The piece that follows was written a few weeks ago in response to Rabbi Aaron Starr’s sermon, which we encourage you to read in full. We offer this perspective with full hearts and striving toward holiness that is truly holistic, inclusive of the universal and progressive values that we hold as inseparable from our Jewish values.
To Our Detroit Jewish Community:
Many of you heard or read Rabbi Aaron Starr’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, “Time to Say Kaddish for Tikkun Olam,” proclaiming that Jewish participation in movements for racial and social justice is risking the future of the Jewish people.
We are young and active members of this community, and we reject Rabbi Starr’s assertion that our commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world, devalues our commitment to the Jewish community.
For those who also felt hurt and surprised by his words, we are right there with you. We are in the Days of Awe, a time for deep reflection that urges our community to shed the fear and prejudice that nurtured Rabbi Starr’s sentiments. The harmful implications of his words, spoken from a position of spiritual and communal leadership, compel us to speak up, too.
In his sermon, Rabbi Starr quoted part of a well-known passage by Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In Rabbi Starr’s insistence that we prioritize “Jews and family first” over movements for racial justice, he excluded people of color and of all backgrounds in our Jewish community. These individuals are our family, too, and we stand up forcefully in these movements to ensure that every member of our community can thrive.
We, too, care deeply about the safety and prosperity of our community, and we know that it is bound together with that of all people. We believe ending the 50-year occupation in the West Bank and Gaza is crucial to securing freedom and dignity for Palestinians — but also to sustaining a vibrant future for our Jewish community. This work does not put us at risk; rather, it makes us more resilient and connected.
While Rabbi Starr cuts the passage short, Rabbi Hillel continues: “Uch’she ani l’atzmi, ma ani: If I am only for myself, what am I?” reminding us that we are all less human, less whole when we ignore prejudice and violence against other people. We all have felt this brokenness. We feel it when our hearts harden to the pain of another community because we believe they have caused us pain. We feel it when we become cynical in Jewish spaces that used to bring us joy and meaning because they no longer seem to represent our values.
Rabbi Starr asked, “How could Jews not put their love for the People of Israel and the State of Israel above all else?” He claimed that his voice is one of a Holocaust survivor and of other persecuted Jews.
Our values were formed on the stories of our grandparents, too, and we ask: How do their experiences justify ignoring the oppression of others? While past and present anti-Semitism may cause some to act in isolation and defensiveness, we know that our Jewish community cannot flourish in the face of injustice.
Rabbi Hillel finishes his quote with “If not now, when?”
We challenge our community leaders to recognize that our generation’s declining participation in Jewish institutions is not a reflection of disinterest in Jewish values and ritual; rather, it is a response to Rabbi Starr’s very sentiment.
We cannot continue to participate in a Judaism that forces us to compromise our progressive and universal values or allow its leaders to speak on our behalf. So, to those of you who felt hurt, excluded or misrepresented by these words — we hear you and we are here for you.
As a part of IfNotNow, we are building a diverse, vibrant Jewish community in Detroit that is committed to ritual and tikkun olam. We are practicing Jewish traditions like Shabbat and tashlich in the name of justice and spirituality. We are joining in song and prayer with our peers … and find ourselves humming those Jewish tunes on the car ride home.
For many of us, it is the first time that we have been able to bring our whole selves — queer, gay, straight, trans, gender non-binary, observant, secular and more — into a Jewish space where we feel safe. Most importantly, we are coming together in a community that centers on freedom and dignity for all. We hope you’ll join us.
This essay was written by AJ Aaron, Hayley Sakwa, Rachel Leider, Abby Schottenfels, Rachel Lerman, Hannah Miller, Ben Meiselman, Molly Mardit, Geulah Finman and Shoshana Krohner. To join the movement, visit www.ifnotnowmovement.org.