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Illuminating the World Through Dialogue – Vayyeshev 5780

Two weeks ago, our congregation sent a delegation to Boston, to the convention of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Markiz and I presented on all the wonderful, connective programming we are doing through Derekh, and we all learned a whole bunch of useful stuff for continuing to build our congregation and make it more sustainable.

Boston is the Old Country for me; it’s kind of like Vilna (the Yiddish name for the capital of Lithuania). While I did not grow up there, my parents did, and so did three of my grandparents. For them, Boston was the New World. For me, it feels like history. 

On Tuesday morning, I took a taxi to Logan Airport, driven by a friendly man from Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. I could feel the lump of history in my throat. My maternal grandfather, Edward Bass, alav hashalom (may peace be upon him), drove a taxi in Boston in the middle of the 20th century, at one point owning his own taxi medallion. He used to hustle for fares, hanging around the airport to get well-heeled visitors into his cab. He was proud that he had driven celebrities – the singer Lena Horne was one that I recall.

And, as we traveled through the Ted Williams Tunnel, I reflected back on my family’s story as one tiny piece in the American Jewish experience, that of immigration and assimilation and trying to fit in, and the next chapter in the ongoing odyssey of the Jewish people.

My grandfather was poor. He was a foster child from age 3, grew up on a farm outside of Boston owned by a Jewish farmer, Mr. Slotnick, and never completed high school. Nonetheless, he provided for his family: my grandmother, an immigrant from what is today Ukraine, and three kids, the youngest of whom was my mother. My mother completed nursing school and married a tall, very smart young man whose father worked as a bottle-washer at the Hood dairy plant in Boston. That young man, my father, went on to get a doctorate in mathematics.

They all grew up in a Boston that was quite segregated, not only along racial lines, but along ethnic lines as well. People from different groups did not mix so much. Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitic attitudes and threats of violence, and thus kept to themselves. And in the mid-1960s, my father’s family ultimately left the neighborhood of Dorchester, where all their neighbors had been Jewish. They were pushed by the documented practice of redlining, through which banks and real estate agents encouraged white people to move out to the suburbs and penalized African-Americans by refusing them loans. They were concerned about how their neighborhood was changing, about the black folks who were moving in as the Jews left.

All the more so in those days, people were suspicious and fearful of those unlike themselves. And today we are all still feeling the reverberations of that unfortunate legacy. The question that we face now is, how might we overcome old mistrust? How might we as a society overcome that deep-seated fear of the other?

***

The attack in Jersey City last week, occurring at a cemetery and a kosher market, left four people dead, many families bereft, and a community in agony, the kind of agony that we know in Pittsburgh all too well. You may know that there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitic activity in the last few years, and we are feeling the pain. Coupled with two other incidents in LA, the last few weeks have been truly nerve-wracking.

Anti-Semitism, of course, is not new; it is truly ancient, and sits alongside the entire spectrum of fear and hatred. People distrust those whom we do not know – who have different rituals, who eat different foods, who speak a foreign language, who dress funny, who do not mix with everybody else.

And all the more so, this inclination to be wary of the other, when coupled with harmful stereotypes, occasionally leads to violence. What drove the Pittsburgh shooter to attack the three congregations at the corner of Shady and Wilkins, murdering 11 holy Jewish souls? He was convinced by white supremacists that Jews are actively working to replace white Americans with dark-skinned immigrants. Why did the attackers in Jersey City seek Jewish targets? It seems that they were motivated by the hatred of Jews espoused by some Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “black supremacist” group. 

(I must point out at this point that this group, which is, to my knowledge, in no way “Jewish,” is entirely unrelated to other black Jewish groups and individuals who are not supremacists. I myself have been warmly welcomed by their congregations: I once attended a very interesting Shabbat morning service at the Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Harlem, and my congregation on Long Island had a relationship with the black synagogue in St. Albans, Queens.)

Ethiopian Jewish kessim at a festival in Jerusalem

Fear, and indeed hatred of the other, is something that humanity will always live with. And there is really only one solution, and it is not necessarily an easy one. And that is dialogue. We have to talk to one another. We have to sit together. We have to break bread together. We have to share stories. We have to establish depth of relationship in order to overcome mutual apprehension. To defuse the time-bomb of hatred, we must proactively seek to understand each other.

Now, before we go any further, I have to confess something: 

This discussion makes me anxious, because I do not think that I am equipped with the tools for having the conversation. But I care, and I want to get it right. And I am trying to listen, and to learn.

Anti-Semitism is the type of hatred with which we are most familiar, and it is the one to which we as Jews are most attuned. And statistics have shown that anti-Semitic activity is double what it was in 2015, just a few years ago.

