Yom Kippur Sermon 5782- Jews and Race
Yom Kippur 5782
September 16, 2021
Jews and Race
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Earlier I asked us to consider the many times in the Torah the people of Israel were counted in a census and the concerns it raised. Now I ask that we turn our attention to a contemporary census and its challenges as the results of the 2020 United States census were recently released. Hearing about the census took me back to my experience responding to it. There is one question I always find myself getting stuck on, whether in a census or elsewhere. It is the question that asks us to indicate our race. Do you relate to that quandary, wondering which box to check?
I have heard a lot of our people describe similar discomfort.
It starts with the fact that the US census is not permitted to ask questions about religious identity, so we can’t check off that box. Further, there is discomfort about the whole idea of race, knowing that race is a social, not a biological, construct, so the entire question makes us uneasy. While we know that the concept of race is based on questionable science, the category of race continues to exert a powerful influence on this country and must still be accounted for. A unique challenge we have as Jews is that in our gut, many of us don’t really relate to being described as white. Speaking for myself, I see my primary identity as being a Jew, and we know that Jews around the world, come in all colors.
If we overlooked that fact, it was made clear by a study of Jews of color in the United States, the largest of its kind, reported on in August. Studies estimate that between 6 and 15% of American Jews identify as Jews of color and all agree that this number will grow in the future, a reality we need to respect and to address. The study confirms the complexity of labelling Jews by race. This is especially true given the soul searching this nation has had to do since the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an event that literally reverberated around the world. An outcome for our Jewish community is that we have had to take a hard look at issues of race and what they mean for us.
For many years when discussing Jewish identity, I’ve always taught that we could best define Jews as a people, or an ethnicity, or even as a tribe. I would dismiss the suggestion that Jews are a race. Having delved further into the issue this year, I learned that the matter is far more complicated than I realized. Last year, when I delivered my Yom Kippur sermon on our responsibility to be anti-racist, I recommended that people read a fine book from 2008 by Emory University American Jewish historian Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity. Our Downtown Study Group read it together and it really challenged us. I am especially grateful to our member Riv Ellen Prell, Prof Emerita in American Studies from the U of MN, who led the class when I was on my three-month sabbatical and who graciously joined us for the entire year studying Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness.
Goldstein opens our eyes to new ways of understanding how Jews in America have related to the issue of race going back over the last 150 years. I was surprised to learn that in the late 19th century, Jews were fine with describing themselves as a race, and were commonly described that way by others. Jews immigrating here in that period largely came from Central Europe. They assimilated quite rapidly and often sought to leave behind what they saw as old-world religious observance, but they still saw themselves and were seen by others as Jews by blood. This racial identity distinguished Jews from other Americans, while enabling them to integrate into American society and enjoy its benefits.
Goldstein captures the ambivalence Jews felt about our differences from the majority of Americans and especially our mixed feelings about being associated with black Americans, also a separate race, but one seen by most white Americans as a lesser kind of human. The most important distinction in America has long been between being labeled as black or white. Jews, most of whom migrated in the 19th and early 20th century from Central and Eastern Europe, did not want to be identified as black, with the persecution that accompanied that label. At the same time, they were not seen, nor did they really see themselves as white. Recalling our own past oppression, Jews would often recoil in horror at the ways black people were treated in the Jim Crow era after the civil war and beyond. On the other hand, we maintained our claim that while we were surely a race, ours was a praiseworthy race and we touted our accomplishments so as to enjoy this country’s benefits.
Goldstein traces how the Jewish embrace of the concept of race receded with the rise of Nazism. New language emerged to describe ourselves, as anthropologists in the 20th century dismissed the validity of race as a biological category. The despicable use of race by the Nazis turned American Jews away from a racial definition and led us to instead describe ourselves as a Jewish people, or an ethnic group.
During World War II, many Jews who served in the military got to see up close for the first time the horrendous racism experienced by black people who also served our country. Yet when they returned home from the war, blacks and Jews experienced vastly different prospects. Jews were able to take advantage of veteran’s benefit and of greater social acceptance. Discrimination against Jews in housing and employment that was pervasive before the War diminished, but it was still very real for black people. A powerful example of this are housing covenants, promoted by the real estate industry to preserve white neighborhoods, stipulating that homes in certain neighborhoods could never be sold to black people. Jews had generally broken through those barriers that once applied to us as well.
