A New Prayer for the United States of America

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Our God and God of our ancestors, bless and protect the United States of America and secure, strengthen, and advance the ideals and institutions that are its pride and its glory.

Guide our leaders and officials to see Your image in all people. Embolden them to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and empower them to uphold the cause of the “plundered poor” and the passed over, the vulnerable and the marginalized, the homeless and the tempest-tost, ensuring equal opportunity and justice for all, eradicating oppression in all its forms, both within and beyond our borders.

Grant our leaders strength to discharge the duties of their offices with honesty and integrity, withstanding the temptations that “blind the clear-sighted and subvert the cause of the righteous.” Help them “see the right,” grant them “firmness in the right,” and give them courage always to do what is right.

Help us all remain mindful of the extraordinary gift of freedom, attained by our ancestors at great expenditures of toil and blood, that we have been blessed to inherit. Work through us so that we may dutifully fulfill our responsibilities to one another as a self-governing people. Where we see degradation or persecution, move us to march. Where we see tyranny, rally us to resist. And when we feel despair, grant us the audacity to hope.

Enable us to remember that, regardless of the shade of our skin or the place of our origin,; regardless of whether we were born in privilege or in poverty,; regardless of the anatomy with which we were born or the language we speak; regardless of our gender identity or our sexual orientation, we are all siblings, called upon by our Heavenly Parent to safeguard one another and to dwell together in peace.

Ready us to join together in that spirit, so that together we may make “justice well up like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream,” and speedily bring about the day when “nation will not take up sword against nation, and they will never again know war.”

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You.

And let us say, “Amen.”


References:

George Washington, Letter to Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island

Abraham Joshua Heschel, “My Reasons for Involvement in the Peace Movement”

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

Exodus 23:8

Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

Psalm 133:1

Amos 5:24

Isaiah 2:4

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Statement of Moral Outrage at Police Violence and Systemic Racism

Clergy Action RVA

On June 30, 2020, a group of about 60 Richmond-area clergy representing many faiths, now known as Clergy Action RVA, gathered at Marcus David Peters Circle (formerly known as the Robert E. Lee Monument) to demand an end to police violence against racial justice protesters and action on an anti-racist agenda. You can read more about the gathering here and here. Below are my remarks:

Good afternoon. My name is Michael Knopf, and I am the rabbi of Temple Beth-El here in Richmond. 

Scripture teaches that every human being is created in God’s image, that we are all equal in value and infinite in dignity. For this reason, my faith insists that Black Lives Matter, that racism and social inequity are an affront to God, and that we therefore have an urgent moral duty and a fundamental spiritual obligation to root out bigotry, dismantle oppression, and build a just society.

So when people of color continue to be discriminated against and oppressed in the so-called “land of the free and the home of the brave,” when a person’s skin color dictates their income and life expectancy in a country that purportedly believes all “are created equal;” when black and brown people are harassed, hurt, and murdered time and time again by those sworn to serve and protect them; and when nonviolent civilians gathering to protest racial injustice are met by militarized police, tear gas, and rubber bullets — people of faith and people of conscience are right to be outraged. Indeed, my faith affirms that in this moment God is outraged — outraged at having to witness the ongoing degradation and destruction of God’s children, outraged at the wanton desecration of the Divine image, day after painful day. 

We are here today because we believe that protesting racism and systemic injustice is sacred and fiercely urgent work, commanded by faith and conscience and protected by our country’s Constitution.

And we therefore cannot stand idly by as our holy siblings who are exercising their constitutional rights and living out their moral responsibilities are met by indiscriminate, horrific, and in some cases deadly police violence. 

Police officers must know that when they hurt one of our people, they are hurting a child of God. Nothing short of a clear and present threat to their own safety gives them the right to desecrate or destroy a manifestation of the Divine image.

We therefore have a message for city and state police: stop hurting our people. Stop hurting your people. Stop hurting God’s people. 

Violence against nonviolent protesters is immoral. Violence against protesters is unconstitutional. It is an affront to God and an assault on our democracy. It’s gone on far too long and we people of faith and people of conscience call on heaven and earth as our witness today that we will not stand for it anymore. We will not stand for state violence against black and brown people, and against protesters. We will not stand for racism in our institutions, in our systems, and in the hearts of those who make, enforce, and adjudicate our laws. We will not stand idly by as what is left of our imperfect but aspiring democracy becomes an authoritarian regime before our very eyes, and as God’s children, our siblings, suffer from systemic inequality and police brutality. So we aren’t asking, we’re demanding: stop hurting our people. 

And now let me also say unequivocally to all who have been on the streets day after day, night after night, and all who are part of this movement demanding that justice well up like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream: We share your outrage. We echo your anger. We stand with you, and we pledge to fight alongside you — yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

But the question before us is not whether our indignation is righteous. We know that it is. We know that our cause is just, and that our anger is outmatched only by God’s. We know that this unjust aggression by state and local authorities against the people they are charged to protect reveals the ugly and painful reality of racism in our city. We know that police violence against protestors in recent weeks has exposed the reality that communities of color are over-policed but otherwise underfunded. Yes, we know our outrage is justified.

But the question before us, my friends, is: Why is our mayor not outraged by the violence his police force has been perpetrating out here night after night? Why is every member of our city council not outraged? Why is every elected official and candidate for office not outraged? Why is every single Richmonder not outraged?

