Good Trouble Makers: Teshuvah for racial justice

10 TISHREI 5781 / SEPTEMBER 28, 2020

Good trouble, folks.
Good trouble.
Those famous two words of the late John Lewis—
that racial justice warrior and long-time congressional advocate—
have been ringing in my ears
since the day he died this summer.
In a piece printed posthumously, Lewis wrote:
that our lives must
“demonstrate that the way of peace,
the way of love and nonviolence
is the more excellent way” towards racial equality.
This is what Lewis did through his life.
Now it is your turn to let freedom ring,” he said.
Now it is our turn.

Since the killing of George Floyd,
this nation has faced up in a new way
to the fact that we struggle with a second plague,
a pandemic of racial injustice.
In ways not seen since the ‘60s,
people are awakening to this truth.
What is our role as Jews in this struggle?

Here is what I believe:
Jews must continue to do what we do best:
It’s time for us to make good trouble.

In his piece, 15 ways being Jewish is meaningful,
head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris,
calls Jews “early dissidents,
among the very first to challenge the status quo…
Not by accident, Jews have been disproportionately represented
in the forefront of the global struggle for the advancement of human rights.
Strikingly, Jews have never been satisfied with things as they are.”

For millennia, Jews have shown our capacity
to rise with resilience above the oppression inflicted on us,
fighting for what we believe is right,
and persisting to see the opportunities ahead.
Even in the darkest moments, we have embraced hope.

We come by all of this honestly,
coming from a long lineage of good trouble makers.

It began when Abraham and Sarah heard the call
to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
Then, when Moses and Aaron led us from tyranny to freedom,
and Esther heroically saved the Jews from Haman.
When the Maccabees made miracles happen,
and Hannah Szenes parachuted into Hungary,
seeking to defeat the Nazis.
When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
stood beside John Lewis and Martin Luther King,
and marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for civil rights.

Time and again, the values embedded in our Torah have guided us
to make good trouble.

ואהבת לרעך כמוך
Love your neighbour as yourself,
words we will chant later today from our holy Torah.
אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה:
Rabbi Akiba said: “This is (the) fundamental principle of the Torah.”
(Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4 12; Talmud Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:3)
Or as the great Hillel said:
That which is hateful to you,
do not do to your neighbour,
זו היא כל התורה כולה
that is the entire Torah,
the rest is just commentary,
now go and study.

Love. your. neighbour.
When you think of that person—
who is the neighbour that you think of?
Take a moment to consider…

Although we once believed that love your neighbour
meant only to support your fellow Jews,
now, we know that we must
also protect our non-Jewish neighbours.
Of course, we can and must do both.

Consider these words from a joint letter
signed this past summer
by over 600 multiracial Jewish organizations and synagogues,
representing over half of Jewish people across America:
“When Jewish people join together with our neighbors
across racial and religious differences, as we have in the past,
we can protect each other
and build the future of freedom and safety we all deserve.”

I am proud to say that JCOGS, through our board of directors,
was one of those who signed on.

Now more than ever,
white Jews are charged with a mission to be ‘white allies’.
In 21st century America, that’s a secular term for:
ואהבת לרעך כמוך/v’ahavtah lereiecha kamocha,
love your neighbour as yourself.
Who are our neighbours?
Let’s not forget that the Jewish community includes many People of Colour.
As a people, we are the neighbours we seek to love.

On this holy and awesome day of Yom Kippur,
we come to face our sins, where we have missed the mark,
individually, as a people, and as a society.
We must reckon with the truth of racial inequity
in this country and beyond.
For the sins we have committed against You, G-d,
in not protecting and supporting our sisters and brothers,
our neighbours of colour,
within our Jewish community and beyond.

Back in 1963, at the conference on ‘Race and Religion’,
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel shared these words:
“It is time for the white man to repent.
We have failed to use the avenues open to us
to educate the hearts and minds of men,
to identify ourselves with those who are underprivileged…
Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical,
how universal an evil racism is.
Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man…”

That same year, MLK was put in jail in Birmingham, Alabama,
for marching peacefully for racial justice. From jail, he wrote:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion
that the Negro’s great stumbling block
in the stride toward freedom is not the… Ku Klux Klanner,
but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice;
who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension
to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”

I have been wrestling with these words
from Heschel and MLK for some time.
I fear that their words still ring true today.
I hope that we might feel deep inside our kishkes
a sense of urgency,
to be empathic to the knee that is sitting on the necks
of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters,
who keep saying: “We can’t breathe.”
“What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.” (Heschel)
We can do better to raise the sparks of light that Black Lives Matter.

On this Yom Kippur, Heschel’s words remind us:
“Repentance is more than contrition and remorse for sins, for harms done.
Repentance means a new insight, a new spirit.
It also means a course of action.”

Like the past generations of Jews
from Sarah and Abraham, to Moses, to Esther,
and to those who marched for the early civil rights movement—
let us now be a part of creating that new spirit together.
Let us harness our empathy
towards a new course of action.

I humbly invite you to join me, in our own community,
with the work of the Racial Equity Alliance of Lamoille, or REAL.

REAL is an coalition of business, civic, school, faith,
and community leaders
that came together two years ago
after a series of frightening
racial and antisemitic events in our community.

“REAL envisions a community that embodies
inclusion, equity, and justice as values central to our identity.
We are committed to building a safe community,
where all people experience dignity and respect,
and all are welcome with kindness and belonging.”

For the past two years,
REAL has built a formidable youth and parent coalition,
drafted a toolkit for building inclusive workplaces,
and organized peaceful demonstrations against police brutality.
I am proud to sit on their steering committee,
representing our community
with other involved members of JCOGS.
We need your support.
Consider the following steps:

  • Be added to REAL’s mailing list (email [email protected]) and like REAL on FaceBook.
  • Join the next REAL virtual conversation (on Wednesday, October 14 at 5pm) when we will talk about “Interrupting Hate” (details on FaceBook).
  • If you own a business, have children in the schools, want to engage civic and law enforcement officials, or seek to impact the broader community, join an upcoming subcommittee meeting.
  • Or consider making a donation, as REAL seeks to hire our first staff member:
  • And be in touch with efforts at JCOGS through tikkun olam committee co-chairs Amy Wenger ([email protected]) and Lynne Gedanken ([email protected]), including a non-partisan effort to address voter suppression for People of Colour.

I am so proud of our Jewish lineage
of questioners, dissenters, and good trouble makers,
who rejected the status quo,
in order to bring about change in this country.
How far we have come in so few years!
Yet, there is much work to be done,
more repentance and repair to make us more whole as a society.

In John Lewis’s posthumously published words to the nation, he said:
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century,
let them say that it was your generation
who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last
and that peace finally triumphed
over violence, aggression and war.
So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters,
and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

ואהבת לרעך כמוך
Love your neighbour as yourself.
In other words,
let’s make good trouble, and plenty of it.

To that, let’s say A-men. Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be so.
May all be free at last, free at last.