Rabbi Ain Sermon Kol Nidre Yom Kippur 2020

Teshuva for the past, Education for the Future: An examination of the viruses of Anti Semitism and Racism Kol Nidrei Yom Kippur, September 27, 2020

Click here for a PDF of the sermon text.

They were both outsiders in the starched white world of elite 1950s tennis, superb players but excluded from tournaments and clubs and shunned on the circuit because of their heritage. Angela Buxton, a white, Jewish Englishwoman, was a granddaughter of Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms in the early 1900s; Althea Gibson, a black American, was born in a sharecropper’s shack in South Carolina and grew up in Harlem.

“When I came on the scene, the other players wouldn’t speak to Althea much less play with her quite simply because she was black,” Buxton told Sally Jacobs, author of a forthcoming biography of Gibson. “She was completely isolated,” she added. “I was, too, because of being Jewish. So it was a good thing we found one another.”

…And so began an obituary that was written about Angela Buxton on Aug 27.

For many years, the Black and the Jewish community saw their lives as parallel stories, that intersected, often as they were seen as the others in this land of opportunity, striving for acceptance in a land not built for them-yet, often built by the work of their hands. At some point, some of the partnerships that had been so deeply entrenched in the psyche of the souls of the communities began to diverge and for some, the empathy and compassion that one group had for the other began to dissipate. The images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel seemed to begin to fade into the background, without new images emerging. Further, it would begin to feel that not only were people falling “out of touch” but there were conflicts that were arising. Each community wondering-why wasn’t the other one speaking out enough for the other. And then, it also became clear, that the dichotomy of Black and Jewish, was a false one, because there are many Jewish people of color, who, were trying to be a part of the Jewish community, but were being looked at with suspicion before they could even get in the door. “You don’t look Jewish” people would say. Or, “what are you here for?” not being able to imagine that a Jew could look differently than they. 

To me, these subtle challenges, one where we didn’t realize just how out of touch the communities might be with one another’s pain, came to the fore, this year. There is no question that this has been a year of reckoning in our country. We have been asked to come to terms with what we know and don’t know and we have asked others to do the same. We have questioned our education about other’s pain and we have been horrified at the ignorance of what people don’t know about our pain. 

We know it is painful when people don’t understand the jewish story. It is why it hurts when athletes, politicians, and celebrities invoke Hitler on twitter, use either blatant or often hints at anti semitic rhetoric in their speeches, and why it is so painful to know how little people know about our past. ….

I couldn’t believe a news clip that was shared w/me last week that showed that Thirty-four percent of Millennial and Generation Z New Yorkers think the Holocaust was exaggerated or a myth, according to a new national study looking at Holocaust knowledge among those groups.

  • 58 percent of New Yorkers feel the Holocaust could happen again
  • 19 percent of New Yorkers think Jews caused the Holocaust
  • 36 percent of New Yorkers thnk the Holocaust and World War II are not associated

We must stand up and advocate for Holocaust education and we must speak out against anti semitism. It is why I proudly stood in partnership w/so many community leaders this past January at the foot of the brooklyn bridge, standing up and speaking out against such hate. 

And we have also realized, and have finally started to articulate, that it is actually not always “us and them. That sometimes, the people we “other” are a part of our Jewish community, and that we, as Jews, are certainly a part of a community that has endured hatred throughout time and space. In fact it was why I devoted my entire Kol Nidre sermon last year to the history of Anti Semitism. It is in many ways, the original virus-one that has mutated throughout generations and continues to rear its ugly head. We saw it in Jersey City, we saw it in Monsey, we saw it in Wilmington. Like COVID-19, the virus of anti semitism attacks in different ways. There isn’t just one presenting symptom and you aren’t always going to know how you are going to be afflicted by it. But like we COVID-we have learned that there are some ways to protect ourselves-nothing is a perfect solution, and we need to be careful, but I would suggest that just as wearing masks and maintaining a healthy social distance is important to fighting covid, at least until there is a vaccine, when it comes to fighting the virus of anti semitism, we need to not pull back but lean into relationships. Speak up. Educate more. Reach out. But as we educate others-as NFL Player Julian Edelman educated another player, DeSean Jackson, we need to also commit to learning or re-learning so that if we have missed the mark we can improve. 

