JVP Rabbinical Council Statement as Black Churches Burn

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Could it be that no one is running this world?

JVP Rabbinical Council Statement as Black Churches Burn
July 2015

A classical Jewish teaching compares Abraham’s spiritual awakening to a wanderer who saw a palace on fire. He said, “Could it be that no one is running this palace?” Just then the master of the palace looked out, and said “I am the master of the palace.” So too, Abraham looked out into the world and said, “Could it be that no one is running this world?” And the Holy Blessed One appeared to him and said “I am the master of the world.”

(Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

God’s houses are on fire. The palace is burning and we cannot, must not look away. We are compelled to ask: Who is in charge here? Will we continue to countenance such acts of hatred? Will we allow white supremacist terrorism to threaten the fabric of Black life in the U.S.?

No, we cannot stand idly by.

We, the members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, are heart-broken, devastated and outraged at the recent murder of nine African Americans in the Emmanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston and the burning of seven Black churches. We stand in solidarity with church members and with all whose spiritual homes and communities are under racist attack. We believe a threat to sanctity anywhere is a threat to sanctity everywhere.

This is the time for people of all faiths to recognize the toxic reality of white supremacy in our country. We call upon our national, state and local leaders to prioritize challenging and eliminating white supremacist terror in our country. This work must include not only holding individuals accountable for their heinous acts, but also a re-commitment to uproot racism from the social, political, and economic fabric of our communities.

We offer our prayers, condolences and support to the members of the destroyed churches. We join with all people of conscience to act however and wherever we can to end the burning of Black churches, communities, and lives.

We commit ourselves to actively wrestle with the ways we may reinforce, benefit from, or be harmed by white supremacy in our lives, our communities and the wider world. As religious leaders, we stand with all who challenge structural racism, particularly inequity in educational opportunity, segregation in housing, and the shocking gap in wealth and income.

Let us find the courage to walk in the ways of Abraham, to be awake to what is real and true, and to see for ourselves that the palace is burning and that it is our responsibility to put out the fires that have been allowed to burn unabated for far too long. May we help to bring justice, healing and hope to our world, speedly and in our lifetimes.

Some ways you can take action:

  1. Help rebuild the fallen churches. Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopal church in St. Louis, has started the Rebuild the Churches Fund. All donations are tax-deductible and will be dispersed equally to the churches whom investigators conclude were destroyed by arson.
  2. Intentionally pursue and support the leadership of Jews of color within the Jewish community.
  3. Create opportunities in your community for the study of institutionalized racism, including an exploration of white privilege and Ashkenazi dominance.
  4. Build relationships with African American religious congregations in your community, show up for their events, create opportunities to listen to their experiences and discuss how we can be in solidarity with their struggle for racial justice.

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Sell the Torah, Put the Kid in School

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

When I entered rabbinical school, I had a secret agenda – to finally find a Jewish practice to strengthen and sustain my social justice work and commitments that went beyond Biblical quotes imploring us to treat the worker fairly, but that would hold a practice of reflection, honesty, integrity and accountability. I found that practice in mussar.

Mussar, more or less, means ethics. It comes from Proverbs 1:2 where the meaning is about instruction, discipline, or conduct. Mussar is the ethical thread in Judaism — we can find it in Torah, Gemara, halakhah (Jewish law), Jewish literature, and the long history of Jewish labor and social justice activism.  It was also, more formally, an ethical, spiritual, and cultural movement founded in the 19th century in Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel Salanter.

I relate to Rabbi Salanter in part because he, like me was a rabbi and an organizer. He traveled around from shtetl, to village, to town supporting communities of mussar practitioners—Jews devoted to ethical living.

There is a story of Rabbi Salanter visiting one of the mussar towns he was organizing, and, to his great surprise, finds a school-age boy sitting on the street in the middle of the day.

He asks him, “Boy, why are you not in school?”

The boy replies “My parents don’t have enough money to pay the tuition, so I can not go to school.”

This enrages Rabbi Salanter—what kind of mussar town can have a young boy not in school?

Rabbi Salanter promptly takes the boy and heads to the school. He demands from the headmaster “Why is this boy not in school?”

The headmaster replies “His family can’t pay the tuition, and we can’t have him in school if he doesn’t pay the tuition.”

At this point Salanter is fuming. He rushes into the the House of Prayer, opens the ark and finds in it a big, beautiful Torah scroll. He turns to the headmaster and demands—”sell the Torah, put the kid in school.”

As we ended our JVP West Coast Regional Leadership Development Institute outside Portland, Oregon last weekend, this story was the only one I could use to describe my feeling of who we are and what we are doing at JVP.  We at JVP strive for this – a sense of radical responsibility in the world, of obligation to community, not just to self, and above all else a readiness and ability to refocus.