The answers to these questions are unfortunately not hard to find. And yet many of us, especially those of us who are white, continue to stand in defense of this immoral and intolerable status quo. Still others of us find it all too easy to avert our eyes from the unjust acts of state violence that are perpetrated in our name and with our tax dollars, from the pervasive inequities enshrined in the laws that govern us. We are in a state of moral emergency. And yet too many of us stand idly by the blood of our neighbors and remain indifferent to the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

So let us also be clear about this: the police, along with all of our elected officials, represent us and are accountable to us. Which means that we are all of us ultimately responsible. When they are hurting people with impunity, it is because not enough of us are demanding that they stop, just as racial inequities persist in our city and country because too few of us are insisting upon a change. Power always interprets silence as support, and power gives up nothing without a demand. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel pointed out in his Nobel prize acceptance speech: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

We have the power to challenge our own – and our society’s – bigotry. We have the power to protest unjust and immoral laws, to advocate for better ones, and to vote for the leaders who make and sign our laws. State and city police may be guilty of perpetrating violence against innocent civilians. But we are all responsible. 

So to the people of Richmond: understand that we signal our priorities and beliefs as strongly through silence as through speech, and we are accountable either way — to God most of all. As the great 20th century sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it: This is no time for neutrality. This is an hour of moral emergency that calls for “high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

And to our holy siblings who are putting their bodies on the line to protest injustice: be strong and courageous. Know that people of conscience stand in solidarity with you and pledge to fight alongside you. 

Forward together. Not one step back.

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Justice Demands RISC

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On June 15, 2020, I was asked to give closing remarks at the (virtual) annual gathering for RISC — Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities — an organization of congregations from throughout the Richmond region working to solve critical community problems, of which Temple Beth-El is a member. Here’s what I said:

In Sabbath services this week, the Jewish community will be studying Numbers chapter 13 and 14, otherwise known as the story of the spies. The Children of Israel, following their dramatic exodus from enslavement in Egypt, arrive at the wilderness of Paran, at the border of the Promised Land. God instructs Moses to send forth scouts to reconnoiter the land of Canaan before the rest of the Israelites invade and conquer the territory. 

Through this story, Scripture teaches us that in order to get to whatever Promised Land we are headed towards, we have to know what it looks like — otherwise, how will we know when we’ve arrived? 

As we leave here tonight, let’s envision together what our Promised Land looks like. That way, we can know when we’ve gotten there. What is the Richmond we are striving to inherit and to bequeath to our children?

We envision a Richmond region in which every single person has access to adequate and affordable housing, in which no one ever has to face the threat of eviction, in which everyone has access to the resources necessary to fight eviction orders, and in which no one is ever, ever unjustly evicted from their home. That means the Richmond we are fighting for is one that invests significantly in affordable housing, so there is sufficient stock available for everyone who wants and needs it, at prices that folks at all income levels can afford. It means the Richmond we are fighting for is one in which no one needs to be unhoused, in which no one has to choose between whether to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads, in which no parent has to worry “where will my child sleep tonight?”, in which no one will ever again have to worry about how they can shelter in place during a deadly global pandemic when they don’t have any shelter. 

You heard the testimonials tonight about our Egypt. We are coming from an Egypt of segregation, inequity, and the disproportionate destruction of black lives and communities of color — the very injustices that our brothers and sisters here and in every corner of this country have been protesting these past few weeks; an Egypt of high eviction rates; an Egypt of eviction maps that perfectly match maps of redlining; an Egypt where the very people who are inadequately housed or who live in constant fear of being evicted are the ones most likely to die from COVID-19. And our Promised Land is a city where housing is considered a fundamental and inalienable human right, and where every Richmonder has a home.

And we also envision a Richmond region in which no person lives under the threat of gun violence; a Richmond in which no parent has to worry whether her kids are going to make it home safely from school, in which the quiet of night is no longer interrupted by the noise of gunfire or the wailing of bereaved loved ones. That means the Richmond we are fighting for is one in which prevention prevails, in which deescalation, dialogue, and peaceful resolution are the common currency; in which zero people — zero people — are ever murdered or wounded by guns. 

We are coming from an Egypt of increasing numbers of shootings; where just last year there were 60 deaths as a result of gun violence, including the death of a nine year-old girl; and where the vast majority of the lives lost to gun violence in our city are black lives. You heard tonight from people still grieving those losses. Our Promised Land is a city where life matters, and in particular where black lives matter; and therefore our Promised Land is a city where we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, so that no Richmonder will ever lift up a weapon against another Richmonder, and we will not know gun violence anymore.

But the story of the spies doesn’t only ask us to behold our Promised Land. It also reminds us that we have to determine a plan of action for how we will conquer it. We have to know about its defenses; we have to know where to start the campaign and how to finish it; we have to know about who holds the power, and how to acquire that power. Without a plan of attack, without knowing the obstacles in our path, without identifying our enemies and our allies, how will we know how to take hold of our Promised Land?

Well — you have heard tonight about our path and our plan. You have heard tonight about the obstacles in our way and our designs for overcoming them; about the opponents who seek to derail our work or force us to compromise in our crusade for justice, and our plans for combatting them; about the allies who are striving to help us see our work through, and our commitment to partnering with them. 

The only question for us is: are we ready to get to work?

So let me ask you:

Are you ready to get to work?

Are you ready to enter the Promised Land?

Are you ready to fight for the Promised Land?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of righteousness and justice?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of affordable housing that is available to every Richmonder?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of no more unjust evictions?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of a city with zero — ZERO — gun homicides?

