Erev Rosh HaShanah 57776/2016 -- Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
We stand on the cusp of a new year, and engage in heshbon ha-nefesh – accounting for our souls. For me, the hardest and most necessary accounting is the one closest to home, and all year I have been wrestling with what it means to have white privilege. I hope my wrestling will connect with or inspire your own, because this sermon is not just about me. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Living is not a private affair of the individual. Living is what humans do with God’s time, what humans do with God’s world.” For me, God’s world is right down the street. Listen.
I live in Kensington. Kathryn and I have lived there for 29 years. Back then, we were the newbies among the long time white working class folks, the Black working class folks, the immigrants from Guyana and Pakistan and Ecuador. Now WE are the old timers and every day more white professionals arrive, buying houses they could not afford to buy in Park Slope, joining Black professionals, immigrants from Bangladesh and South America, and a few white working class folks. So we, who once made the older folks on our block roll their eyes by our arrival, now get to roll ours at how the neighborhood is changing when new people arrive.
I want to tell you about two blocks on Caton Avenue between Ocean Parkway and East 8th Street.
A couple of years ago a big plot of land was sold along these blocks and we feared it was yet another giant condominium or high-priced rental building; 3 of those have been built within 3 blocks of our home in the last few years. But no. It was a school, a new public school, elementary and middle school as it turned out, and much needed in District 15 which includes our area. I was cheered, though I feared it would block the much-loved morning light in my study. Now that it is built, I still have some light, and I have loved seeing the children in their two play yards, lively, engaged, fun, varied.
The small local market grew and thrived, bringing in organic foods and locally grown items and hard-to-find delicacies. And a food co-op opened a block away.
AND then, joy of joys, a café appeared, surely also spurred by the school and its teachers and parents, and too by the increased number of white professionals, the folks who work from home or have flexible schedules, the people who like to sit in a café to do work or hang out or join friends there.
I think I went there every day after it opened. I am a little embarrassed to tell you how much I am in love with this café.
But sometime in the midst of my second week I had to start owning up to my over-the-top love for this café and had to face up to the way it embodies my privilege. Because, you know, I AM one of those white professionals who works from home and likes to sit in a café for meetings or out-of-the-house work or seeing friends.
The café and the expanded grocery store and the food coop and the new school have everything to do with the new people moving in for whom such necessities or amenities appear in a way they do not in other kinds of neighborhoods. Prices of houses are 5 times what we paid when we moved in, and the diversity on our street, a block over from Caton and Ocean, has declined. The children in the 3 schools in the area are more often white, less Black, less Asian, though more Latino than they were 5 years ago. And since Nicole Hannah-Jones wrote that extraordinary article in the NY Times in June, called “Finding a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Kathryn and I have been keeping an eye on our schools. We just got statistics last month but have been noticing for some time that there are parents lingering at school arrival and dismissal time, clearly parents, mostly white, who have time to do so, as other sorts of working parents do not. It is clear some balance has shifted and may be shifting further, and we lament that reality while we also know we can get an unbelievable price for our house if we sell it.
And then there is my café. Many local people get their sandwiches and coffee at the market next door instead for a fraction of the café’s cost. But the café is crowded most of the time. And I sit drinking cappuccino and knowing that while I am paying through the nose for the coffee, it is still a privilege, and I did nothing to earn it. I can’t hide from the fact that this privilege is bought by gentrification and decreasing diversity of race and class. I have to recognize that what drives the schools toward a tipping point, what led to all those apartment buildings being built, also fuels my beloved café.
I have two pockets. In one, a note appears saying, “For you, the world was created.” In the other, a note says, “Hypocrite! What are you going to do about your privilege?!”
For me the world was created: I am white, an Ashkenazi Jew, raised in a middle class family some of whose branches have been in this country since the 1850’s. I grew up in northern Virginia, land of Loving vs Virginia, the American Nazi Party, segregated schools and a fair amount of overt anti-semitism. AND I went to decent schools, got to go to college, have two master’s degrees and rabbinic ordination. Kathryn and I, richly blessed, have been able to pay the rent and then the mortgage for many many years.
There is no doubt that I am privileged. Many of you are too. The privilege is about having enough money and it is about being white, and seeing how the two interweave.
Every time I sit in the café, loving its good coffee, I know I am a hypocrite. How can I bemoan the local schools’ tipping point when I benefit so much from it?
Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of the world, or maybe, as some teach, the anniversary of the 6th day of creation when God created human beings in the Divine image. The angels said, “Don’t do it. They’ll wreak havoc.” But God said, I’ll create one, one alone so that no one can say to another 'My ancestor is greater than yours'.
God had a very nice idea. But what havoc have we wrought?!?!
Every kind of harm. Police shootings of Black men and women. Again, again, again. Again. Increasingly segregated schools here in the capital of the world. Displacement of people from their homes. Whole neighborhoods – stores, churches, clubs - virtually wiped away. And through it all we who have enormous privilege can sit in cafes and bemoan the state of the world without have to give up anything.
Have I made you uncomfortable yet? I am uncomfortable, and can use the company.
Listen, we white people at Kolot are not bad people. Perhaps more than many white people and even many white Jews, a lot of us recognize that we live in a racist society, with racist institutions and systems. Many of us have worked for wage increases and better working conditions for the people of color who wash cars and serve fast food and box up computers. We have protested police killings of Black men and women and have worked for a change in the way New York City oversees the police. We have declared our intent that Kolot itself become an anti-racist congregation, a rarity in the American way of religion which is almost always segregated. We are blessed to do this work with Jews of color and non-Jews of color who help keep us honest and on track.