We need to know what we say and how we say it might hurt people. We need to be able to talk about race, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Talking about race doesn’t mean we are bad people, it just means we aren’t as good as we can be. Not talking about race at all and how people are hurt, is where the problem lies

What i have also discovered over the past few months, is something that I was not able to see before, and that is the role of systemic racism in this country. As one of our congregants wrote to me, and I agree with him, I do not believe that the large majority of people in the USA are racists; nor are the vast majority of

the NYPD.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to be addressed, and if it is during these 10 days that we are supposed to look deep inside ourselves and wonder where did i do well and where have I missed the mark, I would like to to take time to reflect and learn, in the spirit of YK, on how I have experienced the last several months. 

I want to speak for a few minutes about Amy Cooper. If you were in front of me, I would ask you to raise your hand if you knew who i was talking about. I imagine you do. Amy Cooper was the caucasion women who, on memorial day weekend in central park, called the police and said loudly, into a phone that an African American man was threatening her life. This was so far from the truth. In fact, he, a birdwatcher, was telling her to put her dog on a leash, something that she wasn’t doing and was a clear violation of the rule. But instead of doing that, she turned the tables, and she accused him of threatening her. She used her voice to harm him. Judaism, as we know takes a strong stance on how we use our words-we are told in fact that embarrassing a person is like destroying their life. She knew at that moment that she opened her phone, dialed 911, and said An African American Man is threatening my life, that she had the potential to destroy his. Fortunately, he was ok. By the time the police arrived she was gone and he hadn’t done anything. There was no arrest and no violence. And there was a video showing that in no way was he threatening her and yet she used her words in an obscene way. 

I bring this up today because in a year like 2020, it is an imperative that I address issues of racial injustice as part of our reckoning and reflections but I actually don’t want to do with by talking about George Floyd, or Breanna Taylor, or Ahmud Arbury, or any of the police involved in their deaths, because I would assume that all of you, no matter where you are on the political spectrum, can agree that those deaths should not have occurred and the behavior of those individual police personnel and citizens must be looked at closely. 

No, what i want to talk about is me. A caucasion, Jewish american woman, who, looks more like Amy Cooper than any of the other people in the news. I am a person who has the ability to walk around freely without being looked at with wanton glances; I can ask people for help or advice without individuals holding their pocketbooks just a little bit tighter, or putting their hands on their phones, just in case, or looking for a local member of law enforcement, to protect them from me. What I learned this spring is how I really took this for granted. And since it is Kol Nidre, I wanted to take the time to model, how I started to engage in a process of teshuva-deep reflection of where have I been an ally to those reaching out in pain and where have I been an inadvertent adversary. 

I decided that it was time to discuss, outloud, that there is a challenge in this country that I didn’t fully understand. It is true, in the past I of course spoke of areas of injustice-such as when Eric Garner died (and his final words were also I can’t breath), or when we brought Ian Manuel to speak about major challenges to the criminal justice system, especially as it impacts African American men, or when we traveled together to the south to engage in learning the history of Jewish/Black relationships. 

But to be honest, until this spring, I didn’t spend time thinking about how men and women of color felt each and every day. People trying to do their jobs and need to do them better than everyone just to get half the recognition. And so that led us to our first moment of education where we had an incredibly moving panel with Dr. Fritz Francois, Dr Renee Williams, and a member of SPS, Julia Abdurahman, who spoke honestly about what being people of color is like. What are their stories? What are their lived experiences? What did it mean for Dr. Francois teachers to tell him not to try to advance as a little boy or to hear that for him, the CMO of NYU Langone, each day is his own personal Mt Everest. Did we listen? I know I did. And i know that i wanted to learn more. 