 

Now, I’m sorry to report that the biblical story of the spies didn’t turn out so well. Oh, the scouts saw the Promised Land. They saw that it was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey as God had described. But most of the scouts refused to believe that the Children of Israel could actually conquer it. “The enemies are too great, too big, and too powerful,” they argued. The Israelites, in their estimation, would be like grasshoppers trying to topple giants. The terrain was too treacherous even to try. The land itself would devour them. For these spies, the mission was just too risky.

But two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, argued that the Children of Israel could indeed conquer the land, for their cause was righteous and just, and the God of righteousness and justice — a God through whom all things are possible — was on their side. Caleb and Joshua didn’t dispute the other spies’ assertion that the mission was risky, that the obstacles were great and the odds not in their favor. They simply argued that, despite the risks, victory was possible, and that the cause was worth the fight. 

It is as though Caleb and Joshua were saying that justice demands and is worth the risk.

So I ask you tonight:

Is our cause righteous?

Is our cause just?

With faith and with conviction, is victory possible?

Is righteousness worth risk?

Is justice worth risk?

Well then, my friends, say it with me: JUSTICE DEMANDS RISC.

Forward together, my dear friends, toward the Promised Land. 

Forward Together. Not one. Step. Back.

 

Thank you.

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Message to the Class of 2020

I was asked to record a message for the seniors graduating from Maggie Walker Governor’s School, but I think it is applicable to students everywhere — and, indeed, all of us. Hope you find it meaningful. Feel free to share with the graduates in your life!

Here’s the transcript:

I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited to share some thoughts with you as you and your families celebrate this extraordinary milestone. 

I know this is not the senior year or the graduation experience you envisioned. But difficult circumstances and trying times are so often also opportunities for the deepest learning and most profound growth, if we are willing to let them be. 

In that spirit, I want to share a story with you. It’s one of my favorite Jewish stories, written by my rabbinic forebears nearly two thousand years ago: 

It once happened that a group of travelers set out on a boat. As they drifted out into the middle of the sea, one of the passengers took out a drill, and started to drill beneath his seat. 

The other passengers begin to notice and ask, “What are you doing?” 

“I’m drilling a hole!” the man replies.

“Why are you drilling a hole?” the other passengers ask, incredulously.

“Why? Because it’s a nice day for drilling holes!”

As the passengers see the hole grow bigger and bigger, they began to cry and beg, “Please! Please, stop! You must stop! Don’t you see that you’re going to sink the boat?!”

The man was perplexed by their concerns. “Why are you so upset? After all, I’m only drilling under my own seat!”

Of course, we know that the driller’s attitude is absurd. If a hole is drilled in a boat, water will rush in, the boat will sink, and all the passengers will drown. Everyone is impacted, not just those near the hole. When we’re all in the same boat, it doesn’t matter if a hole is made only under one person’s seat, only in one part of the boat. One person’s problem is in reality everyone’s problem. 

Why does this story matter? Why am I sharing it with you as you stand at the cusp of your high school graduation? Because the truth at the core of this story applies not only to boats, but also to our world. Though it sometimes might seem that we occupy a relatively small and insignificant place in a large world, that our lives do not touch people on the other side of Richmond, much less on the other side of the planet, the truth is that, in actuality, we are all in the same boat. 

It has always been true that everyone and everything on our planet is deeply intertwined. But in our time, the fact of our interconnectedness has become even more inescapable. A little more than a decade ago, Barack Obama, who at that point was a presidential candidate, reminded a crowd in Germany that “the 21st [century] has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.” To support that claim, Obama offered some powerful and compelling evidence:

The terrorists of September 11th plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil.

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

Poorly secured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, or secrets from a scientist in Pakistan could help build a bomb that detonates in Paris. The poppies in Afghanistan become the heroin in Berlin. The poverty and violence in Somalia breeds the terror of tomorrow. The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.

Obama’s words have stayed with me over the years as I have seen their truth continue to play out in the unfolding drama of our time. Each passing day seems to reveal more and more how our world is totally intertwined, how we are all connected in infinite and immeasurable ways. We see how poverty doesn’t only impact the poor, how racism doesn’t only impact people of color, how Islamophobia doesn’t only impact Muslims, how antisemitism doesn’t only impact Jews, how homophobia and transphobia don’t only impact LGBT individuals. We see how war and suffering halfway across the world cannot be contained by borders or walls or oceans, how conflict in Syria and Iraq can erupt in Paris and Brussels, in San Bernardino and Orlando, how industrial production in the American midwest can strengthen storms and decimate communities in the global south, how the murder in broad daylight of an unarmed black man by a police officer in Minneapolis can topple Confederate monuments in Richmond.

We see too how a previously unknown virus can infect one person in China, and, within just a few months, can leave hundreds of thousands of people dead the world over; how ignorance, negligence, and incompetence in a capital city can endanger, impoverish, and kill people in the countryside; how those of us privileged enough to shelter in place depend on low-wage farmhands, warehouse workers, truckers, shelf-stockers and Instacart shoppers everywhere to literally put their lives at risk so that we can have stocked pantries and refrigerators; how the world effectively stops spinning the moment schools and childcare centers close. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And because of this truth, King reminded us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When anyone anywhere is oppressed, we all suffer, everywhere; and conversely, our welfare depends on everyone’s liberation.

