I grew up deeply involved in the Conservative movement, attending Hebrew school, going to lots of USY events, staffing the Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York – the list goes on. Yes, I was the only black kid among my white Jewish friends, but that didn’t seem important.
As a kid, I rejected the narrative of racism that my parents portrayed – the narrative that racism still very much exists at both the personal and systemic levels, that only its manifes-tation has changed. My parents warned me to never talk back to cops, to always make sure that cops could see my hands if I was dealing with them. But I didn’t want to believe it. “I have so many white friends, and times have changed,” I said. “Black people don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
But as I got older and bigger, and grew into my full stature as a black man, my experiences also began to change. I suddenly ?t the “thug” pro?le – tall, black, dark, and dangerous. I began to notice women clutching their purses more tightly as I walked by. As I interacted with my white Jewish peers, I began to hear questions and labels that seemed insensitive at best, but ultimately racist and deeply hurtful. “What’s your favorite food – fried chicken?” they’d ask. “Want some more grape soda?” “Can I touch your hair?” “You’re different,” they said, “not like other black people.” Oreo. Nigger. Goy. Sadly, I’ve been called them all.
I could no longer ignore the truth: some in the Jewish community, whose values I identified with the most, knowingly or inadvertently perpetuate the racism that still plagues our society.
My parents, it seemed, were right.
On December 23, 2014 at USY’s 65th International Convention, I delivered a speech to the teens and staff concerning the #BlackLivesMatters campaign. Since the most recent spate of killings of African Americans by police, and the absence of justice for the victims, I have felt more than ever the pervasive racism in our society. I believe this racism creates the attitudes that allow the brutal treatment of black and brown citizens. I asked to address the USY convention because one of its main themes was civil rights, and the teens were taking advantage of the convention location, Atlanta, to see and learn ?rsthand about the people who led the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
I began by reminding the delegates and staff that civil rights is not some far-off history, that racism is not gone, and that we do not yet live in a post-racial society. I wanted to overcome the apathy that can take hold when it seems like injustice is happening elsewhere, not in our own community.
Most of all, I wanted the teens to see that this was not happening to someone else. It was happening to people just like me, and since I and many other black and brown people are Jewish, it’s happening to our community, too.
Eric Garner died on July 17, 2014, after New York City police officers went to arrest him and put him in a chokehold. Though he screamed 11 times “I can’t breathe” while of?cers restrained him, the police never relaxed their grip. Garner died seven minutes later. Those sworn to protect us are not supposed to kill us. I don’t know how we can see this as any-thing but injustice.
But Eric Garner’s death is not an isolated incident. Sadly there have been numerous young black men and women who’ve died the same way, including Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Shelley Frey, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, to name a few. I believe their deaths at the hands of police are not coincidences. I believe that they are the product of systemic racism, individual racism, and deep-seeded hatred. Maybe some people can view these incidents as just another societal problem. I don’t have that luxury. For me, it’s personal.
Standing up against injustice is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned theologian and civil rights leader who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, said, “Racism is man’s greatest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a mini-mum of reason.” We, the Jewish community, admire Heschel. We learn about the movement he helped lead and the hard choices and sacrifices he had to make in the face of the “greatest threat to man.” Though it was hardly popular at the time, Heschel led the Jewish people in the right moral action – bringing the light of Judaism to the darkness of his time.
When you ?nish reading this, I ask you to engage. Reach out to organizations and campaigns in your community to learn how you can help promote equality. In December, four prominent rabbis were among those arrested in a pro-test in Manhattan organized in part by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Other Jewish leaders and organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council in some cities, have been involved, as well.
I hope you’ll consider joining protests in your area. Make noise on social media. Use your leadership in the Jewish community. Hold awareness events, meaningful actions. Be the light and spread it around in your community. Do all you can to remove the chokehold that I and so many others feel, so that everyone in America feels like they can breathe.