The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
by Rabbi Rebekah Stern
I lay in bed one night late last summer, scrolling, as I often do, through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone. As a congregational rabbi and a mother of two young children—a now almost five-year old girl and two-year old boy—these last moments before I fall asleep are the only ones I seem to have to catch up on the lives of my more distant friends.
These were the first painful weeks after Michael Brown’s death. The weeks when we were reminded that there is sometimes a shocking discrepancy between the way that my white family experiences interaction with law enforcement and the way that black families often do.
I say ‘reminded,’ because, of course, this isn’t new. Structural inequalities and racism persist in our country. This is not about bad people—we all carry assumptions about people who are different from us. I know that because I walk around with white skin, different opportunities are open to me and that I experience the world differently from many people of color. But that’s the sneaky thing about structural racism: when it isn’t making headlines, as a white person I have the luxury of forgetting about it. As our cities and communities are ever more segregated, the effects of this systemic racism and bias are invisible to many of us. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and most recently, of Walter Scott, jolt us out of our forgetfulness. They remind us that members of our own communities are suffering every day from the effects of structural racism in our country. It just isn’t always making the headlines.
On that late night last summer, many of my Facebook friends shared passionate reflections on the events in Ferguson. More and more of these reflections were punctuated with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. One friend shared a blog post entitled, “Dear White Moms.” (You can read it here.) I lay awake in the dark, reading. And I cried. I cried because the author, Keesha Beckford, addressed me, her reader, as her ‘dear friend,’ and my heart broke.
It broke because she wrote about the blinding, primal love that all mothers feel for their children—the love that I know so well—that Michael Brown’s mother certainly felt for her own son, now dead and buried.
It broke because Keesha Beckford will have to raise her then six-year old son with an awareness that I do not have to instill in my own son: how to survive in our communities, in our country, when he is no longer a cute little boy, but, one day, a grown up young black man.
And it broke because, towards the end of her heart-wrenching piece, she wrote, “I need to know that you are not merely worried about this most tragic of worst case scenarios befalling my son; I need to know that you are out there changing the ethos that puts it in place. That you see this as something that unites us as mothers, friends and human beings.” And what was I doing to change that ethos? What could I do?
Well now, as a Reform Jew in California, I have the beginning of an answer. I will work with Reform CA, in partnership with other Reform Jews across the state, to build and strengthen meaningful relationships in our communities across lines of difference. We will partner with members of African American churches, with our allies of many races and faiths, and listen especially carefully to the experiences of Jews of color who are members of our own communities. We will work to pass two critical pieces of legislation, AB 953 and AB 619. These bills Together with our partners across lines of difference, we will share stories about how experiences of race and racism touch our lives and break our hearts and we will and commit to amplifying the voices of those who are most directly affected by these issues. As we seek to strengthen our communities, our efforts will reflect our deep respect and appreciation for our brave law enforcement officers who risk their lives and wellbeing every day to protect California’s residents.
Torah teaches us that we are forbidden to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. Keesha Beckford finished her piece by writing, “I need you, too, because I can’t do this alone.” I’d like to answer Ms. Beckford by saying: I need you, too, and I am with you.
I hope you’ll join us.
Rabbi Rebekah Stern is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and is a member of the Reform CA Leadership Team.