Graduates, this is the world you are inheriting. This is the world you enter into as young adults, a world that this disruptive and destructive pandemic revealed for what it truly is: An interconnected and interdependent world. A world in which our words and our deeds can have broad and unpredictable impact, for good or ill. A world in which our failing to step up, speak out, or take action can have dire consequences in places you’ve never been to or even heard of. 

In fact, what we don’t do can matter as much as what we do. Apathy can do as much harm as caring about the wrong things, and having concern for others beside and different from ourselves can do extraordinary good. As the modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we do — everyone — our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.”

Living in this connected world calls for lives of responsibility: responsibility for each other, responsibility for the other, responsibility for our entire planet. It’s not enough to look out for ourselves and to take care only of those closest to us. We must expand our spheres of concern and compassion.

This is especially important because even though we may all be in the same boat, every passenger will not experience stormy seas equally. Those who have historically been forced to ride in steerage — poor people and people of color, especially — are far more likely to drown when the ship starts sinking than those of us who are privileged to hold a first-class ticket. But, for good and for ill, the actions of those who live in the upper levels inevitably impact those who live below deck; and conversely when a person in steerage drowns, even those in first-class are, at least morally speaking, diminished. 

Therefore, we all must pay attention, especially those of us who occupy space on this shared ship less vulnerable to punishing gales and invisable icebergs. We must care about what’s going on and get involved, even if the issues don’t directly impact us. As the Book of Deuteronomy teaches, “You must not look away.” We cannot avert our eyes from injustice and act as though it isn’t our problem. In an interconnected world, someone else’s problem is your problem, too. 

Ultimately, we are all of us, the entire human family, in the same boat. I cannot promise you that it will always be smooth sailing. But I do know that you, class of 2020, you have the power to keep it afloat, you have the power to keep our course true. And if you do, you will play your part in helping us all make it to the Promised Land, a world of compassion, justice, and peace. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.

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Richmond’s Wailing Wall

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The recent wave of anti-racism protests have produced at least one tangible outcome: Sometime soon, Richmond’s Confederate monuments will be removed. As I have argued before, this move is both welcome and long overdue. 

However, as plans are drawn for removal, leaders should note and consider the change that has occurred over the past week in how we — and especially people of color — are engaging with these Lost Cause icons. 

Since the protests began in Richmond, demonstrators have covered the monuments, particularly the Lee Monument, with empowering movement messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “End White Supremacy.” As one friend put it on social media, it is as though everything people of color and their allies have thought about or written on those monuments in invisible ink over the years became legible overnight. 

The newly redecorated and recontextualized monument is truly striking. Evidently, I am not the only one who thinks so. Over the past couple of weeks, people have taken to gathering at the base of the Robert E. Lee Monument to read the messages, to reflect, to pray, and to add their own notes, prayers, art, flowers, and memorials to black victims of police violence. This erstwhile shrine of white supremacy has been reclaimed by people of color and transformed into a tabernacle of justice.

Those of us in the Jewish community might see parallels between what’s happening today at the Lee Monument in Richmond and how our people have historically engaged with a different kind of monument, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The analogy is imperfect. The Western Wall is the remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple, something Jews thought of as good. The Lee Monument, on the other hand, like the other statues on Richmond’s eponymous avenue, were erected as propaganda of the so-called Lost Cause, a movement to reassert white supremacy in the South after the Civil War. They were put up in order to distort history for nefarious political purposes. Richmond’s statues were always bad, and their destruction is a positive development.

But there are ways in which the analogy could be meaningful. According to Jewish tradition, the Wailing Wall is a symbol of what is broken in our world and a reminder of how we have individually and collectively contributed to that brokenness. It is a place to remember how we have broken faith with God and with each other, and to commit ourselves to rebuilding what we have destroyed.

A little background: in the year 70 CE, Roman legions sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Holy Temple, the epicenter of ancient Jewish religious life and, metaphorically, at least, God’s dwelling place on earth. All that remained amidst the rubble and ruin was the Temple Mount’s western retaining wall. In the years that followed, the Western Wall became a gathering place for Jewish pilgrims to mourn the Temple’s destruction. Over the course of centuries, it became commonplace to leave notes with prayers in the cracks of the wall. Eventually, this site of community, prayer, and grief would go by a more evocative name, the Wailing Wall, because of the tears shed there. 

The tears that Jewish worshippers shed at the Wailing Wall have been laden with penitence and longing. Penitence, because when the ancient rabbis autopsied the destruction of the Temple, they insisted that it happened because Jewish society was mired in unfettered, free-flowing hate. The Wall reminds us what happens when we allow hate to run rampant. Hopefully, it also moves us to advance inclusion.

And we have cried out longingly at the Wailing Wall because Jewish tradition equates the destruction of the Temple with the perpetual brokenness of our world. As God’s metaphorical house, the Temple symbolized the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity. Consequently, the destroyed structure, embodied by the Western Wall, reminds us of the persistence of injustice and disharmony in our world. The Wall forces us to confront the world’s ongoing brokenness, impels us to yearn for restoration, and inspires us to be agents of repair.

On some level, perhaps we are today seeing those same messages in Richmond’s refaced Confederate monuments: that unrestrained hate has resulted in catastrophe; that many of us who benefit from white privilege, even if we are not guilty of any specific wrongdoing, bear responsibility for systemic injustice; that there remains profound brokenness in our world that we must collectively repair. Now that the monuments have been exposed for what they always were, now that those of us who believe in racial equality and pluralistic democracy have asserted power over them, now that they have been slated for removal, perhaps we are now relating to them less as the idols of white supremacy they were created to be, and more as symbols of what white supremacy has broken in our society. 

