How Does the Faithful City Harbor Murderers?!

Eichah?! How is it that our city is now the home of murderers? That’s one question (Isaiah 1:21) we are asked in the prophetic reading (Isaiah 1:1-27) for the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, the day of mega-mourning in the Jewish calendar. It’s one that many in the District of Columbia, and other cities in the U.S., are asking ourselves this year, as in years past.

In DC, we recently lost an 11-year-old child, Karon Brown, who spent his summer days selling water and Gatorade on the street; Jamal Bandy, a 27-year-old assistant coach at the rec center where Karon played; and a 17-year-old student and poet, Ahkii Washington-Scruggs, who wrote shortly before his death:

In D.C., it’s nothing but people trying to take your life away
I’m from a city where it’s a blessing to see the age 20

These are just three of the 96 lost to violence since January inside our city limits. This doesn’t count the many more injured in gun violence, the communities traumatized, the educations disrupted, and the constant grief and fear in which some parts of the city live…while other neighborhoods are free to enjoy the city, tuning in or out, at will, to the dreadful conditions a short distance away.

In Isaiah’s frightful prophecy, we are told that two true things are:

1) we are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers while hiding behind empty rituals, and

2) we can stop adding more blood to our hands and turn things around:

And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes, cease to do evil;
Learn to do well;
seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
— Isa 1:14-17 (JPS 1917 translation adapted)

Multiple Mournings

The state of my city is what I hear when first Moses, in the Torah reading for Shabbat Hazon (right before Tisha B’av; Deuteronomy 1:12), and then Isaiah (above), and finally Lamentations (read on Tisha B’av, which begins with nightfall on August 10), cry Eichah?!

So it is hard for me to enter into prayers on Tisha B’av, as Truah is calling us to do, to mourn in solidarity with immigrants and demand closing the camps, without also acknowledging the many other ways families have been torn apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized since the last Tisha B’av.

I strongly support Jews standing against the camps and witnessing that Never Again is Now. When non-Jews called for Lights for Liberty protests a few weeks ago, I advocated for bringing a strong Jewish presence to those events. But I don’t understand how it is — again, however unintentionally, that Eichah?! — that we can mourn for the one set of griefs, and atone for the one way in which our hands are bloody, without acknowledging the other… and the many other ways in which our country has been complicit in murder, here and abroad.

Last year, I joined the Truah Tisha B’av observance at Lafayette Park ONLY because I saw that DC’s listing included this statement: “…not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament” (excerpts from the 2018 announcement below). In actual practice, however, it turned out that the focus was entirely on refugees except for some words around the mourners’ kaddish about local gun violence deaths.

Eichah?!: How is it that this second year of solidarity with refugees for Tisha B’av, there is still not one resource that Truah provides — as far as I can see; if I missed something someone please let me know — that allows Jews to mourn separations and cages and death in more ways than one?

Whether you or your community join a Truah event or pray and mourn in another way on Tisha B’av, please consider acknowledging the many ways our country has ripped families apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized refugees AND OTHERS. There is still time. I know we can do better.

Some resources that might be adapted to the purpose — or we can write new ones!





Eichah! How My city
אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה
מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים׃
How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. — Isaiah 1:21

לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה
Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. — Isa 1:17
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Excerpts from DC’s 2018 Truah co-sponsored Tisha B’av

Our grief is compounded by holding many overwhelming tragedies together in one day.

It is written that baseless hatred and paralyzing humility were the reasons the Holy Temple was destroyed. We read from the Book of Lamentations and bare witness, through our lament, to the horror of children separated from parents—not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament. In the face of the fear and uncertainty plaguing our immigrant communities, plaguing Black mothers who fear for their children’s safety, of Muslim children, witnessing daily state violence, of indigenous families, ripped from their land, we lament.
— full 2018 announcement; scroll down for Washington DC

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PS — Some Starting Points

Just a few resources that could be adapted

Materials with some beautiful and pertinent adaptable bits:

From this blog:

Facing Race. We’ve Seen This

The “Facing Race” conference concludes on November 12. For those reading early in the day, there’s still time to participate via LiveStream. For those checking in later, there’s useful information at this conference link.

Calls for Jewish Signatures

“To the millions of immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBT people, women, people with disabilities, and everyone who is threatened by the President-Elect and his administration, we want you to know: we are with you…”

“We’ve Seen This Before” — open letter; Jews are encouraged to sign.

No Time for Neutrality — rabbinic/cantorial letter from Truah

A few bits background interest:

“CAIR Calls on President-Elect Trump to Repudiate Attacks on Muslim Women by His Supporters” —press release

The 74 — Make Schools Safe Again

Race Forward statement on the National Election

Jubilee (Beyond 37)

Originally posted during the Omer 2015. References to the exact date of the count have been removed to avoid confusion. Also note that Behar, the Torah portion including Jubilee instructions, is read on its own in leap years (like 2019).

This week’s Torah reading — a double-portion, Behar (Lev 25:1-26:2) and Bechukotai (Lev 26:3-27:34) — includes instructions for conducting the Jubilee, the year of rest for the land, a time to “proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Lev 25:10).

