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.
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
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.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Envisioning an American Upswing
Rosh Hashanah 2021 5782
First Day September 7, 2021
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
We are so not where I thought we would be this Rosh Hashanah. Earlier this summer, I was hopeful that by the time we got to these High Holidays my sermon would be a chance to look at the pandemic from the rear-view mirror and to reflect on lessons learned. The reality of the past month or so has been truly disappointing. We had tasted and were starting to enjoy our growing freedom now that so many of us have been vaccinated, but with the sudden onset of the Delta variant things have sadly taken a turn for the worse. We are seeing hospitalization and even death rates in our country paralleling last year, because not enough of us have been vaccinated, and not enough of us have taken seriously the need to mask, especially indoors and when in the midst of large groups of people.
I am grateful that here at Adath Jeshurun, we have showed so much good sense in the face of the pandemic and that our people have taken the needed precautions so seriously. People at Adath Jeshurun have really lived up to our Hebrew name, which means “the gathering of the righteous” by being so supportive of our decisions to prioritize people’s health and safety above all, as we have adjusted to these challenges. It has required an extraordinary effort of shuls, schools, medical centers, really anyone with responsibilities for keeping people safe and has surely tested everyone’s resilience.
We can be proud that our Jewish community nationally has been highly responsible in the face of this pandemic. You may have heard of a survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute in late July indicating that Jews have, “the lowest levels of vaccine “hesitancy” of any religious group in the country…with 85% vaccinated or planning to get the shot — compared to 71% of all Americans. https://forward.com/news/473643/jews-accept-covid-vaccine-religious-groups-survey/
The Jewish approach to the matter is captured beautifully in an article published in January by my rabbinic colleague Micah Peltz, who serves as Senior Rabbi of a prominent Conservative shul in New Jersey. Micah grew up here at Adath and is still closely connected to our congregation. Rabbi Peltz wrote a teshuvah (a rabbinic response), unanimously approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He concludes definitively that, “vaccination is a Jewish imperative when recommended by medical professionals.” He further observes that this conclusion is shared by all mainstream Jewish religious movements. https://www.jewishexponent.com/2021/01/28/getting-a-covid-19-vaccine-is-a-jewish-imperative/
This is not something we can take for granted. Despite the willingness of the majority of Americans to follow necessary public health practices, we are still in a difficult place because too many people have chosen to ignore medical evidence by resisting mask mandates and refusing to be vaccinated, which they see as an infringement on their individual rights. I understand that my speaking about this issue touches on politics, which makes some people uncomfortable. The reality is that it is quite impossible to separate moral issues from the realm of politics. To suggest we should not touch on politics is to assert that clergy should be silenced on the great moral issues of our day. To be silent, or avoid speaking about tough issues, would leave us “standing idly by the blood of your neighbor, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa,” which our Torah explicitly forbids. To do so would be a betrayal of Jewish tradition in which religious figures, whether it was the Biblical prophets, or our ancient sages, did not shirk the heavy responsibility of speaking to the real-life situations faced by people, which invariably have a political dimension. Certainly, we are obligated to be respectful of differences of opinions and conflicting values. Certainly, we must stay above partisanship, because no party has the corner on truth. Still, we have a moral and Jewish obligation to address issues even when they touch on politics where people may disagree.
It pains me to say it, but the truth is that the extreme assertion of individual rights and liberty in the political and social life of our country have had deadly consequences for this country and for the world this past year and a half. Literally hundreds of thousands of people in this country have died needlessly because of the denial of developing scientific understandings and recommendations for best health practices related to COVID-19.
The extreme assertion of individual rights and liberties is very much at odds with how Judaism views the place of individuals and community. My teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a leading thinker of our Conservative Movement, illuminates this issue in his outstanding book To Do the Right and the Good- Fundamental Principles that Guide Jewish Social Ethics writing that, “Jewish tradition places strong emphasis on the worth of the individual. Human worth derives first from being created in God's image. Dorff, p. 5.
While affirming the sacred value of each individual, Rabbi Dorff goes on to explain that Judaism is fundamentality communitarian in its approach. He cites the legal philosopher Milton Konvitz who captures the normative Jewish view, which I quote, without adapting to our normally egalitarian approach:
“The traditional Jew is no detached, rugged individual…He is an individual but one whose essence is determined by the fact that he is a brother, a fellow Jew. His prayers are, therefore, communal and not private, integrative and not isolative, holistic and not separative.... [Konvitz goes on to write]
This consciousness does not reduce but rather enhances and accentuates the dignity and power of the individual. Although an integral part of an organic whole, from which he cannot be separated, except at the cost of his moral and spiritual life, let each man say, with Hillel (Sukkot 53a), "If I am here, then everyone is here." (Dorff, p.20-21)
What a powerful point Konvitz makes based on a less well-known teaching of our ancient sage Hillel:
"If I am here, then everyone is here." אִם אֲנִי כָּאן — הַכֹּל כָּאן
that on one hand when I am here, I am here on behalf of everyone.