It is undeniable that the monuments were erected to advance a racist agenda, and that they have been a cruel reminder for decades of lingering racial inequality. And yet I wonder if, over the past week, people have begun to relate to them  more as reminders of the ways in which racism continues to break us apart and signposts calling us all to advance the cause of justice.

That doesn’t mean I think the monuments should stay. On the contrary. And I also recognize that as a person who presents as white and who has benefited from white privilege, my views on the subject ought to matter less than the voices of people of color. I only offer the thought that perhaps, in place of these monuments, we might consider erecting something that, like the Wailing Wall, evokes our collective repentance and yearning, something that reminds us of our most cherished values and that calls us to repair our society through them. Maybe this means we should just remove the statues and leave behind the empty, graffiti-tagged, pedestals. Or maybe we should build new monuments altogether, symbols of inclusion and justice. 

Whatever we choose to do, it is my hope that these sites remain what they have become in recent days: reclaimed and newly hallowed ground for people of color and their allies; spaces for our diverse community to gather together to bewail what is broken in our world, to dream about what could be, and to recommit to the work of repair. 

This article was originally published in RVA Magazine: https://rvamag.com/politics/opinion/richmonds-wailing-wall.html

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A History Lesson

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Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

During the first weekend of demonstrations, Richmonders joined in the nationwide protests over police brutality towards African Americans, launched in response to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. The mostly peaceful protests during the day sometimes bled into more violent activity at night. Late Saturday night on May 30, a protester threw a brick through a window of Beth Ahabah, Richmond’s oldest synagogue.

Footage of the incident shows that the culprit was immediately chastised by nearby protesters. It’s possible the brick thrower did not even know he was damaging a synagogue. Still, we are saddened by the damage caused to Beth Ahabah. Vandalizing a synagogue is inexcusable, and we stand with our friends and colleagues there during this trying time. Yet we can also see this disturbing incident as an opportunity: Perhaps the shattered glass can serve as a wake-up call to a Richmond Jewish community that has a troubling history when it comes to racial injustice. Richmond’s Jews can no longer be silent: Now is the time for us to march and to work with African Americans and other people of conscience to dismantle systemic racism and end racial inequality.

When African American-Jewish relations are discussed, conversation often veers towards the image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching together towards Selma in pursuit of voting rights for African Americans. But the story, in the South and especially in Richmond, is more complicated. In the antebellum period, most Jewish families in Richmond owned enslaved people. Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish secretary of state of the Confederacy, defended slavery from his perch in the Confederate capital. So too did Rabbi Maximillian Michelbacher from his pulpit at Beth Ahabah, thanking God for “the man-servants and the maid-servants Thou hast given unto us.”

After the Civil War, Richmond Jews of European descent continued to benefit from white privilege in the Jim Crow South, consuming and sometimes disseminating the racist messaging all around them. In 1892, Beth Ahabah Rabbi Edward Calisch was a highly respected Richmond resident, a modernizer and leader of interfaith efforts, yet he too argued that the typical black American “betrays only too clearly his savage ancestors and present brothers in the African wild.” Similarly, Herbert Ezekiel, Richmond journalist and editor of the weekly newspaper The Jewish South, dismissed any notion of commonality between blacks and Jews, writing in 1898: “The Jew, as a rule, is a good citizen, the Negro a bad, or at best an indifferent one.”

Richmond Jewry also played a role in celebrating the Lost Cause, a movement to glorify the Confederacy and downplay the evils of slavery and its central significance to the Civil War. Jews honored the Lost Cause at Richmond’s Hebrew Cemetery, which contains a Confederate section, and at elaborate ceremonies and pageants during the 1954 American Jewish Tercentenary and the 1961-1965 Civil War Centennial. In 1942, the founders of our synagogue, Temple Beth-El, mostly eastern European Jews and their descendants, laid the cornerstone with a prayer book that belonged to a (non-Jewish) Confederate colonel. Participating in the cult of the Lost Cause helped Richmond Jews fit in to white Christian society, an opportunity denied to African Americans.

With the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement, most Jews in the South fell silent on the question of segregation. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King chastised Southern “white moderates” for their timidity in fighting injustice. Most Richmond Jews were these white moderates. While some privately opposed discrimination, few were willing to challenge the status quo.

For example, in the mid-1950s a young scholar named Esor Ben-Sorek taught at Temple Beth-El. One Sabbath, Ben-Sorek gave a sermon on the evils of segregation. After the service, he was reprimanded by the synagogue’s president and instructed never again to discuss race relations. In 1958, when antisemitic Richmond journalist William J. Kilpatrick wrote an editorial warning local Jews not to side with the Civil Rights Movement, prominent Jewish business leaders met with him to insist that they opposed integration. Two years later, African American activists from Virginia Union University, known as the Richmond 34, held a sit-in at Thalhimers, Richmond’s most prominent and Jewish-owned department store, which still enforced segregation.

