Rabbi Daniel Brenner: Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2020 — Race & Jews of Color

Before I begin my prepared sermon, I want to pause and reflect that my heart breaks tonight over the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She served this country in the Supreme Court valiantly for 27 years, and dedicated her life to the pursuit of justice in all forms. There was unfortunately not time to create a tribute to Justice Ginsberg and the immense effect she had as a role model for young women, and a champion of rights for all, and regardless of our political views, none could argue her tenacity and poise as a justice was of rare quality. As I already planned to speak tonight on issues of justice, I dedicate my words tonight to her memory. Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet. Blessed are you, the True Judge.

Over the last 6 months, nothing has dominated the American news-space more than Coronavirus. It has been without a doubt the most important world event of 2020. But it would be hard to argue with the assertion that after Coronavirus, racial injustice has been the 2nd loudest voice in the room. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are now household names. American cities like Portland and Seattle have been transformed. Police chiefs, politicians, and presidential candidates have been forced to make statements in response to national unrest.

In my nearly 32 years of life, this has been the largest response to racial injustice I have ever witnessed, and according to statistics, an estimated 15-26 million people took place in protests from the end of May through June, making the George Floyd demonstrations the largest in United States history. Most of these protests and demonstrations were peaceful, but not all. An estimated $500 million in property damage was caused around the country, some by White supremacist antagonizers attempting to discredit and defame Black Lives Matter, and some by the protesters themselves, discrediting their own movement.

It is not entirely clear if the incredible response stems from in a time of quarantine, people had more time available to give, or because the absolutely unconscionable acts of violence perpetrated and caught on camera, followed by a completely lackluster response by authorities sparked outrage not felt to such a degree for decades. Never before have sports leagues postponed games in response to a social justice movement. But the nights following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha Wisconsin, sports teams from all major leagues refused to play.

Players who had before been told to just “shut up and play”, or in harsher translation “shut up and entertain me” cared more about that point in history than the points on the scoreboard. As sports writer Katie Barnes accurately summarized, the players sent a message that no one should be able to escape the fundamental racist truths of our country. There would be no entertainment. No distraction. No justice, no peace.”


There has been no greater moment in my lifetime to kindle the sparks of change than right now. And I have wondered, what is my role in all of this? The National Jewish institutions have been asking the same question. What work does the Jewish community need to do in response to the tidal wave of passion and energy crashing across our country? The answer has been very clear. Before we can meet with full vigor racial injustice externally, we must address our internal faults. We have been sinning as a community al cheit shechatanu lefanecha and we need to make teshuvah.

Let me introduce you to Chloe. Chloe is black and is a medical resident in Utah. Just last year Chloe came with a friend of hers to Rosh Hashana services here at CBB. Her friend brought her up to the bimah before services to introduce us, and as I try to be with everyone, I was warm and inviting as I welcomed her to Santa Barbara and our community, and said, “WoW….. you must be a good friend to get dragged to a High Holy Day service.”

“Actually,” she said “I’m Jewish.”

What I managed to gracefully, and quickly say, was how happy I was that she was joining us.

But my heart was immediately heavy. And I sat, uncomfortable with myself for the entire evening service, and through my sermon about how we as a community need to do a better job of welcoming young people into our community.

I had automatically assumed she wasn’t Jewish. And it wasn’t a conscious thought. My attempt to be humorous and welcoming subconsciously added an assumption that Chloe just wasn’t Jewish. I assume more often than not that people who come here are Jewish, even when they aren’t, but the young black woman standing across from me couldn’t have been Jewish. But she was.

Just so you know, Chloe and I have since talked about this. She, gracious and understanding, said she didn’t see my comment come across in any way demeaning, and fully accepted my apology.

It should surprise no one that Chloe’s experience is not isolated. Jews of Color are consistently questioned on their Jewishness based on the color of their skin. Take for example Angel AlvarezMapp, a Hispanic Jew and Director of Programs and Operations for the Jews of Color Initiative. In a talk he gave for the Aspen Institute he described his experience as a Jew of Color.

The most surprising comment he made was that he never felt any form of questioning of his identity when he traveled internationally and visited Jewish communities in Europe, or even in American Orthodox settings. It was in the liberal Jewish institutions in the US where we would be asked “So…..what’s your background” which he describes as the subtle way of really asking , are you really Jewish, and if so how?

Angel happens to be a convert to Judaism. And many Jews of Color are converts. But most are not. And even if they were, doesn’t Judaism teach that a person who converts should never be made to feel as though they were at any point not Jewish? That we never call attention to the fact that they are a convert? The subtle question of “tell me about your background” is entirely contrary to that principle.