In the Talmud Sukkot, Hillel goes on to say
“And if I am not here who is here? וְאִם אֵינִי כָּאן — מִי כָּאן”
, which can be understood to be teaching that no one is expendable to a community. As Hillel conveys in this and his other teaching I introduced earlier, the community and the individual in Judaism are inextricably linked.
This view of the world is consistent with an approach to American Democracy called Communitarianism developed in the 1990s to push back against excessive individualism and narcissism in asserting that citizens have a responsibility to uphold the common good.
It should come as no surprise that many of the scholars who advanced this concept of communitarianism have deep Jewish roots, such as the respected political thinkers Amitai Etzioni and Michael Walzer. Another is Michael Sandel, the distinguished Prof of Law at Harvard University. Forgive me for expressing some Adath pride in noting that Sandel spent his early years in Minneapolis and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Adath in 1966, before his family left Minnesota.
I want us to consider the work of yet another champion of the concept of communitarianism, the American social thinker Robert Putnam. Putnam did not celebrate his Bar Mitzvah at Adath. Still, his is an important voice for us to hear. His now classic book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), published more than twenty years ago documented the significant decline in America of communal organizations and activities, as the title suggests, people were becoming less inclined to join bowling leagues and instead did things alone, or with a small circle of family and friends. Putnam provided us with an early warning about the consequences of this trend. This past year he finished a new book, co-authored with his student Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.
Here Putnam and Garret carefully review the economic, political and social data of the last 100 years to support their claim that we are living in a time that is the most radically individualistic since the period that extended from the 1870s to the end of the 19th century known as the Gilded Age. That was the age of the robber barons, when great fortunes were amassed by those who led the way on the latest technologies at a time of mass industrialization. The Gilded Age was a time of unbridled individualism in which the few benefited at the expense of the many, in which there was rampant inequalities of wealth. Putnam and Garret powerfully make the case that this country has returned to a state where similar conditions exist doing enormous harm to the fabric of our country and to the wellbeing of so many. Like that of the Gilded Age our time is also marked by:
Dramatic economic inequality
Lack of compromise in politics
Less cohesion in social life
Less altruism in cultural values. Does all of that sound familiar?
So what is the upswing to which the title of Putnam and Garret’s book refer? Charting diverse economic and social trends, they illustrate how the excesses of the Gilded Age began to be reversed from about 1895 until the 1960s when a spirit of progressive reform took hold in this country. In every area of American life, from bottom to top, there emerged a sense of revulsion for the rugged individualism that did so much harm to this democracy and replaced it with an ethos of people committed to working for the common good. During that period- about 65 years long- greater economic equality was achieved, there was more cooperation in the public square, a stronger social fabric developed, and there was a growing culture of solidarity. Putnam and Garret reveal that beginning in the 1960s, that progress started to be dismantled, a downswing began and we have now sunk back to low points, by all kinds of measures, equaling the worst excesses of the Gilded age.
Thankfully, Putnam and Garret do not leave us with just a lament about what has transpired. They also offer a message of hope. At the start of the 20th century Americans of all kinds and from every quarter pushed back against the focus on the “I,” rampant individualism and selfishness of the Gilded Age that had corroded the country. People across lines of party began to commit instead to the “We,” the widespread adoption of communal norms and values that resulted in the upswing they ably document. Their book is a call for Americans to once more stand up for each other and for the common good. They reject radical solutions, calling instead for a different kind of politics that once again allows for compromise to achieve the greatest good. Putnam and Garret assert the need to champion the rights of all over the rights of some, in keeping with the principles of communitarianism championed by thinkers such as Sandel, Etzioni and Walzer.
This communitarian ethos is very much in the spirit of how Judaism views the world in which we honor the value of every individual, created in the image of God, while joining together in a communal covenant for the sake of the common good. This view grounded in the teaching of our ancient sage Hillel has always been at the heart of Conservative Judaism, which is respectful of individual difference and individual conscience, while urging us to join together as a community and as a Jewish people to work for the perpetuation of Jewish values and practices and the betterment of the world.
Putnam and Garret’s book, published last year, may have come at just the right time when the devastating pandemic has shown us how damaging the assertion of individual liberties can be when promoted at the expense of the greater good. Perhaps his pandemic will provide the needed wakeup call to the dangers of radical individualism, which has done enormous damage to the fabric of our society and literally cost the lives of so many.