What assumptions have I been making, albeit unfairly about people of color?

How does that play out, unconsciously, as a leader?

How does that manifest itself here at SPS-have we created an environment that is welcome to all people who are seeking to engage in Jewish life, since of course there are many Jews of color, or have I somehow, been closed off to hard conversations. 

I hadn’t taken the time to look at my own assumptions. So I began to wonder, what sins with regard to my own education have i committed knowingly and unknowingly…and how do we look at the news and wonder-what do i need to learn?/ re-learn? What is it about my education that was lacking? For me, it could be about black or latino history. SO I started reading and listening…Whether it is rereading Letter from a Birmingham Jail (and realizing that while much has changed, much is the same), reading books that are causing me to understand more deeply the pain of others, or just listening, it is time to do teshuva.

MLK wrote: My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. … But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

 I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. …

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. … It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative..

…You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored….

THIS BRING US TO TODAY.

It is as if this is being replayed when people say “why kneel? Why wear shirts that say I can’t breath.” Why raise a fist? EACH OF THESE are moments of non violent protests and yet they each get received with scorn. So then people march. Mainly peacefully. And the result-scorn, hate, and in some cases like in Wisconsin, death. Please hear me loud and clear–I will say it twice: I am not blaming all police officers. Also, I know that not every protest have been completely peaceful. But just as the overwhelming number of police officers are good and I don’t want to judge all of them based on some of them-yet we recognize the need for change, so too, even if there are some bad protests, the overwhelming amount of them are good and we need to explore what has brought people to the streets. 

After listening to the pain, I then did another step of teshuva. I started asking myself, what is it that i didn’t even know, but i should have known. The moment this was crystallized was in June.  And all of a sudden everyone was talking about Juneteenth. And here I was, an educated, American history major, college and post college graduate, who had know idea what was being spoken about. 

In the spirit of teshuva I needed to listen, learn, and re-learn. 

And I needed to come to grips with the question-are there sins that I have committed knowingly and unknowingly

Yavilah McCoy writes, “The Torah teaches us that sin does not require intention. In our liturgy, we confess the sins we have committed b’zaron u’vishgaga, — both consciously and unconsciously. On this day of atonement, we cannot fail to grapple with the sin of racism. While we see blatant and intentional racism in our society, the deeper and broader structures that support and nurture racism do not rely on evil intent. 

So this year I am saying “Al Chet”… For the sins we have committed through conscious and unconscious racial bias. For the sins we have committed through hardening our hearts to the need for change. For the sins of colluding with racism both openly and secretly. For the sins of racism that we have committed by not seeing racism as an evil among us. For the sins of racism that we have committed by not committing to end it. For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness, and atonement.”

Lastly, I returned to our tradition to see what I could learn and how I could improve and I was reminded that, unfortunately, we know that racism didn’t begin now. Xenophobia and racism go as far back to the Torah and we have been victims as well as aggressors. We were victims at the hands of Pharoah, who enslaved us out of fear, and yet, we recall how Miriam the prophetess, was, acted a bit like Amy Cooper? The middle aged woman who used her words against Tziporah, Moses’s wife. Miriam, A woman, who referred to Tzipora as “the cushite, the black woman.” Miriam was afflicted by the disease of racism and her punishment was a white scaly disease. Miriam wanted to blend in, only focus on her whiteness since she had forgotten what it was like to be the other. Let us not forget that we are often the other. 

Here is the thing-accepting that we might have done something wrong, even unknowingly, does not diminish the pain that many in the Jewish community has felt throughout the generations. 

Just as last week I shared that when you are in love your heart expands, it doesn’t divide, so too, our pain shouldn’t diminish someone else’s pain, and vice versa. 

