There are no sidelines

In Jewish life, yesterday began the Three Weeks of contemplation and mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av, itself the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Sometimes, it feels like the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are out of harmony, but this year, the timing of the Three Weeks could not be more resonant. Indeed its resonance is sitting on my soul like a stone.

On Tisha b’Av, we fast throughout the day to commemorate the destruction by fire of the First and Second Temples. As black churches burn in the southern US — following a barbaric shotgun attack on another such church — the echo is clear. The hatred and fear that caused Jewish sacred spaces to be destroyed in ancient days is, sadly, still with us and now being directed at African-Americans.

I have always thought that there are strong parallels between Jewish and black experiences: the history of slavery, the strong cultural emphasis on education and artistic expression, the faith in G-d during troubled times.

Our tradition teaches us not to stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16). I’ve been struggling with how to live this out with respect to the black community. In the days immediately following the Charleston attack, I remembered how meaningful it was for my community several years ago to feel the solidarity of an interfaith gathering in the wake of anti-semitic vandalism. So it was an easy — if uncomfortable — decision to attend services at an African Methodist Episcopal church here in Boston that same weekend. Likewise, I was grateful for the opportunity to attend an interfaith vigil on the steps of City Hall in Newton in remembrance of the Charleston murder victims.

Someone asked me why I went, and what I hoped to accomplish. I have grown to place a high value on showing up. It’s not that my individual presence at either event mattered much, but being part of a larger group standing together in support made a statement. If each of us takes the commitment of showing up seriously, there will eventually be more of “us” than there are of “them.” And maybe — someday — there will be no “them,” because we’ll all of us realize there is no need of a “them.” Our humanity can bring us together, and being together can show us our humanity.

I’m glad to have been at those two events, but they were merely a start. There is much more we can show up for: rebuilding the churches in the south, guarding churches in the north, reaching out to leaders in the black community and asking them what they need. Most importantly, we must open up conversations with each other, bridge the gaps that allow fear and other-ness to fester. Although big conversations are needed in order to address the inequalities that continue to undermine our society, small ones are needed too. We must smile at babies and say hello to old men, sit down next to someone on the bus whose life we don’t see in the mirror and notice that they breathe the same air we do. We are all — every single one of us — created b’tzelem elohim, and we must allow that basic principle to be the ground we walk on. There are no sidelines, and this work awaits all of us.

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