But let’s face it: Boston is still quite racially segregated. So too are Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, NYC, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and yes, Pittsburgh. And there is not only a physical segregation in our cities, but also a kind of segregation that exists in our hearts. And that segregation in all its manifestations – schools, neighborhoods, income gap, healthcare outcomes – is not just unhealthy; it is in fact dangerous. It continues to reinforce an incarceration rate that is more than five times higher for African-Americans than for caucasians. A recent study in Pittsburgh, which I mentioned on High Holidays, showed that the local black infant mortality rate puts our fair city in the 6th percentile among African-Americans in the whole country. And there are plenty of other horrifying statistics.

We need as a society to have dialogue between people of different groups. And that is not easy, and it’s not always comfortable. And frankly, most of us do not even know where to start. But here is the good news: we at Beth Shalom are trying to move the needle on this, and we have several initiatives already in progress.

And here is another piece of news: we have before us a “teachable moment.”

A few weeks back, at our Comedy Tonight fundraiser, a joke crossed a line that made many of us uncomfortable. In a bit about airports, the comedian mocked agents of the TSA, drawing on stereotypes of African American and Muslim employees. Elsewhere in his routine, he also made fun of old people and, of course, Jews, and particularly old Jews. It is to some extent the job of a comedian as an artist to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to make us consider our own absurdities. Comedy is a study in human failure.

But for us to truly be in dialogue, to be in the deep kind of dialogue that not only brings people together, but rather enables us to address honestly the challenges that we all face as a society, we all have to make sure that nobody is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of the other. 

Now, if you were in attendance that night, and you enjoyed yourself, you might be wondering, “What was harmful about the routine? Maybe there was a tasteless joke we could have done without, but harmful?”  Well as it turns out, yes. One study about humor and racism from 2011 demonstrated that, 

…if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.

Ladies and gentlemen, words matter. We chanted earlier this morning, “Barukh she-amar vehayah ha’olam.” Praised is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. We understand our world as having been created through words. And it can be destroyed through words as well.

When I was a student at Cornell, and the Black Students Union brought Louis Farrakhan to campus, I was out there protesting with Hillel. When local groups have presented one-sided, inaccurate portrayals of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, we the Jews have called them out. And had we as a community heard that a Christian comedian performed a routine in a local church that denigrated Jews using well-worn stereotypes about us, I am sure that we would be up in arms. Even in the context of comedy, words matter.

This teachable moment does not take away from the wonderful spirit of the evening that we shared together as a community. But we must be in dialogue, and dialogue requires that our house is in order first. We must look inward first, before looking outward. So, understanding that while we as a community were not responsible for what came out of the comedian’s mouth that night, we must acknowledge that it happened in our house. To all who may have been insulted by his portrayal of African-Americans or Muslims, we as a community are deeply regretful.

And to all who are ready to reach out your hand in dialogue for the betterment of ourselves as individuals and for the greater good, we welcome your partnership.

And, for everybody among us who is interested in moving the dialogue forward, you should be aware of the following opportunities that Derekh is creating in our community:

  1. We have a book group that is reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be an Antiracist.
  2. As part of our Beth Shalom Speaker Series, on March 25th we will be featuring Marra Gad, the Jewish and multi-racial author of The Color of Love
  3. We have an ongoing partnership with the local Episcopalian community, which continues to bear fruit in dialogue.
  4. We hosted both Richard Carrington and Rev. Tim Smith, who work in the front lines of the local African-American community.
  5. A group of us went on a civil rights tour of the South last spring, and we will be doing it again in April – be on the lookout for more info.
  6. And there are other dialogues and workshops that are flying below the radar right now, which we hope will continue and soon become more visible.

We are working toward making tzedek, that is, justice, an essential part of what we do at Beth Shalom.

My friends, I am going to close with the following thought:

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tomorrow evening. Why is it called “Hanukkah”? That word literally means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Second Temple following its defilement at the hands of Hellenized Syrians in the second century BCE. 

We cannot allow our Jewish spaces, or our lives, to be diminished by prejudice of any kind, and we should expect that of our neighbors as well. In this season, as we light those candles in the symbolic act of illuminating the dark corners of this world, we should rededicate ourselves to reaching out, to real dialogue, which leads to the holy work of tzedek. This is one way we may continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations of this world.

Ve-ahavta lere’akhah kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. And in order to love your neighbor, we must expand our sense of neighborhood.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally presented at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/21/2019.)

One reply on “Illuminating the World Through Dialogue – Vayyeshev 5780”

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