Dear JCHS School Community,
At the end of last week the Jewish community observed Shavuot, the festival celebrating the giving of Torah and our responsibility to make real its lessons in every generation. One of Torah’s most powerful lessons is the inherent value and sanctity of each human life. From this the Sages declare that anyone who destroys a single life has destroyed an entire world. (Sanhedrin 4:5).
After two days of being away from screens through Shavuot, I turned on my phone and was shocked, but sadly not surprised, to see escalating turmoil and violence shaking our country. In recent weeks, we have seen whole worlds destroyed by the horrible deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Their names are added now to the overwhelming number of others. There has been a seeming advancing cascade of death, dehumanizing, and systemic racism experienced by people of color in our country.
This week’s Torah portion includes the famous three-part blessing recited by the ancient high priest and still used today -- May God bless you and protect you . . . “ (Numbers 6:23-27) The third of these blessings hopes that “God will turn God’s face toward you.” A common way to read this is that God will turn God’s attention to each of us uniquely. That is, God will see each one of us.
But my colleague, Rabbi Hanna Spiro offers a powerful reframing
as she believes that God’s attention, like God, is everywhere at the same time. In other words, if God is turned in every direction at once, how can God turn God’s attention to a particular place or person. Unless, Spiro suggests, Torah is talking not about God but about us — the people who are made in the image of God. In Spiro’s words, “we turn our attention in different directions all the time! Maybe this is a blessing about what we can do for each other.” As Spiro reframes this part of the priestly blessing, “May God inspire us to turn towards others — across neighborhoods, across parties, across religions — and really try to see, compassionately, what’s going on there.”
Indeed, now is a time when we need to really turn our faces to see others — those in our community and beyond it who feel unseen, ignored, or overlooked. This is the time for us to work hard to see others in all their longing, despair, and pain.
What would it mean to be seen? An East Bay Jewish educator, Kenny Kahn offered an insight when he wrote last week, “Try to See Me
.” Kenny works with Be'chol Lashon
, a San Francisco based national organization that strengthens Jewish identity by raising awareness about the ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. Here is part of what Kenny wrote:
[D]uring this pandemic, I have been wearing a mask out in public. I do it to show others love. I follow the health and social distancing guidelines in public areas out of respect. But I’m a big, black guy, and black and brown men who cover their faces are perceived as a threat, are unpredictable, are dangerous. In the last two weeks, at local parks and hiking areas, I have been described as looking like a murderer. One woman out walking her dog ran away from me for dear life. I’ve noticed that some people get offended when I put my mask on in their presence.
The truth is that even before the pandemic, even before I started wearing a mask in public, some people saw me as just a big, suspicious-looking black guy because of their implicit biases. I’ve had cashiers not accept checks after customers ahead of me have had theirs accepted without question. I’ve been told that the cash I wished to use that I received from a bank teller was counterfeit because the bills were too new. I’ve been told that without two forms of identification, my ATM or credit cards would not be accepted. I’ve been asked to leave the premises immediately for reasons I can only imagine.
Try to see behind my smiles and laughs. I am black, white, and Jewish. I am a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and friend. I am an East Bay native, educator, sports fan, writer, speaker, and BBQ enthusiast. Try to see me. George Floyd did not resist arrest in Minneapolis. He should have been treated with kindness and understanding. When big black guys like me are harassed, we become scared, short of breath. We can’t breathe.
I’ve had horrible run-ins with the police. As an educator, I have also partnered with police officers. I have family and friends, people I consider brothers, who work in law enforcement. There are good police who are ostracized when these horrors happen, but systematically I have been positioned to be opposed to them. Who protects them in the face of such a tragedy and improper use of authority? Who will protect my sons in the face of racism and prejudice and profiling? Who will protect me?
We cannot look away any longer. We can pursue justice for others and heal our world only when we turn our faces to see — really see. Ms. Ben David (Director of Social Justice & Inclusion) and Ms. Julie Beck LCSW (School Counselor) have curated some materials to help each of us learn more, deepen our awareness, care for others and ourselves, and take action -- links below.
We also encourage students and Professional Community members to join an all-school Zoom gathering on Wednesday, June 3, at 12:00 pm, to learn more about the history and conditions that have led to the current wave of protests. You will receive an invitation later today.
JCHS as a school (and I as an educator) are committed to pursuing racial justice and integrating education about racism across disciplines. That pursuit is woven into our program beginning with “Identity Matters” in Freshman Seminar and running through to the Senior Journey to New Orleans. The Jewish tradition and our people’s history demands that we do this. Those of us who are Jews know well the vulnerability of being othered. Those of us who are White know that racism is a White problem that’s a burden for people of color. And the corrosive impact of racism is a spiritual crisis for all of us.
We cannot look away any longer. Even though we are physically apart, it is more important than ever to talk with each other in our homes, and with our relatives, friends, and colleagues about taking peaceful, constructive action. In particular, I encourage those of us who are not people of color to speak up and act. If you are hesitant to do so, remember that our peers of color, and adults with children of color, do not have a choice to turn away from this harsh reality.
As we move forward, thank you for turning your face to see others, for watching out for each other, and for practicing our own self-care through this difficult time.
L'Shalom - Toward Wholeness,
Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben
Resources Toward Wholeness in Support of Black Lives
As Rabbi Ruben wrote: “Now is a time when we need to really turn our faces to see others — those in our community and beyond it who feel unseen, ignored, or overlooked. This is the time for us to work hard to see others in all their longing, despair, and pain.”
We also encourage students and Professional Community members to join an all-school Zoom gathering on Wednesday, June 3, at 12:00 pm, to learn more about the history and conditions that have led to the current wave of protests. Following the gathering, students are invited to break-out rooms where they can reflect and receive support.
CRISIS & THERAPEUTIC RESOURCES