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The Hurricane of Anger: Where Do We Go from Here? (July 2016)

{I had originally intended this week to write about Elie Wiesel, who, as I’m sure many of you are aware, died  on July 2.  However, I feel compelled to defer the Wiesel piece and reflect on events of the past week.} 

The former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, recently published an article with the title “We Need Morality to Beat This Hurricane of Anger.”  He was writing primarily about the recent vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union, but he might just as well have been commenting on the tragic and recent shootings by police and the shootings of police in cities around the U.S.  For indeed, it feels as if a “hurricane of anger” has swept across our country over the past week.  Violence, rage, as well as a profound sadness permeate our great nation.  After the sniper shootings of twelve police in Dallas one commentator said that “things could not possibly get any worse.”  I’m afraid they can, although I hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail, that dialogue and conversation will help to diffuse this hurricane of anger, and that all involved will learn from all of this and significantly improve how we treat each other and view each other. 

Obviously these events are about racial tensions and issues in our great society.  It has been said by many that non-black people cannot possibly understand what it is like to be black in America, and I fully agree.  This was eloquently expressed by Michael Eric Dyson in his piece, “Death in Black and White,” in the New York Times (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/opinion/sunday/what-white-america-fails-to-see.html).  Rabbi Hillel teaches, “Do not judge another person until you have stood in his place,” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4)  and in our relative comfort and acceptance as contemporary Jews, we are far removed from the place of many African Americans and the black experience in America.  I say this while realizing that while African Americans have made tremendous progress socially, economically and politically in our society, there are still barriers and prejudices to be overcome. 

It was not so long ago that we as Jews were not accepted and were excluded from much of what America had to offer. We have our collective experience and collective memory of suffering, expulsions, persecution, pogroms and the Holocaust.  We had to fight for equality and acceptance in America.  So we have stood in the place where black Americans have been, and many still are.  Starting with the Torah and all that follows, Jewish teaching enjoins us to love freedom and work for freedom, not only our own, but for universal freedom.  Time and again the Torah asserts that we must be kind to the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” or to cherish and work for freedom, for “You were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Judaism commands us to work for justice—“Justice, justice you shall pursue.”  So Jews are disproportionately involved in causes for social justice and social change.   

All of this has manifested itself time and again in the American Jewish community’s identification with and support for the American blacks’ struggle for equality and dignity. Examples abound, and I keep discovering new ones, such as the story of Goldie Michelson, who died this weekend (http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/07/09/goldie-michelson-oldest-person-america-dies/BlHCjyS0xCooBFRPnLKudI/story.html). I did not know Goldie, but I knew of her.  She was a Worcesterite for most of her 113 years, and she died as the oldest known person in the United States.  She was one of the only women to attend and graduate college in the 1920’s; she went on to get her Masters as well.  One of her professors invited the entire class back to his house for coffee.  Almost the entire class—the only African American student in the class was not invited.  What did Goldie do?  She boycotted the professor’s invitation and invited her black classmate to her apartment for coffee.  That’s what I’m talking about! 

Another example, started even before Goldie Michelson’s protest, was Julius Rosenwald, the son of German Jewish immigrants who became the president of Sears and a very rich man.  As early as the early 1900’s Rosenwald believed that the plight of blacks, particularly in the rural South, was the greatest social problem in the United States.  In cooperation with Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee University, of which Washington was a founder, Rosenwald created the Rosenwald Schools, a network of close to 5,000 schools throughout the south, providing education for poor blacks which otherwise would have eluded them.  He also established the Rosenwald Fund, which, among other initiatives, distributed fellowship grants directly to African-American artists, writers, researchers and intellectuals between 1928 and 1948. Civil rights leader Julian Bond, whose father received a Rosenwald fellowship, called the list of grantees a "Who's Who of black America in the 1930s and 1940s." 

The disproportionate involvement of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s is well known—Jews as Freedom Riders, Jewish support and involvement with Martin Luther King, Jr.—the list goes on. 

As I mentioned, I hope and pray that this hurricane of anger will abate, and will lead to greater dialogue and understanding.  And I hope that our Jewish voices, as individuals and as a community, will contribute toward the positive change that needs to emerge from the current tensions around the country.

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780