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.
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share