This pattern of systemic racism has been uncovered in ground breaking research by the U of MN’s Mapping Prejudice Project whose efforts are especially critical given this city's contemporary racial disparities, which remain some of the largest in the nation. As their research shows, “covenants created demographic patterns that remain in place in Minneapolis today. Residential segregation reinforces other disparities in employment, education and health care. Most notable is the gap in homeownership rates. While 78 percent of white families own homes in the Twin Cities, only 25 percent of African-American families have title to their dwelling.” Their research shows that these disparities did not happen accidentally and that everything since then has compounded upon that initial pattern. https://www.aclu.org/aclu-magazine/aclu-magazine-fall-2021 p. 21.
As we consider the challenges facing this country, I ask that we as Jews use this Yom Kippur to do cheshbon hanefesh – personal and communal introspection of what this means for us as Jews. Having benefited from privileges we have enjoyed as American Jews, because for the most part we are seen as white, places special responsibilities on our Jewish community to right the wrongs that pervade American society. Just as our Torah repeatedly reminds us of the lesson of the Exodus story, that we are obligated to care for the stranger because we were strangers in a strange land, I believe we have a special responsibility to work to end racism because we know what it means to experience persecution because of who we are.
I am grateful that our congregation has been taking this responsibility very seriously. After the events related to the murder of George Floyd, we established an Antiracism Committee chaired by Dudley Deshommes Kohls and Sharon Garber that has worked hard to better understand the dynamics of racism, to educate our congregation about this and to engage our congregation in the work of ending racism wherever we encounter it. A starting point of that effort has been to better understand the feelings and to support Jews of color in this community who often feel marginalized. Some 80% of respondents to the survey I cited earlier report having experienced discrimination in Jewish settings.
Adath’s Antiracism Committee is attuned to the reality that it is very tempting for us to ignore systemic racism, or to discount it as something that is for the most part behind us. But we have seen how real is the continued impact of racism in this country. We saw it on terrifying display in Washington DC this past January 6th when our US Capitol was assaulted by a mob trying to overturn through violence what they failed to accomplish through elections. It is no coincidence that this mob carried Confederate flags into our US Capitol building for the first time ever. It is a serious threat to the very essence of American democracy when the peaceful transference of power is upended by fake claims of voter fraud. Make no mistake that this insurrection was grounded in continuing and deeply embedded racism and that many of those who promote these lies also promote violent antisemitism as well.
We know that just like racism is very real and deeply embedded in this country, antisemitism is sadly not a thing of the past. We must not hesitate to speak out as Jews when antisemitism is ignored or downplayed. The threat of violence is quite real as we saw just three years ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Sadly, we were reminded of the reality of these threats last week when our neighboring Beth El Synagogue had to close for the day and all local shuls had to enhance our security at considerable expense. We are grateful to the JCRC for the role they play coordinating security for our Jewish community and for other endangered faith communities. We are also grateful to the Minnetonka Police for their support. With the help of our Antiracism Committee, we are taking very seriously the need to balance the real need for security with an understanding of how a police presence adds to the anxiety of black people and people of color when they come here. We will continue to work on this issue in the coming year as we hopefully meet increasingly in person.
This year we will have an opportunity to closely study the issue of antisemitism when in early November we welcome as our scholar in residence Sister Mary Boys, a renowned expert on this issue and collaborate with the Minneapolis Institute of Art when they display an exhibit of the work by Des Moines based Argentinian Jewish artist Mauricio Lasansky’s Holocaust prints. Sister Boys will share her life long experience educating people to end antisemitism. She will help us to better understand what it means to be anti-antisemitism at a time when we are working as well to be antiracist. One effort need not come at the expense of the other. Let us stand together to combat hatred.
