Monday, December 8, 2014

Wrestling with Racism

Words shared at Tufts Hillel by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit on Shabbat, December 6, 2014

In the Jewish tradition, the only way to realize ourselves as full human beings is by wrestling with the truths that shape our lives. It is difficult to confront hard truths and when possible, it is common to avoid and run from things we don’t want to see, to shut ourselves off from things we don’t want to hear. But, if we simply open our eyes and ears, it is clear that racism in America is stealing the lives, health, financial and personal well-being of so many in our country. When you are white, it is far too easy to ignore and turn away from this evil. It is too easy to congratulate ourselves on the progress of the civil rights movement. But if we just look around, we see that so much has not changed. What could it look like to stop, confront and actively struggle with racism--both our own deep feelings and the institutionalized oppression that is pervasive in our country? Here I draw both from this week’s Torah portion and a practical approach we have been developing at Hillel to make sure that our commitment to social justice is both thoughtful and impactful.

In this weeks Torah portion, our patriarch Jacob undergoes a transformation. If you remember the story, Jacob hardly led an exemplary life. He deceived his father, he stole his brother Esau’s birthright and then spent much of his life in fear. He was not only running from his brother, but also running away from himself. And then, he decides that he no longer wants to run away. He decides to own up to his mistakes and to confront his brother, to return some of the wealth he had stolen from him, to apologize and do what he can to make amends. Jacob has no idea if his brother will harm him or accept his apology. Perhaps Jacob decided to look at the world through his brother’s eyes. But we know that he stopped running, and the evening before he is to meet his brother, he is confronted with a being—some say it was a man, some say an angel—and they wrestle until the break of dawn. Some commentators say that in fact, Jacob was wrestling with himself, looking deeply to see how he must change if he is to live with integrity in his community, in his family, in his world. But it is in that act of wrestling that Jacob is changed and transformed. He name is no longer Jacob, which means “heal,” but Israel, meaning one who has struggled with the deepest truths and prevailed.

How do we begin the process of wrestling with racism? First, like Jacob, we look into ourselves, and do our best to go deep into our being. Many good people feel they are not racist and then stop there. But real examination demands the we confront the ugly parts of ourselves, the beliefs, emotions and fears of the other that we are too uncomfortable to own or admit. What prejudices shape our actions, our decisions, our friendships, all under the fa├žade of acceptance? How do we take our power and privilege for granted? Does our presence in the world repair and change what is broken or by default, do we perpetuate institutionalized oppression? Before Jacob decided to reconcile with his brother, he stopped to think deeply and we need to do the same before making any real change.

When we commit to social change, we need a studied, thoughtful approach if we are going to really have an impact. At Tufts Hillel, we have been working with a methodology that we call CASES and it feels imperative to intensify this approach now. CASES involves five components and each of the letters stands for one essential aspect of social change. The first is Community partnerships. It is worse than hutzpah to think that you can do real work in a community on your own without partnering with the people and organizations within the community who know and understand these issues through their life experience. In fact, the organizations and people in a community are more than partners, they are teachers whose understanding and knowledge pave the way for the meaningful collaboration necessary to impact social change. The “A” in CASES stands for Advocacy: a commitment to work with larger systems (legal, health, governmental, banks, the police and more) to impact the structures that institutionalize racism in our country. We live in, and benefit from, a society that has structured discrimination into our civic culture. Advocacy is about a commitment to understand and work within these structures to effect change. The “S” stands for Service, actually working within communities of color, building relationships with children, women and men. Whether you world on children’s literacy, gun violence, economic justice, homelessness, hunger, it is through direct service that this work stops being about “issues” and becomes connected to the human beings who are impacted every day by racism. The “E” stands for Education. We have a responsibility to know the facts. One can believe that our country has made great progress but when you learn, for example, that Black men are more than six times as likely to be incarcerated in our country as white men (Pew Research Center), you have to reassess your assumptions. The final “S” stands for Sustainability. It is not enough to work with local communities and begin a project-- you have to think carefully about how to make sure that the work and commitment continues once you graduate or move away. Obviously, here I have only touched the surface in listing these five aspects of the CASES approach. I share them to stress that social change requires a thoughtful commitment to engage on many levels if we are to do the difficult work of confronting racism in our country.

We Jews are in a complicated position in regard to race in America. In our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetime, our community experienced the horrendous genocide of the Holocaust. Jews were murdered, persecuted and excluded from “white” society, both on racial and religious grounds. That exclusion and persecution has had a profound impact of contemporary Jewish culture and many of us do not think of ourselves as “white.” Even as anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, and interpersonal anti-Semitism persists in the United States, now institutional anti-Semitism in our country is rare. While there are Jews in our communities who are not white, and increasing numbers who are bi-racial, the majority of Jews in America are white and with that comes power and privilege. The question before us is how do we use that power and privilege, coupled with our historical experiences, to create a country that truly provides “liberty and justice for all.” Our tradition is clear: we cannot stand idly by while the blood of our neighbor is being shed (Lev. 19:16). There is essential work to be done and at Tufts Hillel, we are committing to intensifying that work. Join us in this commitment to pursue justice.