Living in a Self-Segregated World

When I was in sixth grade, my best friend was a guy named Richard. Richard and I were on the same soccer team. We hung out at each other's houses and played computer games. He liked to sing Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" at the top of his lungs. And while Richard was black and I was white and Jewish, these were not obstacles to our friendship.

We grew apart, mostly because he was athletic and I was not. We had different interests. But I also think we began self-identifying with our ethnic groups. We both went to the University of Maryland, and I remember seeing Richard over at the Black Student Union, while I was with the kids at the Jewish Student Union. I once went over to say hello (two doors down). "Hey Rich! You look good!" I said. "I feel good," he smiled. It was our last conversation as we continued on our separate ways.

As children, I think we naturally interact across racial lines in public school. As we get older, we start seeking out our identity and therefore often our ethnic groups and roots. Some of us cross those lines at work or with friends, and more and more of us marry regardless of race. But I think many of us -- too many -- live in a self-segregated world.

It is one thing to profess the values that all people are equal and that we celebrate diversity, but how many people of a different race do you have over for dinner? Do you live in your home what you say you believe?

I think I lost something when Richard and I grew apart. I know I gained a Jewish community, but I also know that as I settled into my ethnic group, my experience of what it means to be a human being became limited.

To be sure, Jews come in every color, and my congregation has many races and ethnic backgrounds included. We are diverse, and our family continues to grow and be even more so. Nevertheless, in North America, Jewish assumptions are that we are white. How comfortable are people of different races in my congregation and community?

Today, as the issue of race continues to enter our headlines, this time highlighting the police and accusations of racism, we should think about how segregated we are mentally. The police unions point out the huge racial diversity on the police force, the problems when people resist arrest, and the broad brush with which the police are unfairly painted. Black voices talk of being afraid of the police, unnecessary use of force, and racial profiling. I want to honor all of these voices. People are speaking from raw nerves and painful experience. I want to be grateful and supportive of the police, and anti-racism at the same time. Why should the two be bifurcated? And why are so many of us surprised that these problems are still with us? Is it because we have been living in our own world?

During the civil rights movement, people came together. I am proud that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted on a table at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I get chills when I see pictures of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching next to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. My Senior Rabbi at my first pulpit, Rabbi Joe Weinberg, marched in Selma and had strong friendships with many of the churches in Washington, DC. It is a privilege to work with black mayors and governors, and I will never forget being inspired by Marian Wright Edelman as she preached in the defense of poor children in this rich country.

But clearly the work is not done. I think that many of us have been lulled into a sense of complacency. I am advocating that we intentionally make our lives more diverse. Sometimes we have to make ourselves a little uncomfortable. We should realize that far too often we do not emotionally understand the lives of other people, and that lack of understanding can lead to tragedy.

A grassroots problem needs a grassroots solution. It means people reaching out and honoring the experience of someone else. It does not mean retorting, judging, or interrupting. It means listening. It means healing. As we have done so as a nation before, we can do so again.

And Richard, if you are reading this, email me. I would love to reconnect.