney General. There has been real and substantive progress. We no longer possess the clarity that infused the Civil Rights Movement in its fight against the manifest injustice of the old Jim Crow. But institutionalized racism persists in our nation, under new disguise, with the support of our legal system all the way up to a slim majority on the Supreme Court. I want to do something about it.
Fortunately, we have an opportunity to do something about it at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Ignited by Michelle Alexander’s book, Susan Griss and Chaia Lehrer initiated, with our Board’s support and endorsement, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation Task Force To End the New Jim Crow. They and their task force have been my consciousness-raisers and my inspiration to speak tonight. The Task Force is working on multiple levels. On the local level, for example, in cooperation with Temple Emanuel of Kingston we have been reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book together, and are beginning to organize new activities with area African American churches and organizations; on the state level Task Force members have lobbied in Albany for change in our state’s draconian mandatory sentencing laws; and nationally Task Force members traveled to Washington, D.C. and proudly carried a WJC banner in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington. But even more ambitiously, the Task Force plans to organize Jewish communities around the country to become a Jewish voice in the emerging movement to ensure racial justice in the United States.
We Jews are rightfully proud of the coalition we forged with African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and the contributions we made to that movement’s success. Some of us here tonight were on the front lines. Who here was at the March 50 years ago? And who participated in Freedom Summer, 50 years ago next summer? I was too young to attend, but growing up with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement shaped my understanding of what it means to be a good Jew and a good American. In honor of these anniversaries, I want to renew our commitment as a Jewish community to work side by side with our African American brothers and sisters towards creating a more just America.
And so I invite you, if you are so moved, to join in the work of our Task Force this year. But even if that is not your cup of tea, I want to invite you to consider some very personal things that each of us might do to combat the sin of racism.
• Notice your reactions when you encounter African Americans, especially young black men. We are mostly conditioned to be afraid. Reach out in your mind and heart past that initial, conditioned response, towards the human being in front of you. Be brave.
• Listen carefully to your African American friends. They experience daily insults that sail right by us. Learn from them.
• The White and Black communities mostly lead separate and parallel lives.
Consider putting yourself in situations in which it might be easy to interact with African Americans. Take the risk to cross the divide, and forge some new connections that might grow into friendships. Have fun!
Every action, no matter how private, that we can take that counters the tide of racial prejudice is like a drop of fresh water, and when enough drops join together a rivulet, and then a stream begins to flow. As the prophet Amos preached in ancient Israel, and as Dr. Martin Luther King repeated 50 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!
V’al kulam, elohai selichot, slach lanu m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.
For all our wrongs, even the unintentional ones, dear God, forgive us, pardon us and grant us at-one-ment.
I wish you all a new year full of at-one-ment, rich with life-giving connections with all of God’s children.
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler has been the spiritual leader of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation for 25 years and is the author of HINENI, Essays and Torah Commentaries from Twenty-Five Years on the Bimah, published by Blue Thread, the book imprint of Jewish Currents magazine.