But what many of us who are white have not done is look at ourselves as white, and at the way that whiteness plays in to the racist systems we deplore. I don’t want New York City to keep having the 3rd most segregated schools in the country. I don’t want to lose the amazing diversity of my neighborhood. I don’t want to think of myself as blind to our society’s realities or to the very real suffering of people I ought to see as my neighbors, the people Torah commands me to love as I love myself. I do not want to keep living as though nothing is wrong with where I stand in what is so clearly a racist society.
The closer to home this reality hits, the more urgent our need to face it. So when that racist system we all know so well – gentrification – began to roll down the slope to Kensington, I started to have to pay attention in a new way. I frankly do not know what to do about forces like development’s greed and gentrification’s spread though I have dabbled on the edges of protests for affordable housing and been glad the city is attending to it.
But what I can do and what you can do is to look at our own privilege. How do we begin to counter or sacrifice some of the small and large ways we white people benefit?
The first thing we have to do is open our eyes. This is not as easy as it sounds. It means reading and talking and confronting hard truths and thinking about what we might have to give up. Long ago my friend Bobbie Samet gave me a simple tool that awakened me to small scale racism like nothing else had. She said, spend a week describing all your encounters in terms of their white participants, since most of us who are white also have white friends and colleagues, and do not usually name people’s race unless it is different from our own. So: Last week I went to dinner with some white friends and we went to see a movie about white people and then I went to work and had a meeting with my white co-workers and after work I had a drink with my white neighbor. That opens the eyes, or will after a week.
We can also stand up for racial justice in small intimate ways. Injustice happens that way, one to one, so why not justice? You know the term micro-aggressions? One definition I found said they are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Many of us here probably do them unintentionally but opening our eyes means we have to try to stop.
I suggest we counter them with what I want to call “micro-supports.” My white wife Kathryn told me one small story: She was driving when she saw that a Black person had been pulled over by the police. Knowing the way these encounters often go she pulled over in front of the car that had been stopped. The officer came over to ask what she was doing and she said she had stopped to send a text because of course she would never drive and text. But what she was really doing was supportive witnessing, which may have kept the encounter of this one Black person and this one police officer from going bad. That is micro-support. We could all do it.
Maybe you are a subway rider. My Black neighbor Camille Dentler told me that her daughter, a wonderful, talented teenager, often tells her mother that she is shunned by commuters getting off the subway at the Fort Hamilton Parkway station. White men have even clutched their shoulder bags when she is nearby. Maybe white people in the neighborhood can offer micro-support by greeting people of color and walking with them. It does mean you have to know them. As Camille says, “When we speak and engage people, its a different experience.”
We can also:
- make sure that people of color in restaurants are served as quickly as we are
- make sure our children speak with respect to their caregivers of color
- make sure we try to develop friendships and collegial relationships with people of color
- make sure we do not assume everyone in a group has the money for a trip or a meal out
I was reminded this summer by white Jewish anti-racism trainer Martin Friedman that we Jews need to focus more on being Jews, on our own history of being oppressed and our own immigration stories and our own traditions of justice. Some of us Jews are white, he noted, because we have had the opportunity to say so and to claim it. Martin wrote, One of the costs of our [white Jewish]comfort and our privilege is Black and Brown lives. As long as we align ourselves with whiteness we contribute to the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of institutions. Their deaths are part of the cost of our comfort, safety and privilege.
The other loss, he wrote, is the loss of what it really means to be Jewish. That it means to not stand idly by when our neighbor bleeds. That it means true Tikkun Olam…Let’s choose our Jewishness over Whiteness …. Let’s choose life.
I have two pockets. In one, there is a note that says “You can keep sitting in that cafe. Just close your eyes and enjoy.” In the other, a note says, “Stop wallowing, guilt does not help, be a stand-up Jew, you might save some lives.”
On the corner of Caton Avenue and East 8th Street, there is a traffic light! It was installed this past spring thanks in large part to my friend and our City Council member Brad Lander, and because of Brad I got to say a blessing for that light. It was installed because of the new school and tragically because a 14-year-old Bangladeshi boy named Mohammed ‘Naiem’ Uddin had been killed at the next corner by a hit and run driver. The light is a mehaya, a giver and protector of life.
My Black friend and Kolot board member Ernst Mohamed taught me about CPR, life-saving! It is what I am really talking about here, the ultimate saving of lives, literally and in every way that matters to life.
CPR is a method of imagining and moving toward the future we want to see. Context. Purpose. Results. C-P-R. It works backward:
We start with the “R” – the results we can imagine:
I want Bangladeshi children and Latino children and Black children and Asian children and white children to be safe on Caton Avenue, and I want them to have safe good schools, and a good fair justice system, and have futures filled with opportunity and open doors and the chance to relax, give up the vigilance that is otherwise their harsh inheritance.
Then we think about the “P”- the purpose:
A rebalancing of our society is needed, so we put the needs of poor people and people of color first even when it is uncomfortable for some of us
The “C”- context is the basic, most crucial foundation for what we envision, the “ahat sha-alti” – the one thing that drives us:
For me, the context is I am a Jew and Judaism demands this.
For all this to be true, for the large saving of lives I pray for, we have to understand that we may have to give something up. It may be just the comfort of our closed eyes, or it may be the extra time it takes to offer micro-supports when micro-aggressions come so easily to mind and mouth. It may be the stretching of the unused muscle of imagination. Or it may mean the active engagement needed to really hear and do, to insist on justice as well as one-to-one equality.
V’haya im shamoa tish’m’u, begins the middle paragraph of the Shema. If you listen, really listen…..what will happen? God gave us two ears and just one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak. Let’s listen.
Black attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, says: “When we get close, we hear things that can’t be heard from afar. We see things that can’t be seen. And sometimes, that makes the difference between acting justly and unjustly... If you are not proximate, you can’t change the world.”
I have two pockets. In one, there is a note: The world was created for me. In the other, its necessary twin: I was created to change the world.