A powerful true story brings that message home. It is told in a drama entitled “From Behind the Sun” that premiered in February 2019 at Metro State University’s Whitney theater. Written by a local musician Stan Kipper and a Seattle artist Laura Drake, it is based on the Kipper family’s experience trying to buy a home as a black family in Minneapolis in 1956. His father Obie and mother Mary had moved here from Chicago believing that there were good opportunities to be found. Obie Kipper found a good job working for the US Post Office and Mary was one of the first black school teachers in Minneapolis. Living in the Nicollet Park neighborhood, they found a home at 45th and Oakland between Park and Portland they believed would be better for their growing family. They also knew that it was located in south Minneapolis, where black people were blocked from living through a practice known as redlining.
Obie Kipper and one of his co-workers from the Post Office cooked up a plan. The co-worker named Abraham in the play, based on a real person, was a Jewish guy who had been encouraged to move to Minneapolis by Obie. They had served together in Italy in World War II in the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated division for African Americans, the only one to see combat in Europe. Abe, a white Jewish guy had served as Obie’s sergeant in that division and they formed a powerful bond. These were tough guys who would not back down from a good fight. They came up with a plan for Abe and his wife to present themselves to the realtor as Obie and Mary Kipper so as to get approved for the mortgage they would not otherwise be able to get. Abe brought Obie all the documents to sign and it was not until it was time to hand over the keys that the real Kippers showed up to the realtor’s shock.
The family was jubilant at having been able to buy that home, but that was not the end of it. After moving in to their new home at 45th and Oakland they received terrible abuse from there “neighbors” who hollered curses and epithets at them, did disgusting things to them, and made it clear that a black family was not welcome. After a brick was hurled threw the picture window, Obie and Abe stood guard in front of the house to put a stop to the attacks. Stan reports that the attacks did stop after about a month, but “for-sale signs” started to pop up all around the neighborhood. That is what black people who had served their country experienced in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Stan has turned his family’s story into a drama that teaches an enduring lesson of the meaning of true friendship and what it looks like to be a fearless ally. I had the privilege of speaking to Stan Kipper to hear him tell his story. He described to me how people from that neighborhood showed up at performances of the play with their mortgages in hand to show that they still included racist covenants, even though the courts had long since made them illegal.
It is an incredible story that I feel privileged to be able to share with you today. It reminds us of how we can stand up fearlessly as Jews against racism.
In the New Year, let us strive to balance working to end systemic racism in our country, while standing up for our rights as Jews to live in peace. I continue to maintain that Jews are not a race, but we have seen that race continues to exert a powerful influence on our society and on us as Jews. My study this past year of whiteness and of Jewish identity have made my choice somewhat easier when asked to identify my race. I still bristle at seeing the question about race, whether on a census, or in some other survey. I still do not really self-identify as white. But since I, like most Jews, are seen as white in this country and have the privileges that come with it, so I check the box on the survey that says I am white and accept my responsibility for continuing to end racism and to end antisemitism in our country. May that time come soon and in our lifetime.
Intro to Musaf
In Judaism there is great ambivalence about counting people. There is a custom that when needing to count up ten people to make a minyan, one does so by saying “not- one, not-two and so on. Another custom for determining that there are ten people in the room to make a minyan is to recite a verse from the early part of the morning service (Siddur Sim Shalom Daily p, 113) Psalm 28:9-
Rescue your people Hoshea et Amecha, bless your heritage, uvarech et nachlatecha, tend to them and carry them forever ur’aim v’nasem ad olam.
In the Hebrew that is ten words.
Why the ambivalence about counting people in Judaism? In the ancient world a census was taken primarily for two reasons, one was to collect taxes and the other was to prepare for war, which meant they needed to know how many men would be available for combat. These are two good reasons explaining ancient concerns about a census.
There were at least four times in the Torah that a census was taken of the people of Israel. They anticipate the arrival of the people to the land of Canaan where they will engage in combat. We see this in the book of Numbers in Parashat Naso when such a count is taken and again in Parashat Pincus. In both places the language that is used is to lift up the head of each person, reminding us that even as we count the group each individual counts.