Only time will tell whether we will embrace a commitment to community and the wellbeing of all and witness a new upswing as the decades unfold. We stand ready as an Adath Jeshurun Congregation to realize that hope and to support that vision. It is the vision taught so powerfully by the ancient sage Hillel-
If I am here, then everyone is here." אִם אֲנִי כָּאן — הַכֹּל כָּאן. And if I am not here who is here וְאִם אֵינִי כָּאן — מִי כָּאן?” teaching us that the community and the individual are inextricably linked and that we are each responsible one for the other. Let us stand together and see to it that this necessary shift happens soon and in our times. And let us say Amen.
Intro to RH Musaf RH Day 1 5782 Sept 7, 2021
Heidi Schneider is the chair of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, which is the U.S. arm of the Masorti movement in Israel, dedicated to fundraising for and education about pluralistic, egalitarian Judaism in Israel. Heidi became committed to the work of Masorti after a mission to Israel with Rabbi Harold Kravitz that opened her eyes to the unique challenges faced by Masorti rabbinic and lay leadership in the Jewish state and the pioneering spirit that draws Israelis to join Masorti program and kehillot throughout Israel. Heidi is proud that Adath Jeshurun hosted the Twin Cities National Masorti Gala in 2017.
Heidi is a student of Mussar with the Center for Contemporary Mussar led by Rabbi Ira Stone, and she teaches Mussar classes at Adath Jeshurun.
By the time I was a teenager, I became involved in BBYO, because the Jewish men and women in North Dakota and Northern South Dakota all belonged to B’nai Brith. There was the B’nai Brith Organization and the B’nai Brith Women, and the kids all belonged to BBYO. This was the main connection. I was from Minot and once we had a Rabbi, who stayed for, I think, a year- otherwise we were served by the travelling Rabbis who might come for the High Holy Days or by Mr. Gordon. Mr. Gordon was replicated in many other cities in small towns. He was a very learned man who would help the occasional Bar Mitzvah boy with his studies.
Back in those days, of course, girls weren’t Bat Mitzvah’ed, heaven forbid, so I grew up in BBYO. I became very active in that, and I was the regional president for a year, which entailed trips to the conferences, to the Twin Cities, Winnipeg was involved- that was always kinda fun, you know, a bunch of teenagers going across the border to Winnipeg. And then it was time to go to the University. Now, the common practice in the 50s was, especially if you had a daughter, you sent her to a university in a large enough community that had a reasonable Jewish population. Because, in the 50s, you not only went for your BA, your BS, or the unspoken reason, was to get your MRS. I was more interested in, you know, getting my degree in Nutrition and Dietetics, but as it happened, I DID get the MRS. One of you mentioned working with Hillel, so you must recognize the name Rabbi Louis Milgrom, who was an institution there in the 50s and 60s, and he had a saying “meet your spouse and the Hillel house”, and we all laughed about it! I met my husband on a Friday evening. They, once-a-month, had dinners and services at the Hillel house, and I was there with another fellow, when he said “come on, there’s somebody I want you to meet, he’s also from North Dakota.” And as they say, “the rest was history”. That man’s name was Alvin Goldstein.
After his family left North Dakota, they settled in South Minneapolis and joined the Adath Jeshurun Congregation. Louie, Al’s father, lived a block from the shul, and went every morning and every evening and Al was affiliated there and [did the] USY, LTF kind of thing. So, after his service and when we were married, it was just logical that we would join the congregation. No shopping around was needed. I’m sure that we would have enjoyed the process, but [it was] not an issue for us. So that was in 1959.
We joined the synagogue and really didn’t do a whole lot at first. We were both working and very busy, and attended services. And then, in the summer of 1964, I remember distinctly because that was just before one of the children was born, I was asked to serve on one of the education subcommittees. And I said yes! I have been working on and off, mostly on, at various committees and various board positions since: Secretary of the congregation, President of the congregation, and everything in between.
Talor: When you got involved with Adath, in sounds like you went from being kind of not being involved to being really involved over the course of your years. What was it that kept you coming back and taking positions and joining committees?
Judy: Well, I have been a volunteer my entire life. I grew up in the type of household. My father was always doing some volunteer kind of thing in the general community. And I just grew up, that’s just what you did. My first volunteer job was in 9th grade. There was a junior Red Cross group at the high school, so that was my first volunteer thing. So, the concept of volunteering was just what you did. And I had been heavily involved in Hadassah in the community in Minneapolis. I was president of one of the groups and so it was just my mentality. I had one child at the time, and working, you know, it wasn’t the Gan then, it was the preschool then, committee, just seemed a logical place to start (because I was pregnant with my second).
Mikaela: Definitely! What was your involvement like through Hadassah? Was that through Adath at the time or was that a separate entity?
