Our world, our country, our communities and the streets of our city have been both literally and metaphorically on fire. Like so many of you, I feel a combination of outrage and pain at the killing of George Floyd and at the racial injustice that continues to plague this country.
This and other acts of police brutality come as the COVID-19 pandemic has stoked the flames of this fire, exacerbating the systemic problems of social and economic inequity in this country. People of color and other minorities are disproportionately affected by both the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus. While we are all in the same storm, we are surely not all in the same boat.
Earlier this month the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, along with 130 national Jewish groups, called for sweeping reforms to our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and our local Jewish Community Relations Council affirmed that we stand with the African American community.
I have been hesitant to speak this week because I have been having trouble finding the words. I have worried that another statement from me and CJP will feel hollow if not accompanied by clear action, and I don’t think we know yet what that course of action should be. To be totally honest, I also feel a sense of trepidation about speaking from my own place of power and privilege.
That said, I keep coming back to a powerful Jewish text that explains the calling of Abraham, the first Jew and founder of ethical monotheism, through a parable: A person was walking when he saw a castle in flames. He cried out with a question: “Does this castle have no owner?” At that point, the owner peered out from the castle and answered: “I am the owner.” So too, the rabbis tell us, Abraham saw a world in flames and asked: “Is anyone in charge of this world?” And that is when God called to him: “Lech Lecha – Go forth.”
This text speaks powerfully to me at this moment for three reasons.
First and most obvious is the haunting image and metaphor of the flames. Our world is on fire, and it is so painful to watch.
Second is the fact that Abraham sees the burning castle. I wonder how many other people passed by the fire and didn’t even stop to notice, or chose to look away? Both empathy and activism begin with the ability and the willingness to see the suffering of others and the brokenness in our world.
Third is Abraham’s response. He does not rush to put the fire out, but rather asks a question. He knows there is a problem but does not presume to be able to solve it himself; instead, he responds with humility and with the realization that before doing anything he needs to understand more.
The fires of racism, discrimination and socio-economic inequity continue to burn in this country as they have throughout our history.
Our community needs to commit to seeing these problems in new ways and to not turn away. We need to strive to see the experience and the pain of the Black community and all people of color. We need to recognize that our Jewish community includes people of all backgrounds. We particularly need to pay attention to the voices and experiences of Jews of color.
And we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that, while we must not turn away, we do not yet know how to put this fire out. We must find ways to act now, following the lead of people of color, for whom this is their lived experience. We need to commit to what promises to be a painful process of introspection, learning and deep curiosity about our own history and our relationship with race in America, and here in Boston.
While the path forward is not yet clear to me, I believe that if we are courageous enough to be in our brokenness together — to see, to ask, to learn and then to act — this is where the healing can begin.
Rabbi Marc Baker is the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies. This piece was written on June 4.