Yom Kippur 5774/2013

Good Yom Tov, everyone and Happy New Year.

There are some things one never forgets.  I will never forget my first experience of anti-Semitism.  I was just a little girl, playing with a friend when it came – like a verbal shot across the bow, catching me completely off-guard.  I was speechless and deeply hurt.  Nor will I forget the second, third, or fourth instances – from friends or co-workers – cracks about Jews and money or some other stereotype.  Many of you, I’m sure, also have stories like this.  They are humiliating, and often enraging, experiences.

I will also never forget the time I realized that someone was afraid of me.  It happened when I was in my twenties, living in Washington Heights in New York City, a neighborhood at the time populated by a mix of Latinos, young whites, and an aging, mostly German-Jewish population.  One sunny day, dressed in jeans and t-shirt, I stepped into a subway elevator and found myself alone with an elderly couple.  German-Jews, I surmised, and I felt a sense of kinship with them.  But then, I noticed them cringe a bit, a look of fear and uncertainty in their eyes, coupled with an almost imperceptible backing away.  So much for kinship.  They were afraid of me.  Me.  Was it because I was young?  Was it because of my bleached out jeans?  Did I look too tough?  I do not know.  I never spoke to them.  I remember looking away or down at the floor, hoping, I suppose, to appear less threatening.  It was an awful feeling to realize these people were afraid of me.  It left a pit in my stomach I can still feel, and a permanent tear in my heart.  To my knowledge, this never happened again.  Thank God.  Once was enough.  As I became more conscious of issues of race living among the mosaic of people that is New York, I remembered this incident from time to time and realized: this is how many Black men feel every day of their lives.

Last month was the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington and the Reverend Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.  Two months ago, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African-American teenager.  I bring these two things together because I, like many others, have come to believe that you cannot talk about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case without talking about race in America – and where we are now since Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech on that eventful August day.

Now, the Zimmerman-Martin case was a very complicated one.  And it was further complicated by a “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, one of 23 states in our country which now have such laws waiving the requirement of a person under threat to retreat if they can before using deadly force – as is the case in standard self-defense law.  And while Stand Your Ground was not used in the trial itself, it was part of the jury’s instructions.  This statute was also why the police didn’t arrest Zimmerman immediately.  In addition, the confrontation between Martin and Zimmerman took place at night, so whatever eye-witnesses there were – people who heard the scuffles and screams and tried to see what was happening – were hampered by the darkness.  Their accounts are both uncertain and contradictory.  Who was screaming?  Was it a young voice or the voice of an older person?  Who was on top in the struggle?  Zimmerman or Martin?

We will probably never know the answers to these questions – and I am not here today to pass any judgment on the correctness of the verdict in this case.  There are some things, however, we do know about this case.  Things that raise vital questions about race relations in the United States.  We do know that Trayvon Martin and his father were staying with his father’s fiancé in the gated community in Sanford, Florida where George Zimmerman was in charge of the neighborhood watch.  We know that Trayvon Martin had committed no crime, was unarmed, and was on his way home when Zimmerman saw him.  We also know that when Zimmerman called the police, he was told to stay in his car… which he did not do.  Instead, he followed Martin, with a gun, somehow the two met, and George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin at close range.

So, the question I want to raise is:  What did George Zimmerman see when he saw this young African-American male walking through his neighborhood?  What did he see that made him so angry and so fearful?  And just as important, what did the African-American community see when they saw George Zimmerman that made them so distrustful of the police and of our judicial system?  I wonder if it’s not time for all of us – no matter what our own race or ethnicity – and not all CKS members are white or Jewish – I wonder if it’s not time for all of us to ask these questions of ourselves.  What do we see when we see someone who looks different from us?  Someone of a different race or someone who’s Gay or transgendered?  Someone in a wheelchair or someone who is very old?  Someone who wears a turban or a burka or a sari? Who wears a tie or work-boots, a dress or a police uniform – or a kippah?  What are our assumptions and preconceptions?  And, if we are white, what are the ways in which we are privileged in our society, in which doors open for us, that we’re not even aware of?

Hate groups are on the rise in the United States.  The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center state that there has been a 67% rise in hate groups in the last ten years.  And, by the way, New Jersey shockingly ranks fifth in the nation with 51 hate groups, outranked only by California, Texas, Florida, and Georgia.  With all this happening, shouldn’t we be asking questions about race and discrimination and privilege?