Jewish Richmonders must now be the ones sitting in, peacefully protesting police brutality and the rampant racial inequities in our society. Jewish tradition teaches that every human being is created in God’s image, all equal in value and infinite in dignity. Jews are commanded to pursue a society in which “there are no needy” (Deuteronomy 15:4) and where “one law” is applied equally to all people (Exodus 12:49). As heirs to a tradition that abhors racism and demands equity, Jews are duty-bound to protest the racial injustice all too prevalent in our country.

Additionally, Jews and people of color share a common enemy. The racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and white nationalism reaching from dark corners of the internet all the way to the White House threaten us all. As King wrote in 1963, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Our fates are intertwined. None of us can truly flourish until anti-Semitism is eradicated and racism is uprooted from our hearts, our laws and our systems.

We are proud of the fact that, today, Richmond-area rabbis and congregations, many of which proudly count Jews of color as members, collaborate regularly with our black brothers and sisters of many faiths. Perhaps this is a partial atonement for our community’s past sins. But our communal repentance remains incomplete. Too often, we see Jewish Richmonders remaining on the sidelines of the fight for racial justice, silent as we have ever been. Being mindful of our history and our values, Jews – particularly Richmond’s Jews – should proclaim Black Lives Matter and join wholeheartedly in the urgent struggle to achieve the shared dream of King and Heschel.

This article was co-authored with David Weinfeld, and was originally pubished in Style Weekly: https://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/a-history-lesson/Content?oid=16135858

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A Statement on George Floyd’s Murder and Systemic Racial Injustice

protesters holding signs

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Like many of you, I have been heartbroken and angry since George Floyd’s murder on May 25. Central to Jewish tradition is the notion that every human being is created in God’s image, that we are all equal in value and infinite in dignity. Extending from this principle is the Jewish tradition’s commitment to justice, that we are to pursue a society in which “there are no needy” (Deuteronomy 15:4) and that we must have “one law” applied equally to all people (Exodus 12:49). 

And yet the murder of George Floyd, along with the other recent racially motivated killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and more, remind us that our society is still plagued by injustices that are antithetical to Jewish values. Racial inequality in the U.S. remains at historically high levels, especially in our criminal justice system. Hundreds of years of enslavement and nearly a century more of terror, intimidation, apartheid, disenfranchisement, and discrimination, followed by decades of redlining, massive resistance, white flight, the drug war, mass incarceration, and the eviction crisis, have given rise to the reality that African Americans earn less, are arrested more, and die younger on average than white people. 

The still-segregated maps of American cities correlate perfectly to inequities in everything from income to wealth to educational outcomes to access to healthcare to air and water quality to life expectancy. As a matter of fact, as of today, African-Americans comprise nearly two-thirds of all coronavirus patients in Richmond, and nearly all Richmond residents who have died from COVID-19 are black. It’s easy to understand why: African Americans have higher rates of chronic diseases, which make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, and due to their disproportionately high poverty rates, black residents in Richmond struggle to get adequate health care, live in conditions that are not conducive to mitigating the spread of contagion, and are more likely to work in front-line service jobs as cashiers or custodians, which put them at higher risk for exposure. 

It is hard to escape the truth that while we Americans may say that all lives matter, in practice if not in principle, black lives still seem to matter less in 21st century America than white lives. To our mind, there is no clearer symbol of this than the fact that when armed, mostly white, protesters rallied at and even stormed state capitol buildings in recent weeks to protest pandemic closures, authorities permitted them to do so. Yet when unarmed, multiracial coalitions gathered to protest racial injustice in recent days, they were met by militarized police officers and teargas.

As heirs of a tradition that abhors racism and demands justice, we ought to find this status quo intolerable, and indeed our tradition insists that we are duty-bound to protest it. The Torah commands, “You must not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16), and “You must not remain indifferent” to another’s suffering (Deuteronomy 22:3). Rabbinic tradition repeatedly echoes these principles. When we Jews see injustice, we are obligated to speak out against it and work to eradicate it. 

As such, I encourage all Jews and all other people of conscience to participate in peaceful protests for racial justice. Since we are still avoiding public gatherings out of concern for health and safety, I encourage you instead to consider signing onto this letter from VICPP (Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy):

Additionally, since racism is embedded in our economic and social systems, in the laws that govern us, in the biases of some of those who create those laws, and in the prejudices of some of those who enforce them, it is critical that we not only protest racial injustice but also work to change our laws and reform our systems. Temple Beth-El’s SATO (Social Action/Tikkun Olam) committee is already deeply involved in this work on a local and statewide level, particularly through our membership in RISC (Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities) and VICPP. I encourage you to join us in these efforts.

I also join with many other partner congregations and organizations in our city who are calling for the creation of a Civilian Review Board for our police department and for the implementation of The Marcus Alert, a comprehensive approach to address police training and collaboration with behavioral and mental health professionals.

These steps are just the beginning. There is much work to be done. If the challenge of dismantling systemic racism and ending inequality feels overwhelming now or in the days to come, remember the Mishnah’s teaching: “it is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:16). None of us are able to do everything. But we can all do something. Let us then all do what we can to build a just and inclusive future. 

Please continue to take good care of yourselves and each other.

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Shavuot and Collective Responsibility

close up of the flag of israel

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It is telling that when Jewish faith is born, it is born in community. The revelation at Sinai, which we commemorate on the festival Shavuot (which begins this Thursday evening), is a national encounter with the Divine, a collective experience. The covenant forged at Sinai was not merely a pact between each individual and God; it was also an agreement between the entire nation and the Divine, and among all the people. A national covenant means that we have shared obligations, that we are in a meaningful sense responsible to and for each other.

