Jews: Ditch “stay safe and healthy”

Dear Fellow Jews:

Please stop telling one another to “stay safe and health,” without acknowledging the immense privilege of a roof, space to physically distance, and access to personal protective equipment, like clean masks; resources and a network able to support you in time of need; historic access to housing, employment, education, and healthcare; and, if you’re so fortunate: an environment where gun violence, domestic violence, and other “epidemics” were not already at work before Covid-19 arrived.

Maybe start saying, instead: “Stay concerned and compassionate.”

Perhaps add:

“We are in a wilderness [bemidbar] — every day of this pandemic and in our Torah reading cycle, and we are out here to learn something new about being in a diverse community thriving in challenging circumstances.”

Start acknowledging every day, in some new way, the deep inequities that accompany us on this journey, the disparities in the prevalence and severity of Covid-19 depending on where we live, the color of our skin, our immigration status, our gender expression, our physical abilities, and many other factors.

“Wherever you are, it’s probably Mitzrayim [“The Narrow Place,” biblical Egypt]” has been a catch-phrase for many of us since Michael Walzer published Exodus and Revolution in 1986. We have found inspiration in the image Walzer presented of a disparate group “joining together and marching” toward something better. But that image has, for far too long, tricked the comfortable among us into thinking we are marching toward equality and justice, when we’re, in reality, dragging the whole of that Narrow Place along with us.

In this pandemic, that fantasy “marching together” obscures deep, dangerous differences in how our various communities are faring. In DC compare, for example, the number of Covid-19 cases per 1000 people, in these locations:

Woodley Park: 3.5
Adas Israel Congregation, National Zoo
Historic Anacostia: 11.3
Big Chair, We Act Radio/Charnice Milton Community Bookstore (my work)

Cathedral Heights: 3.1
near Temple Micah, Washington National Cathedral
Fort Lincoln: 21.0
Prince Georges county line, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Shepherd Park: 15.8
Ohev Sholom, Tifereth Israel, and Fabrangen
Petworth: 14.8
New Synagogue Project
Brightwood/Brightwood Park: 19.1/22.6
southeast of Shepherd Park, northwest of Petworth

Capitol Hill: 2.6
Hill Havurah
Hill East: 4.5
Mount Moriah Baptist Church (interfaith partner of Hill Havurah), my home
Stadium Armory: 69.0
includes DC Jail, Harriet Tubman women’s shelter

For these and more data, review this interactive map of Washington DC Corona Virus Positives as of 5/15/20.

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 8.44.58 AM

If you live elsewhere, to paraphrase Michael Walzer: it’s likely no different in essence.

Stop saying “we’re all in this together”
and start working to create a world
where that might be just a tiny bit more accurate.

 

Let us keep in mind some teachings of the oft-cited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; his friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the prophet Amos whom they both studied and often quoted:

God does not reveal [Godself] in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world.

The characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God.

All men care for the world; the prophet cares for God’s care….Sympathy opens man to the living God. Unless we share [God’s] concern, we know nothing about the living God.
The Prophets, vol. II (1962), p.3, 11, 284

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity.
– “Beyond Vietnam” (1967)

Because you trample on the poor…
I know how manifold are your transgressions
Hate the evil,
and love the good,
and establish justice in the gate;
Let justice well up as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
– Amos 5:10, 12, 15, 24



To learn more about what’s going on in the DC area, visit Black Coalition Against Covid and Many Languages One Voice. And here is a brief overview of Jewish congregational offerings to learn more and/or get involved.

See also see related text and podcasts at Rereading Exodus.

And please share this.



The current weekly reading in the annual Torah cycle is “Bedmidbar,” usually translated as “in the wilderness,” or, sometimes: “desert.” The Book of Numbers 1:1-4:20.
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Black and Jewish Communities Sharing History

UPDATED 9/3/18

We Act Radio “Sharing History” for the District and for every place where black and Jewish communities have some things to learn about one another.

Listen here —

“We Act Radio: Black and Jewish Communities Sharing History”
Audio excerpts below

Previous We Act Radio piece, “Misunderstandings are growing…”

Our “Junetenth Building Bridges” party led to further meetings between some interested community members and the launching of the “Cross River (Black and Jewish) Dialogue.” Stay tuned for more as this work develops. Our first effort was the placement of this essay on the Anniversary of Charlottesville in the Forward’s Scribe section.

juneteenth_sharing.jpg

Audio Excerpts:
…Jews always know, from history, that any sense of physical security or relative economic ease is a fragile thing, easily destroyed by the kind of hate speech that labels Jews as others to fear and defeat. We know it’s not a long stretch from muttered conspiracies about Jews controlling world capital to crowds chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” And we can’t forget how quickly co-existence in Europe devolved into destruction and death camps.

At the risk of sounding flip, I adapt a slogan from my youth: “Just because a Jew seems paranoid or over-reacting doesn’t mean folks aren’t out to get them.”

By the same token, if someone from east of DC’s Anacostia River sounds overly-sensitive or paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong….

…Black people know from history that any level of economic ease or sense of physical security – such as the ability to enjoy a public park, or close one’s eyes in a common college space, or meet colleagues in a coffee house, or work or vacation or walk to grandma’s house – is an extremely fragile thing. It’s not a long stretch from a few muttered remarks about people not knowing their place to a police call that can so quickly destroy one life, or many. And black communities in the U.S. today suffer disproportionate levels of incarceration, unemployment, and poverty because of centuries of anti-Black sentiment, policy, and action.