Writing for T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher notes another injunction in this week’s reading:

When we were enslaved in Egypt, the Torah says, the Egyptians made us serve them b’farech, with crushing labor (Exodus 1:13). This week’s Torah portion demands that, when we enter the promised land, we not rule over others b’farech (Leviticus 25:43).

As we count the years since the great [Civil Rights] movement [of the 1960s] in our own nation, we also wonder if the planting that was done in the civil rights era will come to fruition, if we will reap the harvest of our predecessors’ hard work. Americans are being crushed once again, with violence and economic and racial inequality. We have not yet achieved the magical, transcendent moment of Sinai.

We should celebrate the legacies of the past—the times when we glimpsed freedom.

But then, we need to get back to work. Our Torah commands it.
— R. Mosbacher, Free At Last?

There may have been moments in the past when we glimpsed freedom. But, as a country, we are stuck with perspectives and behaviors that make freedom for “all inhabitants” an impossibility:

…they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.

And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter — that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.
— Michelle Obama’s recent speech at Tuskegee Commencement

There is much work to do to bring about the Jubilee. It doesn’t involve protests or petitions. It involves a shift of perspective.


Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me.

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Endurance and Leadership (beyond 27)

The close of the Netzach [“Endurance” or “Leadership”] week of the omer journey seems an auspicious moment to share some resources for leading conversations and action within the Jewish community.

Are communities in which you’re active having the necessary conversations? It takes many forms of leadership to get discussion started in ways that allow everyone to listen and be heard. And it takes endurance and additional leadership to keep it going for the long-haul.

The omer count below is for Friday night. This post is scheduled to go out early on Friday in case anyone wants to share resources with their congregations this Shabbat.

Conversation and Sermon Sparks

“We are, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, in the midst of ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ write leaders of Jews United for Justice, introducing a set of resources meant for rabbis, but applicable to anyone who teaches or otherwise leads Jews. “Our partners in the Black community tell us that one of the most important things you can do…is to begin or deepen a conversation with your community about racism, police brutality, and inequality in Baltimore and beyond.” To that end, you’ll find background material, some texts, and sermon starters.

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights offers serman sparks on mass incarceration, a Prayer for Ferguson, and a number of other useful materials. They also issued a statement standing with Baltimore.

Resolutions: Then and Now

The Union for Reform Judaism adopted a Resolution on the Crisis of Racial and Structural Inequality in the United States in December; action items include two particularly relevant to congregations:

Encourage our congregations to establish and sustain relationships with diverse racial, ethnic and economic sectors of their communities, participate in community-based dialogues pertaining to race and community-police relations, and work to enhance violence prevention and conflict resolution procedures.

When appropriate to the size of a community and in cases of a clear, ongoing pattern of excessive police violence in general or against specific segments of the community, consider the efficacy of establishing a representative police review board with subpoena powers.

The 2014 resolution makes reference to a 1969 resolution, noting with sadness that it “rings as true today– if not more so”:

“Race and the U.S. Criminal Justice System”
50th General Assembly
October 1969
Miami Beach, FL

The current demands made by the American black community painfully remind us of the appalling hurt done by our nation to a long oppressed multitude. Certainly we in the Reform Jewish community cannot allow our country to ignore the plight of America’s impoverished millions. Jewish imperatives require that we be ever sensitive to the aspirations and just demands of our country’s minorities.

WE, THEREFORE, URGE our congregations to redouble their efforts in support of those who have been exploited by our society. Synagogue programs supportive of oppressed peoples, the raising of funds for minority group use, pressure upon our government for massive action, are vehicles that we must employ to heal the deep wounds inflicted.

More

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has materials about Selma and Civil Rights and related topics.

Israeli struggles with race, class, and color are not identical to those in the U.S. but are mutually illuminating. A recent article on 972mag [on on-line publication named for Israel’s telephone code] asks Jews of Central European background to understand the struggles of Syrian and other Jews of Middle Eastern descent:

In a world where skin color has consequences for the future of your children, colorblindness is not a virtue, it’s a serious problem.

Thanks to Michele Sumka for sharing the 972mag article.

Links, suggestions, and guest postings welcome.

We counted 27 on the evening of April 30. Tonight, we count…. Continue Reading

Behar: A Path to Follow

“Proclaiming Liberty throughout the Land,” an essay on the portion Behar by then rabbinical students Sharon Brous and Jill Hammer,* includes a section entitled “The meaning of Ge’ulah for feminists.” (See p. 242ff in The Women’s Torah Commentary.*) They ask Jews to consider their responsibility to help free agunot, women chained to marriage by husbands who refuse them divorce; women bound by addiction; women “enslaved by society’s views of their roles and bodies”; and women forced into prostitution or sold into slavery.

“This parashah reminds us how much our kinfolk need us to further their redemption,” Brous and Hammer write.

To learn more about agunot and related advocacy, visit the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance agunot page.

To learn more about modern slavery and what can be done about it, visit Not for Sale and Truah on slavery.
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