An Honest Conversation
Yesterday, WalletHub, an online forum producing a number of “best of” lists, named Jacksonville as one of the top five Quintessential American Cities. Only four other areas more closely reflect what America looks like when it comes to factors such as sex, age, ethnicity, race, income, education, living situation, and home prices. I didn’t need a survey to come to the realization that Jacksonville is at the crossroads of America: a little bit country and a little bit not-so-country; at the bottom of the bible belt, so much so, that in spite of housing the University of North Florida, most Jacksonvillians would describe our city as South Georgia. I love the Southern hospitality of Jacksonville and the overall warmth of my synagogue community.
#3 on that list is Charleston/North Charleston, S.C. Alongside Savannah, GA, Charleston stands as a “holy city” in the development of the Jewish community in America and in the South in particular. On this occasion of it’s synagogue rededication following the great Charleston fire of 1838, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim’s Reverend Gustavus Poznanski was moved to say, “This synagogue is our Temple, this city our Jerusalem, and this happy land our Palestine.” The Jews of Charleston are woven into the fabric of its history. Jewish history overwhelms the area known as Historic Charleston- significant sites of old Jewish businesses and houses of worship remain visible through the notable architecture and plaques. 254 King Street, home to Jacob Tobias and the Sephardic congregation Beth Elohim Unveh Shallom in the 1780s, still stands today (as a Victoria Secret). Thanks to initiatives such as the Venice Charter, The historic district of Charleston looks and feels like a moment in time- its beauty and its complexities are intertwined.
From the onset, Jews had been welcomed, thanks to the civil and religious liberties that were afforded to them in South Carolina. Not all experienced such a warm welcome. Charleston, like Jacksonville, is an imperfect city. That’s what makes it “quintessentially American.” How we deal with the imperfections of this broken world is up to us. We can respond two ways:
1) We are all human. We all continue to grow and learn from infancy. There are those imperfections that we learn to love and appreciate in ourselves and in others. These are the imperfections that, coming from a divine spark, remind us that an All-knowing God isn’t always all-knowing. We react to the brokenness by loving more, by deepening our conversations with one another, if given the window of opportunity to do so.
2) “Radical” Amazement. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great theologian and civil rights activist, wrote,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
Heschel wrote this in describing a spiritual connection to the divine, but for me, the words ring as a call to action. Never treat life casually. Never treat a broken world casually. It is time for new forms of radical thought. It is time to disassociate with symbols of hate and the “casual” racism we endorse every time we do not speak up.
Racism is an overcast over all we take for granted- our liberties, our sensitivities, and our tomorrows. The certainty of imperfect ancestors coupled with the uncertainty of our tomorrows gives us two options- certain action or uncertain complacency.
Heschel states elsewhere:
To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. Racism is worse than idolatry. Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil, racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to mankind.
We read stories of a KKK that has gone “family friendly.” Racism and discrimination are now sold in overt and covert sizes. The juvenility of free speech translates to misinformation and misguidedness. Nothing is free. Hateful free speech comes at an ultimate price.
This is who I am. I write this as a Northern transplant clergy-person serving a predominately White Jewish community. Growing up, I never thought of myself as “white.” Most of my friends and cohorts have and remain to be Jewish, of Ashkenazic descent. As a Jew, the classification of “hate Crime” still means a severe act of serious concern. I see last week’s atrocities as a hate crime, an act of terror, and a barbaric attack on a fellow house of worship.
This is who I am. My institution, and the institutions I frequent and support ,do not condone discrimination based upon race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. They support and welcome all. But perception lags behind reality, because our communal reality includes individuals who do not support and who do not welcome. I find issue when individuals within these masses make statements and use language, subtly and not so subtly, condoning hate. This comes out of fear, and sometimes, it comes out of a “former-vernacular”, a situation in which one can “get away with” using the N-word when they think no one notices or takes issue. Terms like Shachor (Black in hebrew) and Schvartze (Black in yiddish) are used as “hidden language.” It’s time to take it seriously. It’s time to be unapologetic to this kind of rhetoric. We see the stain of racism in Israel, from the Ethiopian immigrant community to the undertones of Arab hating in the latest Israeli election. It’s only subtle until it permeates into the vernacular and into the impressionable minds of those who segregate themselves, who will always few the unknown as the “alien”, the “other.”Hateful speech becomes hateful action. Sometimes we wait only to realize there is no “subtle” disdain for others.
This is who I am. It is time for honesty. It is time for dialogue. It is time for a loving embrace of who we are and who want to be. But it is also time for radical movement- to chase hateful speech from our lips and derogatory rhetoric from the comment pages. It’s time to stop endorsing hate by standing idly by. Institutional racism still exists. Yet even as institutions change their tune, it’s up to those of us who dwell in the neo-institutional virtual world to help change the tune as well. I live in a quintessentially American city and a not so quintessentially American virtual reality. Charleston is a four hour drive from my front door, but racial discrimination is just a click away.
This Friday, I’ll be making the four hour journey to Charleston to honor the memories of the Charleston 9, brutally murdered last week:
Cynthia Hurd, 54, branch manager for the Charleston County Library System
Susie Jackson, 87, longtime church member
Ethel Lance, 70, employee of Emanuel AME Church for 30 years
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions counselor of Southern Wesleyan University
The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, state senator, Reverend of Emanuel AME Church
Tywanza Sanders, 26, earned business administration degree from Allen University
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, retired pastor (died at MUSC)
Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45, track coach at Goose Creek High School
Myra Thompson, 59, church member
I’ll be there as a member of the Jewish faith representing a southern town that in many ways remains racially segregated. I’m searching for ways to connect, as a member of our local clergy caucus for ICARE (Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment) and as a concerned citizen who wants to express his grief. We will find moments for introspection and moments to hold hands in communal prayer. I want share the stories of our people- the stories we read in sequence over these past few weeks, of Korah, the out-of-turn adversary to Moses and Aaron; of the 10 scouts who were too scared to tell the truth of the Promised Land. I want to share that it doesn’t matter if you are the loudest or even a majority. It doesn’t matter if there are the giants of bigotry who intimidate and bully. It matters that you fight for a just and better world.
As with a journey to my ancestral homeland, when individuals take a prayer written on a small piece of paper to place in the cracks of the the Western Wall, I’ll be taking words of comfort and solidarity to place on the makeshift memorials of historic Charleston.
At the end of a Jewish funeral, two lines are formed as we create a pathway for the mourners to begin their grief amidst community. We offer words of condolence. We offer hugs. We offer shoulders to share the burden of grief as they begin a long road bereft of a loved one. May the support of many bring comfort to those who mourn, and may the lights of peaceful discourse, reconciliation, hope and healing shine upon all of us.