Subsequent Jewish teachings advance this idea. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shevuot 39a) famously teaches, “all Jews are responsible for one another.” If any of us witness another fellow Jew engaged in immoral, harmful, or destructive behavior, and we have the ability to intervene and stop it, we have an obligation to do so. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 54b-55a) sharpens this point, teaching that all who can protest against wrongdoing and do not are held accountable along with the actual offender. We may not be guilty of perpetrating the crime in question, but as covenantal partners, we share responsibility for it.

Jewish tradition’s insistence on our collective responsibility haunts me as we approach Shavuot this year. That’s because approximately one month after the holiday, Israel could begin the process of annexing some or all territories in the West Bank. If Israel were to annex these territories, a two-state solution would become more difficult . 

Moreover, annexation would seriously threaten Israel’s Jewish character. If Israel were to extend citizenship to the approximately 2.5 million Palestinians who populate the West Bank, it could face the prospect of losing its Jewish majority, endangering its status as a Jewish state. 

The possibility of Israel ceasing to be a Jewish state is unconscionable given the traumas of Jewish history. A second, more plausible, scenario is unacceptable given the demands of Jewish ethics. If Israel were to extend its sovereignty over the West Bank but not grant citizenship to Palestinian residents, it would cease to be a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. 

Additionally, unilateral annexation would threaten Israel’s security. That isn’t just my opinion. Some 220 Israeli former generals and retired security officials recently said the same thing. It is not hard to see how annexation could ignite a powder keg that would put innocent lives at risk.

As if those threats were not sufficiently menacing, annexation also flies in the face of the values that form the core of Israel’s Jewish identity. Jewish tradition insists that every person is created equally in the Divine image, but unilateral annexation is by its very nature dehumanizing to the impacted population. Jewish tradition demands we have “one law” for all, but annexation will solidify two unequal systems for two unequal peoples. Jewish tradition insists that we not do unto others what would be hateful to us — and yet through annexation Israel will be imposing upon Palestinians circumstances that we ourselves would find intolerable. 

While the consequences of annexation will doubtlessly impact diaspora Jews differently than Israelis, we are nevertheless both affected by the decision. Israel is in many meaningful ways the collective project of all the Jewish people. It is an indelible part of contemporary Jewish life the world over, a wellspring of Jewish cultural and religious vitality, and an embodiment of Jewish ingenuity, grit, and hope. Israel is a safe harbor for a people that has been brutalized throughout history, so its future is a vital concern for all Jews, wherever we may live. And, whether we like it or not, Jews everywhere are implicated in Israel’s actions, for good and for ill.

We must remember, then, that as covenantal partners, we have an obligation to protest Israeli actions that are immoral, harmful, and destructive. If we fail to object, we share responsibility for annexation and its consequences. But if we do whatever we can to protest and resist these actions, even if we are not successful, we will be upholding the commitments we, our ancestors, and our descendants agreed upon at Mt. Sinai.

Don’t let the paltry rituals and uninspiring, bloating, foods fool you. Shavuot is essential. As a reminder of our covenantal responsibilities to one another, the holiday may have never been more important than it is this year.

This piece was originally published by J Street as part of their “The Two Way Street” series.

 

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‘We can be so much more when we live in love’: Two area faith leaders share thoughts of hope, help during COVID pandemic

The following are thoughts that David Dwight, Lead Pastor of Hope Church in Richmond, and I shared with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on helping people through the difficulties of life in COVID-19. (The questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Question: Are you both doing congregational life digitally these days?

Knopf: Yes, we’ve migrated most of our congregation’s work to digital spaces. When it became clear to us that we couldn’t safely gather for worship, learning, or fellowship, we pivoted quickly. We offered our first virtual Friday evening service on March 13 (using the online meeting platform Zoom), and our pre-K through 10th grade religious school went entirely online starting the following Sunday. In the weeks since, we’ve expanded our online offerings dramatically. We’re now holding Saturday morning services, weekday morning and evening services, adult education, and more all online, mostly through Zoom. We’ve also been utilizing email, social media, and other platforms to maintain regular communication with members of the congregation, and to provide a steady stream of meaningful spiritual content.

Dwight: March 15 was our first livestream-only service. This has been a significant change in emphasis for us. In pre-COVID days we still livestreamed our services but the livestream was the secondary element when speaking to a room filled with people. Now that there is no one in the room, we are speaking to a camera as the primary focal point. This has taken some learning and adjusting for us, but I think we’re getting a bit better at it.

Question: What do you find yourself saying in your sermons?

Knopf: I’ve honestly been preaching less frequently than usual. I personally have found delivering a sermon on Zoom, as opposed to speaking in front of an in-person congregation, to be difficult. Instead, I’ve been having “sermon dialogues” with a special guest each week, which have been a lot of fun and have helped diversify the messages, if not the subject matter. It’s been hard not to talk about the pandemic and topics related to the pandemic, because it’s the proverbial elephant in the room. But with a different partner each week, we can explore different aspects and angles because everyone brings their unique expertise, wisdom, and perspective. My guests and I have talked about nourishing our souls in a time of crisis and dealing with anxiety and anger in this moment. We’ve discussed the profound injustices of our society that have been laid bare by the pandemic, and what we are called to do about them as people of faith. And we’ve explored what we should be expecting of our leaders and elected officials right now. My hope, as always, is to muster the wisdom of my tradition to address our most pressing personal and social concerns, and to offer it in such a way that will enable, encourage, and empower those listening to be somehow different for having heard my words.