Judy: It was just through some of the women that I knew. We were all young brides and we got together and joined the Weitzman Hadassah and I was fairly new at it- very new at it. I think I had only been there about a year and I was asked to be president, and I said ‘sure, why not!’.
Mikaela: That sounds like a theme, where people think very highly of you and ask you to do all of these positions.
Judy: My philosophy is if you’re going to do something, first of all, don’t take a job that you aren’t willing to finish, and you aren’t willing to give your best effort toward. And, once you’ve made that emotional and mental commitment, follow through with it! And I just do!
Mikaela: It’s so cool that you’ve been consistently at Adath your entirety, it sounds like, of being in Minnesota. What’s made you stay at Adath?
Judy: Well, there’s absolutely no reason that Al and I ever would have left! I mean, that was his synagogue! He was on the Board occasionally from time to time, and it was comfortable for us. The staff, the philosophy of the congregation, the way the services were conducted, and the educational philosophy and opportunity were there for the children.
Talor: Do you want to tell us about the National Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and the experience you had?
Judy: I could talk about Women’s League for years! Women’s League for Conservative Judaism was founded in November or December of 1918 by Mathilde Schechter and different conservative congregations from around the country started joining. The Adath Jeshurun women joined on June 1 of 1919, so we were one of the first congregations to join the organizations. It had lots of different names before it ever became Women’s League. It didn’t become Women’s League until the mid to late 20s. It was the Sisters of Peace and all sorts of really interesting backgrounds. So, it was the way women at the Adath connected. Because you have to realize that back in the ‘20s, and the ‘30s, and the ‘40s and the ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, we really had no identity. I have, around here, some old Clarions and I was always Mrs. Alvin Goldstein. I didn’t become Judy Goldstein until the late ‘60s. That’s just the way it was. We cooked in the kitchen, we served the Men’s club, we ran a very successful gift shop, and we did other charitable kinds of things, but it was years before we could even be on the board. And it was many more years before a woman, heaven forbid, became president of the congregation. Well, Esther Katz opened the flood gates and there have been many of us since then.
Women’s League had conventions every 3 years at the Concord Hotel in Upstate New York. And, for those of us from the Midwest, it was a double treat not only being with so many sisters, but to go to the Concord up in the Catskills. And in 1982, there was a conference in November, and the region president, at that time, was Beverly Fine, who at that time belonged to the Adath Jeshurun, and as I indicated before, the Adath was a reasonably progressive congregation, and had talked about counting women in minyan- I forget exactly when that happened. But, as a branch, we had decided we were going to offer a resolution at the plenary conference. So, at the end of the plenary session, when the question was asked if there was any other business, Beverly rose, paper in hand, approached the microphone, and read the resolution, which asked that Women’s League strongly encourage the Jewish Theological Seminary to accept women in their Rabbinic program. And then all you-know-what broke loose. Lots of buzz, lots of conversation. At first, they didn’t know quite how to respond and there was talk back and forth. It was decided that the motion was out of order, because it had not gone through the Resolutions Committee, and the issue would be referred back to the Committee, and brought forth at our next convention in 1984. And of course, for the rest of the conference there was talk about “ugh, these women from the Midwest” and “what are they trying to do?”. So, by the time we returned for our 1984 convention, of course, the whole thing was academic, because Amy Eilberg had already been admitted and was a student in the Rabbinic program. But back in the days when United Synagogue Rabbinic Assembly, or whomever, was going around the country and having listening sessions about women being counted in Minyan, one was held at the Adath, and I believe, that we were counting them in Minyan before it became “official policy”.
There were the days when women, of course, never put on T’fillin. I mean, that’s really sacrilegious. We had a staff person, a woman, who appeared at minyan one morning- she went regularly- and whipped out her T’fillin and put them on, and I remember my father-in-law talking about that, “how could she? How could they let her do that?”, and by the next week, he was okay with it. So, the idea of exposing people to some of these things.
Talor: Everything kind of moved really fast after that motion was introduced. What were your thoughts as it was introduced? Did you think it would become a thing as quickly as the next convention? You said it was kind of academic and that they were bringing it up again because it had already happened, but did you think that that would become a reality?
Judy: My hope was that eventually woman Rabbis would be permitted in the conservative movement. I don’t think that- I was hopeful, I was cautiously optimistic, but I really didn’t think it would happen at that point because things were always moving so slowly. But very pleased when it did happen.
Talor: What kind of progress have you seen since that point? Was that the first domino to fall in terms of progress for women in organized [Jewish] religion? Walk us through where we were then to where we are now.