Rather, we should understand the pain, and see how to mitigate it. And we have the opportunity to talk about how to do so, even if we have missed chances in the past. since we always have a chance to do better. 

And what better night that tonight to think about this. As Rabbi Dave Levy is sharing with the Young professionals, Kol Nidre tells us we won’t make it to perfection The prayers we said tonight basically say we apologize in advance for all the ways we will miss the mark this year. You would think it would be an apology for all the ways we missed the mark last year but brilliantly its the opposite. Jewish tradition is wise enough to know that we are going to reach for way more than we can grasp, and it is going to hit us harder than we wish sometimes, so we kick off the year, this time of commitments by being honest enough to say we may not make it to all of our goals, and that is ok, we do though need to try. And we can be whole even if we are imperfect. And that is the journey i am asking you to join me on. We haven’t been perfect and we wont’ be perfect but we have motivation to try even if we don’t accomplish everything. 

So: How do we begin? What information do I need to learn? Whom do I need to lift up? What do i know and what don’t i know that have caused pain? How can I listen intently, as i spoke about on the 2nd day of RH, in a way that can help other grow.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin taught this week

We are commanded 36 times to love the stranger, the person who is different from us. We  are commanded to feel the feelings of the stranger because we have been the stranger. Said in other words, we should have empathy toward the other. 

Further, as  Rabbi Shai Held, wrote, one of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility. Appealing to our experience of defenselessness in Egypt, the Torah seeks to transform us into people who see those who are vulnerable and exposed rather than looking past them.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need for room for people to grow and thrive, and how there have been times, in history, where people have been put into boxes, or ghettos, and haven’t found the way to emerge. …

On RH I spoke about Adam and Eve from the garden of eden. I spoke about what we should learn…and shouldn’t learn from them. Tonight I bring you their children, Cain and Abel. Cain, who killed Abel…we aren’t sure why. But when he asked, Am I my brother’s keeper, of course, the answer was yes. It is time for us to be our brother’s keepers.

This June I was a part of a caucus of religious leaders for the American Jewish Committee and the Black Caucus, here in NYC. We were listening to each other’s stories and each other’s pains. And here is what the Black pastors asked of us:

 1-Call it out when you hear and see remnants of White Supremacy 2. Re educate yourselves re: black history in the US the treacherous crimes against humanity like what occurred in Tulsa, Demand curriculum changes in your schools to encompass Black history, Black Authors, Black Mathematicians, and Scientists.

I can’t fix the viruses of anti-semitism and racism overnight. But I can look at what are presenting symptoms and try to make things better. I can stop and listen and learn. And, just as I went to IJS thinking i needed to make you better but really I needed to listen, now, we need to stop and listen to the voices of those in pain. If we listen, so will they. And I believe that that isn’t too late to turn course. We can course correct our education about others and the education about us. We can work in partnership-

When the Israelites were on their journey in the desert they carried the first set of tablets, the broken ones, with them. 

Normally we say they remained with us to remind us of our imperfections and that we are all a bit broken. I would suggest that it is also a reminder that we in fact sinned. But we didn’t bury them. We carried them with us. So how do we create new tablets that uphold the values we want for a more just society, where all of us have freedom to grow. 

Tonight is about listening. Listening and learning to the voices of those who feel they haven’t been heard. God heard the cries of the Israelites and took them out of Egypt and it is time that we listen and hear the cries of those who can’t send their sons on the streets without being in fear; who can’t send their daughters to school without being passed over. This is about hearing about the experiences of a fellow human being. About seeing people as created in God’s image. Tonight is about each of us wondering, where have I missed the mark? Tonight is about letting down our defensiveness and opening up ourselves to compassion. This is how I have started my teshuvah. By listening. Questions of racial justice might not be where you are focusing your teshuva that is ok. But there is always something that we can do better. So wherever you are, whatever it is when it comes to teshuva, if you feel you need to do it, i hope you will join me in this journey.