In the now classic article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, the author, Dr. Peggy McIntosh, who is white, distinguishes between white privilege and racism.  She says:  “I did not see myself as racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness… never as invisible systems conferring unsought [advantage to my racial group].”  McIntosh then creates a kind of checklist for herself while exploring her own advantages as a white person in our society.  Here are just a few of them:  1. If I moved into a new neighborhood, I could be pretty sure that my neighbors would act either pleasantly or neutral toward me.  2. I can go shopping and not be worried that I will be followed or harassed by security personnel.  3. I can do well in a challenging situation and never be called “a credit to my race.”  4. When I or my children are taught about our national history or about civilization, we are shown that people of our own color were a part of it.  5. If a police officer stops me, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.  6. If I need legal or medical help, my race won’t work against me.  And 7. If my day or week is going badly, I need not ask if each negative episode or situation had racial overtones.

At the conclusion of her list, McIntosh makes the point that the situations on this list should not be privileges, but rather, she says, “only what one would want for everyone in a just society.”  A just society.  “With liberty and justice for all,” we say when we pledge to the American flag.  Our Torah says, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.”  “Let justice roll down like the waters” says the prophet Amos.  As Jews and Americans, justice is our watchword; its pursuit a supreme value.  Should we not be dismayed, then, by the growing gap in income inequality and its disproportionate effect on people of color in our country?  Should we not be troubled that the unemployment gap between whites and non-whites is not so different from where it was 50 years ago when Martin Luther King gave his famous speech?  And, Should we not be alarmed by the statistic that one in three Black men will find themselves in jail at some point in their lives; or that people of color in many states across our nation once again find themselves fighting for their right to vote?  No matter who we are, we are all diminished by these injustices.  As King said 50 years ago, “We cannot walk alone.”

You know, I thought a lot about writing this sermon.  I thought: “Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this.  Maybe I’ll make people uncomfortable or even angry.  After all, who am I, recipient of so much privilege in my life, who am I to talk about race in America?”  If some of you are uncomfortable – well, I am too!  If you’re angry, this is not my intention.  But, as the great Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But, if I am only for myself, who am I? And, if not now, when?”  And I would add, “If not me, who?”  Who will open up the conversation?  Who will talk about the hard stuff, the things that are broken, the things we all wish to avoid, the things we wish weren’t so – but are.  “If not me, who?”  And, if not you, then who?

I recently learned about something called the Race Card Project.  It was created by National Public Radio host and correspondent, Michele Norris.  After writing a memoir about her own family’s experiences of being African-American in the United States, Norris went on tour with her book.  She found that people who came to hear her had so much emotion, so many stories of their own to share, they either couldn’t stop talking or they couldn’t say anything at all.  So Norris decided to use an old pedagogical technique of inviting people to boil down their thoughts into six words, and send them to her… like a kind of mini-tweet.  Soon the Race Card Project became part of the social media universe.  Here are some of the responses Norris has received:  “Purses are clutched when I approach.”  “My great great grandfather owned slaves.”  “I’m only Asian when it’s convenient.”  “Passing. No one knows I’m Native.”  “He said, I have Black friends.”  “American girls do not speak Spanish.”  “Change on counter, not in hand.”  “A terrible, unnecessary barrier against love.”

There are now thousands of these comments on the Race Card Project website.  Morris explains its success this way:  “In America, our conversations about race are often tethered to large public monuments, trials, elections, marches… and high concept words like “justice” and “rights” and “freedom”.  But in these essays, the most common words are not lofty or majestic….  Instead, the words that surface… speak to personal encounters: “neighborhood”, “hair”, “classroom”, “grandma”, “human”.  And that’s because the events that define our experience with race are often small, unpredictable moments that leave a big impression.”

If not you, then who?  We all need to join the conversation.  I hope you will take a moment to visit the Race Card Project online.  Their website is printed on the back of your Supplements.  I found reading these statements powerful and mesmerizing, enlightening and sometimes heart-rending.  By the way, here’s my six word statement:  “Scared someone once.  Once was enough.”

Gemar Chatimah Tova.  May you all already be inscribed for a life of goodness.  Happy New Year.


Published in Rabbi Susan's Sermons on November 19, 2013