Judy: It opened the door. If it is permissible now to have a woman Rabbi, why not have female Cantors? Not a bad idea! We have female Cantors [now]. We are producing female Rabbis. Now, we needed to get congregations at a point that they will accept them and hire them in pulpit positions, and that was not an easy task. How are we going to make our congregations comfortable counting women in minyan? Leadership on the board and presidencies were probably, maybe, one iota easier because during those times, women were taking leadership roles in business and in community organizations and were shown to be strong and effective leaders and could really do the job and in some instances, their skills were more appropriate than typical male skills.
We’ve gone from, “can they do it at all?” to “now let's have a congregation, whose staff is representative of the congregation”. That is a HUGE leap. And if you think about it and maybe from, well, from the mid 80s to now, it isn't really that much time. Yes, it's a number of years but historically speaking it's just not that much time. I’m proud to say that the Adath has been out front, you know, in many of these aspects.
Mikaela: Yeah, I definitely hear what you're saying-it's interesting. Since you've been a member, through a lot of this, you know, progression and change as Adath would do these progressive things that are ordinary today, would you agree with that being a long running theme of Adath?
Judy: Yes, I do think that the congregation has been in the forefront, a lot of these challenges. And I think a lot has to do with the type of professional staff that we hire.
I don't know how it happens because each committee is different. It's composed of different individuals, and a variety of viewpoints and skills, but generally speaking, we have managed to find just the right clergy person for the time, and to continue this forward view. So I think the lay leaders have to get some credit for it, because if we're smart enough to get the right professional staff, we've made it easier for all of these things to happen.
Talor: Judy, I would like to know, you know, you've kind of always stepped up to leadership and kind of taken on the responsibilities you’ve needed to in order to exact the progress that you wanted to see. I would love to know like what advice or what words of wisdom, you would give to the congregation in terms of keeping that trend going.
Judy: Well, I kind of have an idea in my mind of what needs to be done. I'm not sure how it's going to happen. But we, as I said earlier, we need to make the leap, the generational change.
The next generation or two after mine have completely different views of what a religious institution, in this case the synagogue, should have in their life, what the role should be, how it should operate. And they are different. And each generation has a different point of view. And as my group ages out, and the next one comes in, we recognize things are going to be done differently. You're going to have to appeal and find what works to appeal to the next generation or two. But while doing that, the new leadership can't lose sight of the fact that there are still members who are used to things being done another way. And to figure out how to blend these two things together, to service both groups, I think is the challenge. I don't have any idea. And I thus cannot make a suggestion as to how to do it, but I do know that it has to be done.
An example is technology. There are a number of people who are just not technologically proficient. And you have the question of then are we only going to have a Chadashot? Are we going to do away with the Clarion? And would that cut out the service to a large group? And blending together the generations and their needs is really, I think, the important task. And I'm cautiously optimistic that the leadership, the lay leadership, at the synagogue will be up to it.
D'var Torah Beha'alotcha
May 29, 2021
This past Tuesday evening Cindy and I felt an obligation to drive over to 38th and Chicago, that has been dubbed George Floyd Square to participate in some aspect of this week’s activities to honor the memory of the man whose brutal murder, under the knee of now convicted former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, shook this city and shook the world. We arrived at the square in time to hear the end of a concert and accompanying speeches and prayers to a gathering of people I later learned that people came from all over the country feeling the need to be here to mark the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Cindy and I
participated in a ritual at the end of the program, as the sun set by lighting a candle [see photos below]. Like any memorial ritual - it provided us a chance to reflect on what got us here and our hopes going forward.
So much has occurred this year- the impact of COVID-19 and our thoughts about how it feels to re-enter; the recent ugly flare up of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. On this Shabbat Beha'alotcha, whose story about Moses' siblings criticism of their brother for marrying a black skinned woman, a Cushite, with which I introduced I asked you to focus this morning, I want us to consider issues of racism that it inevitably raises for a modern reader. I ask you today to consider:
How has your understanding of issues related to racism changed in the past year since all of the events related to George Floyd’s murder that impacted the world and the nation, literally making Minneapolis and 38th and Chicago a focal point of the nation as it grappled with issues of racism?
Has your understanding of racism and the history of racism in the United States and in Minnesota changed as a result of the events related to George Floyd’s murder?
What have you read, or seen, that influenced your thinking?
What steps, if any, have you taken to address racism? It could have been related to organizations you supported to address these concerns; it could be advocacy you have done; it may have involved conversation you had with others.
One thing that has changed here at Adath was the establishment of Adath Jeshurun’s Antiracism Committee. We are so grateful for the outstanding work they have done as we have learned together, built trust and struggled together to think about our responsibilities at Adath related to antiracism – not simply addressing prejudice, but dealing with the systemic issues that racism poses.