In Parashat Pinchas there is the counting of the Jewish people and the appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor. God is referred in that parashah as “God, Source of the breath of all flesh (Elohei Haruchot L’chol Basar)… (Bemidbar 27:16), it is the only time this name for God appears in the Bible as
According to Rabbi Mordecai Silverstein of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem this name of God is the basis of the special beracha – blessing that is said when a large group of Jews gathers- we say “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who knows all secrets” Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Chacham HaRazim.
Why is this the blessing for a large gathering of Jews? What exactly does that mean. Rabbi Silverstein explains that according to our sages, God Chacham HaRazim is the one who know all secrets because God is Source of the breath of all flesh E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar.
As Rashi says in his comment there: "Just as no two faces are alike, so, too, no two people's ideas are alike." But most important for our sages, God knowing the thoughts of every individual means that God values the individuality of each and every person. (See Bemidbar Rabbah 21:2).
Let us consider this idea of the value of the community and the value of the individual in which every person is created in the image of God and counts.
Yom Kippur Day Final Prayer
God Chacham HaRazim the one who know all secrets because
You are the Source of the breath of all flesh E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar.
We appreciate being able to gather as a community whether in person or on line and are thankful for the blessing of resilience providing us with the strength to get through this challenging time.
We long to be able to gather together in large groups again to praise you and give thanks and to once again life our voices together in song.
God who knows the thought of every individual and places value on each and every person,
give us the clarity of vision and the determination to build a world in which justice reigns, in which we stand up against hated and in which every person is treasured because they are created in your image.
And let us say Amen
On Rosh Hashana I introduced the congregation to Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. This week I call your attention to what they have to say about race in this country. The Upswing calls for us to embrace the values evident from 1895 to the 1960s when this country experienced greater communal social cohesion and economic equality, following the rampant individualism of the Gilded age, which we have seen reemerge. Putnam and Garret have a powerful chapter showing that this national upswing was also experienced by African Americans primarily because of the Great Migration that brought many black people North to improved living conditions and through gains achieved in the lead up to and during Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Sadly, Putnam and Garrett also document how that progress was reversed in the last half century. The 1970s saw white backlash against black progress, which they consider, “an important part of the story of how and why America turned from “we” back to “I.” It may even be the case they say, “that America’s larger turn toward “I” was, in important respects, a response to the supreme challenge of sustaining a more diverse, multiracial “we” against a backdrop of deep, historically embedded, and as yet unresolved racism.” p. 242.
through the lens of Mussar - Rabbi Kravitz
Shabbat, October 16, 2021
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
Sermon titled: Abraham's Journey through the lens of Mussar.
Sign ups are open for our selection of Mussar classes. To learn more and to find the links to sign up, please visit www.adathjeshurun.org/mussar.
Two years ago, in October of 2019 (which now feels like a lifetime ago), I had the privilege of a spending a Shabbat in the Philadelphia area at a Mussar retreat organized by the Center for Contemporary Mussar. It was led by Rabbi Ira Stone, a leading figure in bringing a contemporary understanding of Mussar to a new generation.
Define Mussar: Jewish spiritual practice to work on character development through the lens of traditional Jewish text and sources, as reflected through various middot/ soul traits such as patience savlanut, or orderliness seder.
We have developed a vibrant Mussar learning community here at Adath and similar classes can be found at various synagogues and schools around the Twin Cities.
We were fortunate to have hosted Rabbi Stone at Adath as a scholar in resident in March of 2017. We had a great turn out and he commented, “Who knew that there was such a vibrant Mussar community in MN? We have built it up considerably since then.
Today I want to spend some time studying the text, at least part of it, that formed the basis of that Mussar Kallah I did with Rabbi Stone two years ago this week.
Look at the opening verse Gen 12:1
Rabbi Berezovsky was born in Belarus. He made Aliyah in 1933 and eventually was designated the Rebbe of the Slonimer Hasidim and the head of their Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Bet Avraham. His teachings are captured in the text before us Netivot Shalom, as Rabbi Stone labels it, or Nisivos Sholom as it would be pronounced in the Slonimer’s world. It is a considered an important contribution to Mussar literature, combining the rigor of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, where the Mussar started as a Movement by Rabbi Israel Salanter, with the religious passion of Hassidism.