Perhaps the most public story of Jewish racial aggression this year, (and I don’t say micro aggression because in no way was this story micro) was the experience of author Marra Gad at the URJ Biennial. The Reform gathering of 5000 Jews in Chicago, where Union President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in his opening speech that part of audacious hospitality means to our fellow Jews of Color, Marra Gad, a black Jew, was first denied her credentials because she was told “The real Marra Gad needs to pick these up,” was confused for hotel staff more than once, and asked to make sure that the room service deliveries speed up, and when after telling someone who asked what she was doing at the convention that she was a featured presenter on Shabbat afternoon, was asked AND I Quote “What could you possibly have to share?” My friends we, the liberal Jewish community that espouses audacious hospitality, welcoming the stranger, tikkun olam, we are failing. I failed Chloe, and our movement is failing all Jews of Color, al cheit shechatanu lefanecha which by the way, make up an estimated 15% of the American Jewish community. 15%! That is almost a million Jews of Color in the US. And where are they? Perhaps not comfortable coming in our doors.

Remember back to Charlottesville, and then to the Tree of Life shooting. On those days, we Jews knew fear. Real fear. Some began to start asking questions, should we take our mezuzah off our front door? This was a real concern in some places in our country. We also began to ask, should we have armed security at our doors? Patrolling our grounds? Many communities seriously struggled with this issue.

Around this time of questions, a voice began to emerge, the voice of Jews of Color, begging Jewish institutions to not add armed security to their campuses, because unlike for many white Jews, armed security made them feel less safe. They were already profiled by the Jews inside the building as being other, how much more would they be profiled by people with guns outside the building? By and large, the national Jewish conversation did not hear these voices, or if they did hear them, ignored them. Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha.

Only now are we starting to recognize the small but important demographic of Jews of Color, and validate their experience in the Jewish community.

Our tradition calls us to do teshuva, and I would suggest 3 responses, 2 locally and 1 nationally to start us along that process.

Right before Martin Luther King addressed the assembled mass at the March on Washington, Rabbi Yoachim Prinz spoke these words. He said “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

The first thing we must do as a community is actively avoid silence. We need to talk more about racial inequality, and the experience of Jews of Color. Race must be a topic of discussion in our homes with family and friends, and also within the walls of our synagogue. In order to accomplish this, we need to be more spiritually honest with certain uncomfortable truths about our Tanach, our Jewish bible.

There is no traditional practice of reading the Tanach in its entirety, so it is common for Jews to skip over parts like in Joshua when the leaders of the Israelite communities place their feet on the necks of the Cannanite rulers before executing them, a scene that my chevrutah suggested reminded her all too much of George Floyd, We don’t recognize the verse in Isaiah chapter 45 which describes human slaves being brought to Israel in chains. Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha. Did we stop reading these sections because we are uncomfortable with how we gained our power in biblical Israel?

We find this in the Torah we read as well, like when Miriam and Aaron insult Moses’s wife because she is a Kushite, often thought to mean “Dark Skinned, And perhaps most importantly, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, an Egyptian maidservant who gives birth to Abraham’s first son before they are sent away. This story is actually the traditional Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, but the Reform movement moved away from it, opting instead to read the traditional 2nd day reading, the Binding of Isaac, on the first day. The great failure in the otherwise successful Reform innovations of Judaism is that when we are faced with a difficult story, we can choose to ignore it, opt to read something else.

I would suggest that the first response we can do as a community is, starting next year, begin reading the story of Sarah and Hagar as our traditional first day reading again. We must face the sins our ancestors have committed in the same way we must face our own sins. Tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzera. Justice shall temper the severe decree.

In a less perfunctory and more concrete step, we can support the addition of Ethnic studies to the local district curriculum. Our district has adopted a new curriculum and at the beginning of October will be presenting it to the general parent community. There have been some reservations by Jewish groups to ethnic studies, and with valid concern. Some curriculum have been flawed in their political painting of Israel, and exclusion of the Jewish-American experience, but we nonetheless must in our efforts to rectify these mistakes still support its implementation. The Jewish community cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this. We can either be at the table trying to improve it, or outside the door with no voice at all. I believe we have an responsibility to be allies to our Jewish and non-jewish black and latinx friends and show our support. As we get closer to the date, I will be in constant communication with Dan Meisel of the ADL, and we will be putting together an informational meeting about the new curriculum and encourage you to attend. Tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzera.

Finally, on a national level, the Jewish community needs to take on the burden of urgency we felt in the earlier parts of the 20th century. We had for decades been in the forefront of agency in bringing about civil rights. In 1908, Henry Moscowitz was one of the conveners of a group who met to respond to racial injustice, eventually becoming the NAACP. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed in the early 60’s for traveling to the south to help register African-Americans to vote. We now remember them in our Martyrology service on Yom Kippur. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 were written at the Reform Judaism Religious Action Center as a joint project between Jews and black Americans. We again must take up the mantle of allyship and partnership, even and I would say especially when we are not always in agreement. In recognizing the struggle of Jews of Color, we must also be their allies as fellow Jews in movements such as Black Lives Matter. Tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzera.

My friends we have teshuvah to do, towards our fellow Jews of Color, and for the entire black American community. We must acknowledge the emergence of the voice of Jews of Color, and more importantly embrace what they have to say. And we must return our focus to the plight of those who need our support and friendship in their struggle for equity and justice. Our sage Rabbi Hillel taught Marbeh tzedakah marbeh shalom. Increase justice and you increase peace. May we strive to increase justice in our community and our country, so that we might know peace in our lives, and in the coming year. L’shana Tovah.