I appreciate that Adath’s Board of Trustees has expressed its support for those efforts in a note to the congregation sent out in our weekly Chadashot email Monday on the eve of the George Floyd Anniversary:
Adath’s Board of Trustees appreciates the work of Adath’s Antiracism Committee which was formed after the George Floyd Murder. As we head into the anniversary of the murder, we encourage you to visit the Committee’s Webpage (adathjeshurun.org/antiracism) where you will find activities to promote the visibility of BIPOC members of Adath and advance racial equity in our larger world. Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages),“It is not on you to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it." Words written over 1,500 years ago continue to inspire our action today.
These efforts are not without their challenges.
An early thing we learned was about the feelings of Jews of Color in our congregation. We had to hear them express the ways they sometimes feel marginalized, or not completely welcome. In that they may well relate to our parsha in which Moshe’s wife is called out as an outsider, even if God ultimately takes her side. The event that took place in Minneapolis at the end of last May left Jewish people of color in our community shaken and looking for the support of our community.
In dealing with issues of race we need to look at the complexity of Jewish attitudes about race and in relation to people of color. Many Jews in our country, do not particularly identify as white and therefore do not relate to white supremacy, other than to think that we too are at risk from the hated of white supremacists.
What we seem to have some difficulty understanding is that while it is true that Jews are hated and put at risk by white supremacists, we have also benefited from the fact that most Jews in North America, whose families came here from Eastern Europe are white and have long benefited from being able to pass as white. Those benefits are many, as I shared in my Yom Kippur sermon that focused on the issue of racism. The evidence of racial disparities and inequality in this country are quite real and well documented:
For example, during this pandemic Black people account for 25 percent of those who have tested positive and 39 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up just 15 percent of the general population (source).
Black civilians are arrested at over two times the rate of white civilians (source).
Yale University reports that studies over the course of the last five years show consistently, for example, that “Among unarmed victims, Black people were killed
at three times the rate (218 total killed), and Hispanics at 1.45 times the rate of white people (146 total killed) (source).
There are clearly documented racial disparities in this country in health care, employment, housing and policing. These are disparities and inequalities to which the majority of Jews, who appear white, are largely oblivious and not impacted by.
As we were launching Adath’s Antiracism Committee, we heard from Jews of Color associated with Adath of the discomfort they felt as they approached our building as we have ramped up an armed security presence in response to potential threats that overwhelmingly come from white supremacists. As we contemplate reentry into our building we will need to get back to the issue of security and how it lands on people of color, both visitors and those who are members of our congregation. I expect and hope that Jews of color will be a growing part of Adath as demographers agree it is a growing part of our North American Jewish community.
I want to reflect for a bit on a valuable book we have studied this past year in our Downtown Study Group that we will soon complete by Emory University historian Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity (2006). We are grateful to our member Riv Ellen Prell, Professor Emerita of American Studies at the U of MN. She stepped in, with her deep knowledge of this area, to lead the class from Dec to March, when I was on sabbatical and has thankfully remained a participant as we finish up the book.
Prof Goldstein, in his valuable look at the history of the Jews in America from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century demonstrates the deep ambivalence of Jews about race. Given that most Jews after the Holocaust would be leery about describing ourselves as race, it was quite surprising to learn that prior to WW II, Jews were commonly understood to be a racial group by themselves and others. While on one hand many Jews expressed real discomfort at the brutal treatment of blacks in this country, they often were glad to assert that Jews were part of the white race, or if a separate race, we had much to contribute to the country as good Americans. While there are many examples throughout the historical period covered of Jews standing up against the oppression of black people in this country, there are also many shameful examples of Jews participating in the exploitation of black people as they sought to create a good life for their families. Defining Jews as a race had the advantage of preserving Jewish identity, even if a Jew had given up on Jewish observance and belief. The only pattern that we could discern as Jews related to race was a consistent ambivalence about how to understand ourselves in relation to it. I highly recommend Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity to understand how Jews grappled and still grapple with our identity, our relation to whiteness and our place in this country.
Coming back to the gathering Cindy and I attended at the George Floyd memorial there is one other aspect that I want to comment on. As we discuss the issue of Jews and whiteness and how to respond to the work of antiracism, I want us to consider one other challenging issue of how we deal with the growing strength of antiracism activists who link the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs related to the cause of the Palestinians.
Thank you Rabbi Weininger for your thoughtful sermon last Shabbat responding to the identification of some leaders of the Black Lives Matters with the Palestinian cause. Having made clear my support for BLM through Adath and in our Rabbinical Assembly, which along with the USCJ asserted support for the Black Lives Matter Movement in the past year, I need to express my uneasiness at seeing a Palestinian flag waved in the crowd at one point and another that was planted in a section of the memorial and posters in the vicinity calling for the linking of Gaza with Ferguson, MO the killing of a black man near St Louis several years ago. We cannot close our eyes to the impact of ongoing occupation on the West Bank and the continuing inequality and discrimination exprienced by Israeli Arabs.