The city of DC, like much of this country, has arranged life for many White people so that the dangers and suffering black communities face today are out of sight and out of mind. Another result of our segregated lives, in DC & much of the country, is that black and Jewish communities are too often strangers, even when our communities overlap. This means we are too readily convinced to believe evil stories about the other without easy avenues of communication to correct misunderstandings or opportunities for community building.

We Act Radio, WPFW, and additional partners are working on opportunities for more bridge building, including an Election Day-Juneteenth gathering.
Juneteenth Building Bridges Election Watch Party

Police Brutality Memorial Prayers

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The following prayer, prepared by Virginia Spatz and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, was offered for use during the Yizkor (Memorial) service Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 5777 at Fabrangen Havurah. It is based on the yizkor prayers of several different Jewish traditions, relying strongly on the notion that acts of tzedakah [righteousness, sometimes translated as “charity”] perpetuate the names — “bind up in the bonds of life” — of the deceased. (jump to PDF version)

For Yizkor:

Consider this reflection for those in our neighborhoods lost to state violence in 5776

yizkorpolicebrutality As we endeavor to return to the Eternal One in these Days of Awe — and into the new year — we carry with us connections to those killed by violence perpetrated in our name in our own country. Among iniquities for which we beg forgiveness is failure to stop police killings, disproportionately affecting the black- and brown-skinned among us, or to address the underlying systemic racism. In this season of return, we ask God to accept our pledges of renewed examination of state power, including militarization of police, and of renewed commitment to human rights for all.

In this Memorial Service, we recall three unarmed black men killed by police in the District last year, along with six other black citizens, and no one of another skin color, killed by police in DC during 5776:

  • James McBride, 74, Sep 29, 2015.
    Unarmed, leaving hospital without signing out. Killed by MedStar Special Police. Death ruled homicide.
  • Alonzo Smith, 27, Nov 1, 2015.
    Unarmed, unexplained circumstances. Killed by Blackout Special Police. Death ruled homicide.
  • Terrence Sterling, 31, Sep 11, 2016.
    Unarmed, shot contrary to protocol/orders. Killed by Metropolitan Police Dept. Death ruled homicide.
  • Marquesha McMillan, 21, Oct 26, 2015.
    Armed with a gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • James Covington, 62, Nov 2, 2015.
    Armed with a gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Darick Napper, 34, Nov 19, 2015.
    Armed with a knife. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Peter John, 36, Feb 1, 2016.
    Armed with a toy gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Sherman Evans, 63, June 27, 2016.
    Armed with a toy gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Sidney Washington, Jr., 21, July 4, 2016.
    Part of a July Fourth crowd shooting off fireworks and firearms. Killed by Metro Transit (Special) Police.

O God, full of mercy, Justice of the bereaved and Parent of orphans , take special notice of those lost to state killings in our own country. Master of compassion, shelter under the shadow of Your wings those whose lives ended in violence, often fueled by racial injustice. Grant proper rest for the souls of all who went to their eternal rest through such killings.

May these moments of meditation strengthen the ties linking this community with our most vulnerable and troubled members. I pledge tzedakah/charity to address racial injustices contributing to these deaths. Through such deeds, and through prayer and remembrance, may the souls of the departed be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest in peace forever.

Here is a printable PDF with DC losses included [yizkorreflection5777]
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The Whole World Is Watching

I was young during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when my hometown police violently arrested protestors in Grant Park. I grew up thinking that a chant of “The whole world is watching” and a little press coverage were important tools in social change. And I listened to the Chicago Transit Authority album so often that the words of the “Someday (August 29, 1968)” still come to mind unbidden whenever I witness or learn about police/state violence.

Someday you will see how long we’ve waited for the time
to show you how we’ve got to get together with you all

Songs of Hallel.  Photo: D. Tepfer

Songs of Hallel outside Israeli Embassy, 3/11/13, Rosh Hodesh Nisan, in solidarity with Women of the Wall. Photo: D. Tepfer

This morning (3/12/13), for the first time in months, Women of the Wall in Jerusalem was able to pray without arrest. Most likely the presence of the several Knesset members, secular women who joined in solidarity, prevented arrest. But there were also the prayers and notoriety generated here in Wash, DC and in other U.S. cities.

Although there were no arrests, WOW had to pray through the shouting and taunts of hundreds of men and some women who believe WOW is “desecrating a holy site” with their worship. Lack of arrest does not mean the healing, on either side of the situation, is done.

But Women of the Wall in Israel is international and cross-denominational. Washington Friends of Women of the Wall includes men and women, and yesterday’s solidarity gathering included Conservative, havurah, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, transdenominational and unaffiliated Jews participating. This, we hope and pray, will be part of getting us all to “Someday.”

Savage Ads and the Power of “We”

DC — like NYC and San Fransisco before it — refuses to let outside hate groups define a “we” and a “they” for the town or for its visitors. Ads displayed in the public transit systems of San Francisco and New York City in recent weeks and now in metro Washington suggest that there is a “civilized,” Israel-supporting “we” and a “savage,” Islam-practicing “they.” But, like previous cities inflicted with “savage” ads, DC is not falling for it. It is providential, therefore, that today is “Blog Action Day” and that this year’s theme is “the power of we.”
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High Priest’s Prayer for Those on Fault-Lines

As the ancient Jewish community added a prayer on Yom Kippur for those in an especially vulnerable spot, let us consider doing the same:

May this year that is coming be one of abundance, building, compromise, dialogue, respect and understanding, a year in which all realize their interdependence and work together for the common good.

And concerning the inhabitants of Washington, DC: May it be Your will, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that they find common ground on which to safely build in the days to come, so that the fault-lines of race and class do not become their demise.*


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