This Rosh Hashanah the Black community has blown the shofar of racial justice to reawaken, re-engage, and reinvigorate the Jewish community’s commitment to justice for all.
“You watched my brother die. That could have been me.” In June, Philonise Floyd shared these words with the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Floyd’s testimony before the council came as 26 million Americans took to the streets to demand racial, criminal, carceral, health and economic justice for Black Americans in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Three months later, with the protests continuing, winning battles at the local level and igniting broader conversations about inequality in America, one thing has become clear: this Rosh Hashanah the Black community has blown the shofar of racial justice to reawaken, re-engage, and reinvigorate the Jewish community’s commitment to justice for all.
The connection between the Jewish and Black communities has been strong for decades. In a 1966 article on the evils of anti-Semitism, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “In the struggle for human rights, as well as in the struggle for the upward march of our civilization, we have deep need for the partnership, fellowship and courage of our Jewish Brother.”
Five years later, my father, Sander Levin, traveled to Mississippi to register voters with civil rights legend and recently passed member of Congress John Lewis, one of countless examples of Jewish involvement in the voting rights struggle.
But the High Holidays do not merely call for the celebration of community and history. The Jewish New Year is a time to imagine the world as it should be: compassionate, just and enriching.
Are We Doing Enough?
This year, facing an economic, racial justice and public health crisis, it is a time for us to ask: Are we doing enough to stand with the Black community?
Are we educating ourselves and organizing around school funding in Michigan — a major contributing factor to inequality and modern-day segregation? Have we reckoned with the militarization of police departments? Are we working intentionally toward comprehensive police reform at the national level by supporting legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act?
Are we listening to Philonise Floyd, seeing his brother as a human being who did not deserve this violence and loss?
I believe the Jewish community can face these challenges. If we are true to our faith, I believe we must. I’m reminded of the Talmudic aphorism, o chavruta o mituta — either companionship or death.
With hundreds of thousands of Americans dying from the coronavirus — disproportionately people of color — and hundreds dying at the hands of the police, the choice between coming together to organize a new, equal society and continuing with the status quo could not be more clear.
The effort to dismantle our structurally racist economic, educational and carceral systems will not be easy. Black household wealth — already mere cents on the dollar when compared to white household wealth — decreased by almost half during the Great Recession and has stagnated since.
In fact, the Black-white wealth gap today is as wide as it was in 1968.
Sixty-six years after the passage of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that made illegal school segregation, 40% of Black students attend schools with 90% or more students of color. More than half of American students live in segregated school districts, where at least 75% of students are either white or nonwhite.
At the same time, Black youth face the worst of our criminal justice system. This spring, a judge in Oakland County sent a Black student to juvenile detention for failing to complete her online homework — in the middle of a pandemic, seemingly disregarding our governor’s directive even as the virus was spreading in prisons.
Organizing in the New Year
The New Year gives us the opportunity to face these stark realities with renewed focus. It gives us the opportunity to find joy in the collective creation of a more just world — and there is much room for joy in this work.
The size of the protests today dwarfs the size of the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Young people across the country are organizing and engaging with the political system enthusiastically and forcefully.
And organizing works: The Michigan Court of Appeals took up the case of Grace, the detained student from my district in Oakland County, and released her to her mother after students from her high school staged protests, which helped garner the story national attention.
A Time for Self-Reflection
The High Holidays also invite us to consider the moments when we “missed the mark” this year. When we didn’t speak up in response to a racist comment for fear of being impolite. When we didn’t give time or money to support protests because, observing from our armchair, we thought the goals or the slogan weren’t quite “right.” When we white Jews assumed people of color meant “not us,” overlooking the beautiful diversity within our own Jewish community. When we said we’d take time to read and reflect “next week,” but our busy lives got in the way and next week never came. (Happily, there is an amazing flowering of writing about systemic racism to dive into these days.)
But the High Holidays aren’t about beating ourselves up for our missteps or getting paralyzed in the past. They are a time to remember, atone and, most importantly, to move forward.
I’d like to leave you with the words of Philonise: “I am asking you to help him. I am asking you to help me. I am asking you to help us. Black people in America.”
Andy Levin represents Michigan’s 9th Congressional District in southern Macomb County and parts of Oakland County including Bloomfield Township, Beverly Hills, Franklin, Bingham Farms, Huntington Woods, Berkley, Royal Oak, Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Madison Heights and Hazel Park.