However, we need to continue to challenge those who would draw an inappropriate analogy between racism in the United States and the complexities of the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East that ignore the historic ties, and continual presence of Jews in the land of Israel. Nonetheless, defending Israel’s right to exist and to defend its citizen against violent attacks should not deter us from standing up against racism in North America.
In doing so let us turn to God’s role in this week’s parsha which lands on the side of the person who is being marginalized. It is up to us to know when to speak up in support of what is right and to find compassion when people, regardless of their color or background are being treated unfairly.
I invite you to join us at the kiddush later to reflect together on the questions I asked earlier:
How has your understanding of racism and the history of racism in the United States and in Minnesota changed as a result of the events related to George Floyd’s murder? And what steps have you taken, or would you be willing to take?
We conclude the service with this reflection on the prayer Aleinu that I shared this past Yom Kippur. It was written in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker of Saint Paul’s Mount Zion Temple and her sisters Hollis Schachner and Sara Stock Mayo.
Aleinu. It is on us.
To bow in praise before God
as a sign of reverence
and perhaps submission
It is on us to bend our knees
only in reverence for life
and only for submission to that which is good
Aleinu. It is on us.
Our sages teach that the angels have no knees
Their legs do not bend
They do not need knees
because their entire purpose
is to stand tall before God in service
But we are not these kinds of angels
We bend under the weight on our shoulders,
We let this twisted world twist us,
into knowing that our service to God comes,
not only in the form of thoughts and prayers,
but in the form of action
Aleinu. It is on us.
Va’anachu kor’im. We bend at the knee
Umishtachavim. We bow at the waist
Lifnei Melech Malchei HaMalchim. We stand straight before God
HaKadosh Baruch Hu. We who are made in God’s image
must be holy because God is holy
So we rise
To repair this very broken world
We stand straight because we can
We stand up because we must
Aleinu. It is on us.
We bend our knees before the God of love
In devotion and in disruption
In protest and in praise
From shame to shleimut – wholeness
We rise before the God of truth
to march and to move
to bend this broken arc towards justice
Aleinu. It is on us.
Bent knees are for showing reverence
to prostrate in peaceful protest
to prepare us for moving
to prepare us for marching
Bent knees are not for killing
God did not make knees, or any other part of us, for that
Aleinu. It is on us.
— Hollis Schachner, Sara Stock Mayo, and Rachel Stock Spilker
D'var Torah Bamidbar
May 15, 2021
I sometimes feel a bit like Dorothy – slightly bewildered about how I landed here, in front of you all. The short answer, of course, is that your Rabbis, for whom I have much respect, asked me. Plus, years ago my youngest children, Joey and Greta, began their lives as students with 2 wonderful years at the Gan. They officially graduate from college later today, so there’s a debt of gratitude to be repaid, too. The longer answer involves my personal development as a pediatrician, researcher, and advocate.
I’m told I showed an early interest in caring for children, and was fortunate to have parents who nurtured and supported that interest. After I finished my pediatric training, my husband, whose family roots are in North Minneapolis, and I moved to the Twin Cities and I began my practice.
I found myself drawn to a specialty area – taking care of infants and young children who were not growing well. With a clinical team of pediatric dietitian, developmental and other specialists, we cared for babies like this one, working to achieve the kind of successful treatment you can see in this before and after photo, and helping kids and parents get on track for a healthy future. The painful recognition that factors beyond my exam room were too often more powerful than anything I could do in my exam room came quickly.
I was incredibly fortunate to connect with a national group of child health experts across the country, now called Children’s HealthWatch and together we began to study how material hardships impact very young children’s health and how policies can alleviate harm. Our earlier work was focused on Food Insecurity, but over time we expanded our interests to include Housing Instability and other hardships. We’ve collected data from the parents of infants and toddlers at the frontline of care, in the EDs or clinics of 5 national sites in Boston, Baltimore, Little Rock, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. Covid interrupted continuous data collection that spanned over 20 years. We’re now conducting a covid impact survey by phone of previously interviewed parents, and just re-starting interviews with our core survey again. So, I met Rabbi Kravitz because of our shared interest in Food Insecurity work, but – as he’s already educated you well on that topic - today I will talk a bit more broadly about Child Poverty in the United States.
