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Say Their Names (Yom Kippur Yiskor 5781 – 09/28/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Say Their Names
Good Yom Tov, Shana Tova
In a few moments, we’re going to say the words:
Yizkor Elokim Nishmat Avi Mori…
                                            Morati Imi…
May God remember the souls of our beloved parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends.
We say their names. The names recall such memories; they mean everything to us. These names are passed on to our children and embedded in our hearts.
Say their names. It’s a 2020 mantra.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, and so many others. We did not know these people personally, but for the simple fact that these people were assaulted or killed unjustly, we say their names.
Hopefully, by committing to remember them, we’ll be inspired to make the changes needed in our country so that meaningless deaths like these will not continue.
What’s the chance that anyone here will get shot or put in jail for being pulled over for speeding or breaking up a fight between two people? Is this a fear that lingers continuously in our heads?
All of our teens wear hoodies. Do we have conversations with them about where they can go and what they should wear lest they be perceived as thieves?
For many of our Black friends, these fears and many others are the reality of life in America.
For the sake of injustice and discrimination so rampant in our country, we need to support Black Lives Matter. With the election of Obama, we convinced ourselves that our country is no longer prejudiced. But it’s obvious, the problems for Black Americans in our country are far from over.
Some of you may object. There are Black Lives Matter leaders that view Israel as an apartheid state. They support boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Furthermore, black antisemitism seems to be on the rise. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we’ve seen it in the news, most recently in Jersey City and Monsey and professional athletes’ tweets.
Yes, I acknowledge these truths. But should it stop us from doing the right thing? Was there ever a time when it was unbecoming to target Jews? Throughout history, we have been despised for a multitude of reasons. We never let it stop us from being true to ourselves.
Bari Weiss writes in her book “How to Fight Antisemitism”:
“On the far right, Jews are condemned as internationalists, disparaged for being insufficiently white, and for refusing to renounce universalist values.
The “logic” goes like this: Whites are at the top. Blacks and browns and immigrants are at the bottom.
And Jews occupy the duplicitous middle position.
They can—and often do—appear to be white.
But they are, in fact, slavishly loyal to those at the bottom.
Thus the Jews are the ultimate betrayers of the white race, the most powerful racial enemy white people have.”
To the White Supremacists, we’re betrayers to our white skin. But to some Blacks, we’re just Whites who have created another apartheid state.
Bari continues, “leftwing Anti-Zionist antisemitism cloaks itself in the language of progressive values—standing up for the downtrodden, protecting the underdog—even as anti-Zionists make common cause with some of the most regressive ideologies and regimes on earth.
Both types position the Jews as a people apart, a people arrayed against the interests of the people.”[1]
In the end, we’re not appreciated by either side. So what?!
We just need to do what is right.
We just read in the Torah a few weeks ago (Deuteronomy 16)
כ) צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לך
Justice, Justice, you shall pursue so that you may live and take hold of the land that God has given you.
Why is the word Justice repeated? Why is the verb, pursue, chosen? Because creating a just society is hugely challenging. Those with power do not want to relinquish their control. It takes a revolution.
Sometimes years and centuries of effort to uproot the status quo.
Many of you or your parents rallied for racial equality in the sixties; well, now the window has opened once more, and it’s time for action.
It’s not good enough to say, “Well, I’m not the cause of the problem; I’m not a racist.”
In 1963, Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke in the famous Walk on Washington.
He said, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things.
The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem.
The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers.
America must not remain silent.
Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.”
We support Black Lives Matter despite those that oppose us for Black Lives do matter, just like Jewish lives matter.
We also need to differentiate the #BlackLivesMatter and the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) organization that supports BDS and anti-Israel sentiment. Furthermore, we all know there are many Black organizations and millions of Black Americans that are pro-Semites and supporters of Israel.
What can we do?
September’s Oprah magazine has an article titled “Hard White Truths.” They asked White readers about the moments when they were most acutely aware of their privilege, and what they’re doing about it.
Katherine Isabel, 45 years old from New Orleans, writes: I’ve decided to try to actively address racism in my workplace (by joining the accountability and inclusion committee at my predominately white company, which I hope will lead to the hiring of more people of color especially black people) and in my child’s school (by writing the administration to ask what steps they’re taking to address racial bias in their educational and disciplinary methods).
Woody Wheeler, 69, from Seattle, responded: I took part in one of the Seattle protests. And my wife and I are increasing our donations to civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and pursuing the idea of creating a new science and environmental college scholarship fund for people of color. We’re also financially supporting a number of Senate candidates who believe that Black lives do matter.
Sheila Morreale, 51, from Franklin, Tennessee, writes: I’ve joined the Beloved Community, a movement in the Episcopal Church that promotes awareness and discussions around radical injustice and inequality.
I am participating in a group book study about white fragility.
I’m having very open and difficult conversations with my three children.
And most important, when I see someone in my community say something belittling or negative about race or gender—be it on social media or in everyday conversation—I call that out.
Follow these suggestions or create your own. But there’s a window open right now for change. Going back to Rabbi Akiva’s teaching, what’s our offering? How are we going to be part of the solution?
Three thousand years ago, we brought one of the most elevating and empowering ideas to the world. It’s written in the early chapters of the Torah (Genesis 9):
כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם.
“For in the image of God, the human was made.”
It doesn’t say the Jew was made, but all people are created in the image of God.
Standing up for Black Lives is not an issue of one hand washing the other. We don’t stand up against racism and inequality because we want concessions on Israel or antisemitism. We don’t stand against racism and inequality because someday the racists will come for us. We stand against racism and inequality because we stand up for what’s right.
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף
We pursue justice for justice’s sake.
So now, as we are about to say Yizkor for our loved ones, our parents, grandparents, spouses, brothers, and sisters, let us also keep in mind other lives taken too quickly in the past few years: George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, Yusuf Hawkins, Matthew Shepard, and so many others. May their souls find rest in knowing that we will not let their deaths pass unnoticed. Justice, justice we shall pursue.
Shana Tova
[1] Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism (p. 46). Crown. Kindle Edition.

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