Dwight: We generally schedule a sermon series months in advance and we make plans accordingly. When the virus hit I wondered if we should adjust the plans to speak directly to the virus. At the same time, our scheduled sermon series right now is called “Character Studies,” and it’s a look at different people in the Bible and how their character grew through challenging times. In a way, it seems perfect for what we are dealing with, so we have kept it in place, seeking to offer some reference points of how the COVID world has pressed in on character development.

Question: Any tips for families whose relationships may be getting stressed?

Dwight: In my family, we have an acronym “EGR,” which stands for “extra grace required.” It’s intended to be a supportive idea when a member of the family is feeling extra stressed. For example, we might say something like, “EGR for Dad, he’s had a lot on his plate.” I have shared with our congregation that this experience with COVID may be a time where we practice EGR for everyone — from the person at the grocery store, to our family members. And then I also thought, “EGR toward all people might be a great thing to practice all the time, why limit it to the COVID times?” Giving our fellow human beings, including ourselves, extra grace might be a nice way to live life.

Knopf: I love what David said, and want to lift it up. In this moment it is so important to be extra gentle with and forgiving of ourselves and each other. This is an unprecedented situation, and I think we’re all trying to do the best we can under profoundly challenging circumstances. So in our home we’re all trying to practice extra grace, as David suggested. My wife and I have also created an imaginary co-worker who we can blame when things go wrong. It’s a little silly, but I guess that’s the point. Karen, as it turns out, is deeply incompetent. Blaming our own and each other’s mess-ups on her allows us to go easier on one another and lower the temperature in moments of conflict. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but the strategy has helped us.

Question. What do you say to somebody who is battling significant fear or anxiety connected to the virus?

Dwight: I would seek to offer encouragement and support in this, to validate and affirm someone. At the same time, fear may invite us to develop self-control muscles. A remarkable part of being human is that we actually have an ability to override our spontaneous thoughts and feelings by disciplining our thoughts. I’ve sometimes counseled people that “worry is fearing the worst before we have enough information to really know.” In other words, we may have some information that sparks fear narratives that start running. But usually this happens when we don’t actually have the best, most concrete information to actually know. So we can get overtaken with fear that is the result of speculating on what could happen. But we don’t actually know yet. So this can require some self-control, to quell those narratives and stop the thought lines of worst case scenarios. Also, in the Bible, the idea of “daily bread” occurs in a few places. For Christians the most familiar place is likely the Lord’s prayer — “Give us this day our daily bread.” I take this to mean that we are invited to live with God by trusting him for each day, and then tomorrow we will trust him for one day again — and so on. Usually, we can do one day. We can do what needs to be done to move through the needs of one day. It’s when we enter a worst-case-scenario fear narrative of all the days piling up that we may struggle most. When times are hard for someone, you might hear them say, “I’m just taking one day at a time.” That’s wise. We’re in a time where times are hard for virtually everyone.

Knopf: I think it is both natural and understandable to be fearful or anxious right now. I know I am. I’m afraid of getting sick, of loved ones getting sick, of inadvertently infecting others, of making a choice for my community that puts people at risk. I’m nervous about what unknown hardships and dangers lurk in the weeks, months and years ahead. Those fears are real. And in a way, the fear is useful. It can keep us vigilant about our own safety, mindful of others’ well-being, and cautious with our resources. Of course, it can also make us paranoid and paralyzed, self-absorbed and selfish. Better, I think, is to reframe the fear as love. So, how will I encounter each day, each moment, each choice, if I love myself? If I love my family? If I love my neighbors and my community? On a practical level, many of my choices might be the same as they would be if my dominant feeling was fear. But on a psychological and spiritual level, it makes all the difference. And on a moral level, there’s no question as to whether love is preferable to fear. When I’m afraid, I’m inclined to circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and hoard scarce resources. But if I’m loving, my concern shifts, not only to caring for myself, but to caring for others as well. That, I think, is why the Bible commands us to guard ourselves against the fears that hold us back from living out our purpose while also reminding us we must love our neighbor as ourselves. We can be so much more when we live in love — love of ourselves, and love of our fellows.

Question: What words of hope can you offer us?

Dwight: This is not the first time hard times have happened in the world and it wont be the last. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but people have made it through hard times in the past, and we will make it through this. It’s important to be mindful of others, to be kind — and in time, how long we don’t know, this too shall pass. Some favorite verses of mine come from Psalm 27:13-14: “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

Knopf: Hope is at the heart of the Jewish tradition. That may be surprising, given all the hardships the Jewish people have endured over the centuries. But it is actually one of the secrets of our survival. The stubborn persistence of a state of affairs and the intractability of those responsible may present the illusion of inevitability. Yet Jewish tradition insists, and Jewish history affirms, that what we see as impossible is usually just a thing that has not happened yet, and moreover that hopelessness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only with a hopeful outlook can hopeful outcomes be achieved. At the same time, it’s important to note that hope is not passive. We can believe all we want that things will be better, but they will never be unless we work to make them so. A bright future is possible, but only if we get to work building it.

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Leaning Into Love: A Jewish Message for Lent/Easter 2020

I was honored to be invited to offer remarks at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA) during the Lenten season. Unfortunately, those plans were…altered…by the pandemic. But my message has been posted on YouTube. You can check it out here:

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