So what can I tell you about Child Poverty in 2021? Of the 34 Million people living in poverty in the US in 2019 (the most recent national data available) nearly one third, 10.5 million, are children. Children are the poorest age group in our country, and the younger the child, the higher the risk of poverty. While overall the child poverty rate was 14.4% for all children, that for children less than 6 is higher as the bar graph shows… Just as there are variations by age, there are wide variations by race, with poverty rates of 8.3% for white children, compared to rates of 26.5% for Black, and 21% for American Indian/Alaskan Native and Hispanic children. - This overall rate of 14.4 % is pre-covid, however, and researchers now estimate that child poverty has risen to over 20% for all children as a result of the pandemic, affecting an additional 4 Million children. So, US children today have a 1/5 likelihood of poverty.
One cannot talk about Child Poverty in the US without talking about racism. Economists, historians, and others educate us that systemic racism has prevented the success of families of color by limiting education and employment, and prohibiting purchase of property and access to loans. And these income inequities are only magnified by the covid pandemic, as families of color have been hardest hit by illness and death from covid-19, job loss, and material hardship. It’s estimated that at least 43,000 US children have lost a parent to covid, and that Black children are most disproportionately affected.
Our Children’s HealthWatch pre vs post-covid study shows sharply rising Household Food Insecurity, from 21 to 35%, Housing Instability increases from 27 to 43%, and Child Food Insecurity – a much less common and more severe food insecurity that directly limits food for children - increases from 2 to 7%. We saw that evictions actually decreased, the impact of moratoriums which protected families from evictions. This all feels a little grim, but there is Good News in the form of Federal Relief.
4 packages have been passed by Congress over the past year. The key measures in the first 3 packages, collectively, include economic impact payments – or the three waves of what we’ve called stimulus checks, creation and extension/expansion of Pandemic EBT which provides dollars for food for children out of school and childcare who would otherwise receive free or reduced school meals, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits at maximum levels with a 15% increase, rental and utility assistance, eviction moratoriums, expanded health insurance coverage, expanded unemployment insurance and paid leave.
These were a good start, but the 4th Act, The American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 Trillion economic stimulus bill, takes things to a new level. You can see the broad array of assistance in includes in this overview slide, but I’m going to focus on the real winner for Children, the Expanded Child Tax Credit, which is the primary driver behind reducing child poverty.
This part of the bill, makes temporary expansions to the existing tax credit for a year. It increases the benefit from 2K to 3K for children 6-17 extending the benefit to 17 year olds where it previously went to age 16, and it rises to $3,600 for children under 6. Families are provided the full refund, rather than a portion, including families with little or no income who were previously excluded or got reduced refunds. Half the credit is to be sent this July, so that relief will not need to wait until the 2022 tax filing season. This change expands the credit to an additional 27 M children typically left out. Because families of color are overrepresented among families in poverty, this component of the expansion has a large racial equity impact. In all, 90% of US children/families benefit (including PR and US territories for the first time). It’s predicted to lift 6.1 Million children out of poverty, a reduction of 49%, and to drop the child poverty rate to < 10%, from its current of ~ 20%.
There will be some challenges – the estimated reduction in child poverty will only be realized if those with the lowest incomes access the benefit, so outreach will be critical – to increase awareness, to ensure that all families file taxes – even those who are not obligated. Anxiety that the benefit will count as income such that a family might be made ineligible for other assistance must be allayed. There’s free IRS software available for families earning < 72K, and the national volunteer tax assistance programs, called VITA nationally, and called Prepare and Prosper in the twin cities will be critical resources. I urge you to consider volunteering with these programs, if you have any interest in helping!
The Biden-Harris administration has 2 new proposals now under debate. The first, called the American Jobs Plan is mainly about infrastructure in housing and the care economy. The second, shown here, is called the American Families Plan. It includes historic investments in childcare and universal pre-K, expands food assistance, expands the EITC, and extends the Child Tax Credit through 2025, and restores eligibility to immigrant families.
So, I’ll end as I began – thanking you for the opportunity to share this time with you, and urging you to learn more about these policies, ask questions, get involved, consider your role in Tikkum Olam – Repairing the World. This is not a we/they issue, this is an us issue. These children are our children and grandchildren’s classmates and friends, and their future co-workers and neighbors. This is a really monumental opportunity to help every child get, as Children’s Defense Fund says, a Healthy Start, A Fair Start, A Safe Start, and a Moral Start. Shabbat Shalom.
Diana Cutts, MD, is Chair of Pediatrics at Hennepin Healthcare and has practiced pediatrics in the Twin Cities for over 30 years. She is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and Principal Investigator with Children’s HealthWatch, a national network of pediatric researchers focusing on the intersections of Food Insecurity and other hardships, health, and public policy. Dr. Cutts graduated from the University of Illinois Medical School and completed pediatric residencies at Boston City and Children’s Hospitals. She credits her 4 children with additional in-the-trenches training, a heavy responsibility now assumed by 2 recently arrived grandchildren.
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