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Our Moment To Act

The following sermon was delivered on Friday, June 12th, 2020 on the Central Synagogue Facebook Live. The entire service can be found here and the video of my sermon is below.

Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom! Thank you to the clergy and leadership of Central Synagogue for inviting me to share some words with you all tonight.

Like many of us, the last few weeks have been exhausting for me. Since the police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, I’ve been through a whole range of emotions – sad, angry, anxious, and overwhelmed. I still remember the moment that I first heard the name Michael Brown, and how he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and these were the same spread of emotions. Six years apart; the same result; the same intense feelings. 

Over the last few years, each time another Black person was killed by the police, my heart sank even further and my mind became even more hazy, because I knew that this injustice would be another hard, frustrating, alienating conversation with my beloved Jewish community. I knew that there would be other Jews that wouldn’t feel that police brutality was their issue, or their fight. That saying “Black Lives Matter” would just be too much for them right now. But for me, a biracial Black Jewish man, who is a descendant of slaves, I can’t separate myself from this issue. It’s personal every single time.

And it’s not only police brutality and wider systemic racism, it’s the racism that exists in our own community. It’s personal every single time when I get nervous to enter a synagogue because of the security guards out front. It’s personal every single time I see extra stares when I walk into Jewish spaces. It’s personal every single time someone asks me about my Jewish story or my family, without even asking for my name first. Racism exists in our Jewish spaces, in our country, and around the world. And it’s causing deep, irreparable, harm to Jews of color and people of color everywhere.

And yet, with all of the pain from the last few weeks, built upon four centuries of racism, hatred, and bigotry toward Black lives, I am hopeful in this moment. I’m hopeful because of all the members of the Jewish community who are opening their eyes, hands, and hearts to create more justice in our country. Jews who have stopped using their views or opinions about Israel as an excuse – and that’s what it is, an excuse – not to support this movement. All the people who are fully hearing the call that Black lives matter, and that this isn’t an issue that Jews can shy away from. I’m hopeful because of all the people who have raised their voices, donated their money, marched in the streets, stretched their brains, searched their hearts, and committed to doing more to create a better, safer world. 

But all of that is just from the last few weeks. Our larger question right now is how will we act moving forward? 

As always, our Torah provides us with the wisdom that we need in this moment. Though in Israel and North America we read one of two portions, I’d like to focus on Parashat Sh’lach Lecha. In this portion, we read about the Israelite spies assessing the future Promised Land. Out of the twelve spies, ten of them report that the land is filled with obstacles, and that it’s just going to be too difficult, too treacherous to settle. The other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, saw the same landscape. And yet, they provided a different report, one filled with a hopeful promise for our people to succeed, grow, and thrive in the Promised Land. 

My friends, just like our ancestors wandering in the desert, we are in a difficult, treacherous moment. I must confess, that my hope right now is also balanced with fear. Of course, fear of more violence erupting, but also fear of losing this moment for change. And how we respond, right now, will have consequences for decades and centuries to come. The stakes are high and each of us have choices to make. So – really search yourselves. What will you do to make sure that Jews of color feel welcome and empowered in Jewish spaces? What will you do to combat police brutality and mass incarceration? What will you do, what will you risk, and how will you rise to this moment?

For my safety and the safety of other Jews of color and Black people, I need you to do something in this moment. If you’re unsure, look to our modern-day Caleb’s and Joshua’s, the incredible Jews of color, and Black activists and organizers who are leading us through this moment so that we may build a better country and world.

Listen to them. Support them and their organizations. Understand your own oppressive relationship to whiteness. Strive to be anti-racist every day. Join anti-racist organizations. Combat police brutality. Change our racist system.

Our Torah teaches us that getting to the Promised Land is difficult, not only through physical struggle, but also with internal strife and reconciliation with those in our community. Reaching the Promised Land takes time, even generations, to achieve, but it can be done – but for that to happen we must commit to doing the work. Because the stakes right now – for me, for Black Jews and Jews of color, for Black people and people of color – the stakes couldn’t be higher.

18 days ago, as George Floyd’s body lay pressed to the ground, he uttered the words: “I can’t breathe.” In our holy tradition, breath is sacred; it is a gift from God. For all of us who have breath now, let us take a breath together. (Breathe In, Breathe Out). Now is our moment to act. Let each and every one of us, use this sacred gift to breathe into existence a safer, more just world for all of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Evan Traylor is a rabbinical student and Jewish community builder, educator, activist, and writer who strives to bring more love, justice, peace, and truth into communities around the world.

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