“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Frederick Douglass
This quote has become much more meaningful to me in the weeks following the 2016 Presidential Election.
As a black, lesbian Jewish woman I have seen my fair share of subtle discrimination as well as outright racism. I’ve been the victim of shopkeepers who keep a keen eye on my movements in stores, I’ve watched as older white folks have crossed to the other side of the sidewalk rather than walk past me, and in my Jewish communities I’ve been asked hurtful questions about the validity of my place in Jewish space simply because my black skin doesn’t fit someone’s concept of what a Jew looks like.
And yet, I’m comfortable. My wife and I own a home and two cars. We don’t want for anything and with a Black man as the leader of this country for the past eight years I got comfortable. Too comfortable. I may have marched with Black Lives Matter and for Marriage Equality, and advocated for the inclusion of Jews of Color in Jewish communal space with the Jewish Multiracial Network, though I never felt the need to do this social justice and racial justice work—it was work I wanted to do.
That all changed on election night. The imperative for racial justice work is clear. And we all need to do it.
As we approach Martin Luther King Day we have an obligation to live up to the words of Frederick Douglass. Each year we congratulate our forefathers for the work they did during the Civil Rights Movement. We sift out the grittiness of King’s fight for Black freedom for his more palatable motifs of non-violence. We listen to rabbis give sermons, we attend dinners intended to inspire us into action and instead of getting things done, we tuck away the black and white photos of King and Heschel and go on with our lives.
As Jews we often look to Heschel, not Douglass, when thinking of praying with our legs [feet], though I think it’s Douglass’ words that have the bigger impact. Douglass, a black man who was born a slave, found his freedom not in words or good intentions, but in action. It is my hope, in this new era of America that has already been riddled with over 1000 independently documented instances of racial discrimination and violence, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, that as a Jewish community we stop looking to the past with nostalgia and instead we look to the future with action.
When Heschel marched with King almost 60 years ago he said he prayed with his feet. Did Heschel know that he was paraphrasing Douglass? Was he using the words of a freed slaved turned abolitionist to drive home his point about his time with King? I’m not sure. But in these 60 years while much has changed in regards to racial equality, we still do not live in a world that is racially equal. The institutionalized and systematic racism in our country exists because we allow it to with our complacency and our willingness to look the other way. Tikkun Olam, healing the world, is a big task that is almost unthinkable to achieve alone, but in my opinion, easily accomplished when we work at small things as individuals and work on bigger issues as a united Jewish community.
The following list is incomplete, but it’s a good place to start for white Jews looking to make racial and social justice a focus beyond MLK Day.
Take a personal inventory; who is in your life? Do you have friends who are people of color? Do you have friends who are Jews of Color? If not, why do you think this is?
Take inventory of your Jewish community. Is your synagogue truly welcoming of Jews of Color? Are the materials printed inclusive in language?
Give to organizations able to do the “big work.”
Volunteer with organizations who are doing “community work.”
Join social justice groups with stronger leaders of color. If you’re not a POC, be sure to do more listening than talking.
Speak up. Racism and racial discrimination is all around us; in the jokes we hear, in usage of derogatory words like “gyp”, and it’s our responsibility to speak up when we hear these things.