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.