On a recent cross-country drive, I stood where James Earl Ray stood when he killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, TN. I put my feet where his feet had been and I cast my gaze across the street, to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. I imagined Dr. King standing there - a man who not only embodied a community, but a movement, an insistent dream, and a charge to our country to be better than we were. I felt a shiver run through me as I tried to see through the eyes of James Earl Ray, a man who was willing to kill another person in order to kill a dream. Then I felt overwhelmed with the truth that dreams don't die that easily.
And yet again and again, we are forced to view our world through the lens of those who hate. We see a young man kill nine beautiful people solely because they were black. We see burning black churches, KKK members who spew racist vitriol as they plan to march in South Carolina just a month after the attack on Emanuel AME Church. And like so many others, I think: what year is this?
In the Jewish tradition, we are taught "Yehi ch'vod chaveirach chaviv alecha k'shelach" -- "The dignity of your friend should be as dear to you as your own" (Pirkei Avot 2:10). This text does not direct us simply to acknowledge our friend's dignity, but to ensure it. To protect it. To act as vigilantly as if it were our own. If my friend's dignity is my dignity, then the humiliation of my friend causes me personal shame and the pain of my friend breaks my heart.
My heart broke as I listened to my friend, a wise and kind African-American pastor, recall his son's sadness when he came home and asked why his teacher, who used to be so nice to him, would no longer call on him or talk to him, and now seemed to treat him with suspicion. My heart broke as he told me that he had to explain to his son that his growth spurt had turned him from being a small black boy into a young black man and his now tall and broad black body changed how many people, including his beloved teacher, would relate to him.
My heart broke when I heard the d'var Torah of a bar mitzvah boy, who stood before his congregation just three days after the Charleston shooting and asked: Where was God in that AME church? Why isn't God protecting black people, or any of us, from such hate?
My heart broke watching the video of Eric Garner, who died one year ago this week, crying out for mercy because he couldn't breathe. In honor of his stolen life, of the pastor's son, of the boy on the pulpit, I believe we can move from heartbreak to something more.
As a white Jewish woman, a bystander who refuses to stand by, it would be audacious to say, "I know your pain" - not just the pain of Charleston, Garner, Freddie Gray and Treyvon Martin, but the pain of Jim Crow, Bull Connor and centuries of unfathomable wrong and systemic inequality. But I come back to the Hebrew text I first cited, and single out the word "friend," chaver, that comes from the root word "to bind together." The verse: "The dignity of one with whom you are bound together should be as dear to you as your own." It is this binding together - this glue of humanity -- that can weave together communities, and turn heartbreak into solidarity. But it is a choice, not a given, that we bind our lives. My clergy colleague's pain and fear for his son's life as a black man has a claim on me. We are bound together; he is my chaver.
Yet if intertwining our lives calls for us to be proactive - where do we begin? I offer the following signposts on this challenging path to unity with the full admission that I, in partnership with many colleagues, am still working on this myself, navigating the journey from powerless consumer of devastating news to partner and chaver:
1) Seek Real Connections: Where we once found sturdy bridges connecting the African American and Jewish communities, today we more regularly find a chasm between us. Step one must be to rebuild our bridges, log by log, until they can carry the weight of this moment. Our synagogues and organizations can be hubs of connection where we can prioritize and plan concrete strategies for seeking out real relationships with people of color (inside and outside of our own walls). Otherwise, we just wave frantically from our side of the chasm. It's not easy, but are we chaverim if we don't try?
2) Listen Hard: Once face to face, we need to then listen hard to the stories of people of color. We let their lived experiences grab hold of our hearts. We ask questions from a place of love. I realize that this can open us up to feeling vulnerable, guilty, raw; I know I have awkwardly tripped over my words. It's not easy, but are we chaverim if we don't try?
3) Follow Powerfully: Having been an organizer, I know that many of us warm to the driver's wheel, but squirm when we're not in the driver's seat. This time, it's our turn to ask how we can be supportive and amplify the voices of black leaders - whether it's by marching, singing, praying together, or by collaborating to address a particular systemic injustice. If our lives are bound up, we must show up - strategically, spiritually, powerfully. Are we chaverim if we don't try?
To be sure, these three steps are not a panacea and trusting relationships take time to develop. But it is time for equality to win the day, for the sake of all of people, and I don't believe that can happen unless we are all in. I don't want the next generation to gaze at the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and wonder when the dream will be realized and so I will say out loud and often: Black Lives Matter. I commit to seeking out real connections, listening hard, following powerfully, and showing up: not to the place where hate once stood, but next to my chaverim.
See also I am Black, and Black Lives Matter, by The Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D.; and I Am Gay and I Am Black Lives Matter, by Bishop Gene Robinson; I am a White Christian and I am Black Lives Matter, By Rev. Dr. Peter Hetzel; I am Muslim and I am Black Lives Matter by Linda Sarsour