Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reflections on Rosh HaShanah 5777

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, On Prayer

On September 11th 2016, in Washington DC, Terrence Sterling was murdered by Brian Trainer, a member of MPDC. Very little information was released about his murder. Terrence's good friend Stephen Douglass, a local organizer, immediately set to work to organize and find answers. The organizers planned an action for the evening of October 3rd. This year, October 3rd was the night following the first day of Rosh HaShanah. For Rosh Hashanah, I usually take two days off from school and work to celebrate the holiday by unplugging from tech, spending time with friends and family, attending services, and doing self-reflection. This year, I chose to do something different;  I chose to attend the action on October 3rd.

In making this decision, I was particularly inspired by a small group of Jewish activists from 1966. They leafleted Washington Hebrew Congregation on Yom Kippur to protest Jewish segregationist landlords and the Jewish leadership who refused to speak out against them because "business practices of congregants are of no concern [to the rabbi]." Although in 1966 many congregants were disgusted by the protestors for "ruining the High Holy Days," I was inspired by them. Like Heschel, these activists understood that to be Jewish is to be active and to fight for a just world.  I went to the Terence Sterling protest on Rosh HaShanah with these Jewish activists in mind. I had spent 5776 trying to link social justice with Judaism; I would start 5777 doing exactly that.

After attending services on Monday, I went to the protest. I had heard about the protest through the DC chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.  From SURJ, I had learned the necessity of showing up in solidarity as a white person for actions organized by black communities. Because I gave careful thought and set intentions before heading to the protest, it felt like no other action that I had been to before.

When I arrived, I found my friends who organize with SURJ.  They asked me to hold a large banner by an intersection.  People honked their support as they drove by. Among the speakers at the event was Alonzo Smith's mother. She spoke about her son who had been murdered by the police a year ago in DC. She still doesn't have answers. After several more people spoke, we moved into the intersection to block traffic. Soon, we began to march, singing hopeful chants along the way. I loved when we chanted, "Show me what democracy looks like/ this is what democracy looks like" because it reminded me that this march is part of my civic duty to improve my city and country.

At one intersection we paused and joined hands into a giant woven circle that reminded me of Havdallah at summer camp. We were instructed to look to the people to the right and left, look into their eyes, and declare, "I need you to survive."   I looked into the eyes of the stranger to my right, squeezed his big warm hand, and said, "I need you to survive." He then, looked me in the eye and told me that he needed me to survive.  It's hard to describe the feeling of vulnerability and empowerment when you look into the eyes of a stranger and say, "I need you to survive" with intent and have it said back to you with that same sincere intent. It was an authentic, human moment. It felt like being perceived by another, like what I imagine was meant by Martin Buber when he described connecting with the other.

There is genius in the line, "I need you to survive" because of its multiple facets.
I need you to survive can mean:

-I need you for my own survival
-You need to survive.

In its dual interpretations, the line encapsulates what we mean when we say collective liberation. Collective liberation is the idea that, "none of us are free until all of us are free." I used to think the idea was simply a nice sentiment, but through my learning I have realized that it is much more. All of us, ALL of us, are harmed by white supremacy.  White supremacy denies us our humanity, isolates us, and makes us fearful. Silence is complicity. We will all benefit when we dismantle racist systems and institutions.

After over two hours of marching in the streets, singing, meeting people who knew Terrence, who were disgusted with police brutality, who wanted a better country for everyone, we sang the Assata chant:

"It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love each other and protect each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains"

I want to end the police brutality that is committed in my community in the name of my "safety." At previous rallies, I have thanked the police for protecting our right to protest. At this rally, I felt differently. Whether they knew the officers who shot Terrence Sterling, these officers were colleagues with the officers that killed him and that scares me.  I felt compelled to march with friends and family of Terrence Sterling to demand answers and justice.  

While there are efforts in the Jewish community to stand up for racial justice, I have been disappointed by the tepid response of the organized white Jewish community. Because of this tepid response, my attendance to the action on Rosh HaShanah felt like a rejection of the behaviors of the white Jewish community over the past several years which has not forcefully stood up for black lives in 2016.  I do not mean to accuse people who chose to celebrate Rosh HaShanah traditionally, but I do want to call-in Jewish people who are not taking a stand on every other day of the year. Pursuing justice is the most Jewish action we can take. The essence of Judaism is doing what is right, is standing up for the stranger. This is at the heart of Jewish values and identity.

It is time to take a stand. We have nothing to lose but our chains.