In May of 1998, I actually got to meet with him in his study with my friend Rabbi Elie Spitz at his Yeshiva Bet Avraham in Meah Shearim. I spoke about that encounter in a sermon I gave on Yom Kippur in 1998. Elie had been in Israel that year on sabbatical studying with Prof Zev Falk of Hebrew University, who was intrigued by the writings of the Slonimer Rebbe. I was in Israel for a short time and Elie and I got to spend the day together in Jerusalem. Elie wanted to make a future appointment to see the Slonimer at this Yeshiva. We made our way over there and got to speak with his secretary to see if an appointment could be arranged. He told us to wait and when he returned much later, he said that the Rebbe would see us now. I was not expecting to be part of this. We encountered the Slonimer Rebbe in his study, frail and in his bed. It was about two years before his death. We introduced ourselves and explained that we were Conservative rabbis from the United States and he gave us his message. I will return later to what he said to us.
For now, let us turn back to the Slonimer’s commentary on parsahat Lecha Lecha.
Rabbi Isaac Luria – HaAri of Sefat 16th c Leading rabbi and mystic whose conception of the creation story forms the basis of contemporary Kabbalah often referred to as Lurianic Kabbalah. You may be familiar with Luria’s teaching found here that every person is put into the world for a unique purpose. We often see it in the version written by Martin Buber, used at baby namings, that every person is brought in the world with a unique purpose.
The Slonimer is raising the key Mussar question: How are you perfecting your neshama/soul, which you alone were put into this world to achieve?
That destiny is unique for each of us. This is in line with the Mussar practice that while the principles of Mussar apply to all of us, each of us has our own work to do. This makes the soul curriculum of our Mussar work quite individualized.
Each of us, like Avraham, is on a soul/sole journey.
The Slonimer says this is “To teach that this is the task of the person, to walk always forward on the path of their destiny. This is hinted at by the three times the language of (Hebrew) journey.” He explains that this is exemplified in the three lecha lecha periods of Abraham’s life.
There is much more in the Slonimer’s commentary to Lech Lecha. In Phila at the Mussar retreat we spent the entire Shabbat in study unpacking it with Rabbi Stone’s guidance, along with other activities.
Before I conclude let me return to the encounter with the Slominer. When we left the Yeshiva, one of his Hasidim came chasing after us wanting to know what their rebbe had said to us. In Hasidism they believe that the Rebbe has a special pipeline to God so it was very important to know what he said. Well, the Slonimer heard that we lived in the United States and pronounced that we both should be living in Eretz Yisrael and not in galus or diaspora, or really in exile, as he sees it.
Unlike his Hasidim, I do not subscribe to the idea that their rebbe has a pipeline to God. I suspect that the Slonimer was imposing on us his view of the world, understandably given that he narrowly escaped the Shoah and saw his entire world destroyed by the Nazis. But following his teaching here, that each of us needs to realize and fulfill our unique destiny, I do not believe that mine had to conform to his view that all Jews should life in Israel. But who knows? Avraham didn’t get called to go to Israel until he was 75.
Each of us has to do the work of finding our destiny and Mussar provides a spiritual practice for clarifying it and perfecting it in the service of others.
Our Intro to Mussar will begin Mon evening Nov 15. I will be teaching it with our member Hope Melton. Heidi Schneider, who attended that Mussar retreat with me, will be teaching our continuing Mussar Vaad. I will also teach an advanced Va’ad studying a kabbalistic Mussar text Tomer Devorah that I will be learning with Rabbi Ira Stone this year. See our Adath website Mussar page for more information.
Let me conclude with one last comment from the Slonimer’s comment on Lech Lecha:
“Year after year the Holy One gives one opportunities in order to journey further in holy service and not to stand in one place.”
I invite you to take the next step in your journey
Parahshat Lech Lecha לֶךְ־לְךָ֛
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם
The LORD said to Avram,
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ
“Go forth from your land, your birthplace and from your ancestral home
אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
to the land that I will show you. Genesis 12:1
We find in the Midrash (Beresheet Raba 39.9) Rabbi Levi said: “Twice it is written “Lech Lecha” and we don’t know which is more beloved - the first (Genesis 12:1) or the second (Genesis 22:2). From what is written “to the land of Moriah,” it seems the second is preferable to the first. However, it is still unclear between the two tests that are described in the language of Lech Lecha which is greater and more beloved. Whether it is the test of Lech Lecha from your land, your birthplace your ancestral home, or the test of the Akeda.
Seemingly we are greatly surprised. How is it possible to compare the two? Isn’t the test of the Akeda higher and more difficult for a person akin to giving up everything in their own life? And especially according to what is written in the Torah, “Take your son, your favorite, the one you love, Yitzchak.” For at the very hour the Holy One said this to him that love put every other middah of love in the world to shame and it is not possible that there is any test greater than this. So, how is it possible to doubt which (test) is more beloved?
In addition, we can say regarding the locution “Lech Lecha,” if according to the commentary of Rashi “Lecha” means “for your benefit” behold that which is written Lech Lecha to the land of Moriah does not fit this interpretation. Moreover, we find in the Torah three times when God spoke to Abraham in the language of journeying: “Lech Lecha from your home.” Gen 12:1 “You shall walk [Hitalech] before me and be upright” Gen 17:1 and Lech Lecha to the land of Moriah – the test of the Akeda 22:2 and we will discuss the meaning of this.
It can be said about this matter what we find in the introduction to “The Foundation of Worship” in the name of the Ari Hakodesh [Rabbi Isaac Luria], that no person is comparable to another person from the day of their creation and forward. And no person can repair that which is another’s to repair. Namely, each individual has their own destiny and task that their life is meant to work out. Included in this are those particular tasks that befall them for them to repair, as is well known. The Holy Blessed One appoints for each person all the tests and challenges for which they have all that they need to repair the task that they are meant to repair and to fulfill their destiny and task in the world.
Every challenge in the life of a person, material or spiritual, good or bad, all of them are given to them in connection with the repair of the world for only by way of these challenges are they able to achieve their destiny. And except for these they are not able to fulfill their task to repair. Since to each person there is a specific destiny, therefore there are different challenges for each. To one life is easy and to another it is more difficult.
Generally, what appears to one to be the course of their life’s journey cannot be the same as the life journey for another. Since each person has their specific task given to them with all its challenges, they are given the faith that they are able to fulfill their destiny. Even if their situation in life is difficult, they must strengthen themselves that this is only so that they may arrive at their particular repair, for nothing evil comes down from heaven and all is for the good of the person in order that they may repair everything connected to that which they must repay and, in this way, fulfill their destiny in the world…
This brings us to Lech Lecha from your land, your birthplace and your ancestral home. “Go forth” – that is to your destiny, to the correction of your neshama that you need to do in this world. This is the essence of your task as a person as it is said in the Torah of our ancestors - while a person in this world learns, prays and does good deeds, if they do not correct their destiny regarding what they must correct in this world then when they ascend to the upper world they will be asked: “What did you work at in this world?” In other words, if they did not correct the important things, the task that was your destiny, in the world. And this is what God said to Avraham and included in this also a lesson for all Israel, the seed of Avraham, “Go forth” in other words, journey toward the correction of neshama that is appropriate to you, is your goal, is allotted to you, regarding your land, your birthplace, your ancestral home, that is, all of the conditions and intentions that are natural for you…
Slonimer Rebbe, Netivot Shalom, (Jerusalem, 1982), Parashat Lecha Lecha
Translated by Rabbi Ira Stone, The Center for Contemporary Mussar, 2019
HIAS D'Var Torah by Bob Aronson
Bob is a member of Adath and an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron in downtown Minneapolis. Bob concurrently serves as the Chair of HIAS. Bob was named as the 2017 recipient of the Sidney Barrows Lifetime Achievement Award of the Cardozo Society, the affinity group of Jewish lawyers, jurists and law students in the Twin Cities, for his professional achievements, community service and love of learning.
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share