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Perspectives

Wednesday, June 3, 2020 | 11th Sivan 5780

Dear All,

I don’t feel like I have a lot of wisdom right now. This is hard.

The lessons of Jewish history favor moderation, and striving to keep one’s balance. It is relatively easy for societies to become destabilized, and much harder to calm them down again.

And yet, of course, we must also ask: what does “calm them down again” mean? In the sense that the protests are more than justified. Racism – personal, institutional, structural – has been wired into the fabric of this country since its very beginnings, an original sin for which there has been no systematic teshuvah. So this is a year’s rage, a decade’s rage, a century’s rage, and longer still, all boiling over. It is in the nature of being Jewish that we know what it is like to be an outsider, to be scared, to be an immigrant, a refugee, discriminated against. Many of us, most of us, grew up with that in our bones. And so it is unbearable to see persistent racism in this country, unbearable – after slavery, the civil war, a century of lynchings; after Goodman, Schwerner & Chaney… and Eric Garner… and case after case of police killings of unarmed black men… and then George Floyd.

I feel angry and upset – and yet I have a job, a home, savings.
If I were younger – or less white – or less employed – or had less money in the bank – I might not only feel rage or despair, I might also say, what have I got to lose? And things can spiral out of control, very easily, from that point.

There are many times in the last few weeks and months that have been hard. The father of an old friend died, and I just burst into tears. Another friend’s father is still fighting for his life in the ICU – he has been there now for six weeks. For Hazon (on a different plane) we fought to open Isabella Freedman in March, scrubbed and cleaned and planned – lost that fight – aimed to open for Pesach – lost that fight – closed for two months, and hoped to open for Shavuot – lost that fight. We continue to swivel. We continue to strive to do our best. Each day brings new challenges. Staff members, board members, funders, participants, counterparties – everyone is doing their best. I am grateful. But it is hard.

And now all of this. The Hebrew phrase is yesh gvul – there is a limit. There is a border, a boundary, a moment when you say, enough already.

I am a very weird kind of first generation immigrant to this country. I’m not an economic refugee, I’m not a political refugee. I am privileged in many ways. And for some reason I have not one but two degrees in American history. I used to be teased by my friends in England for being so pro-American.

And yet I didn’t really come to America; in a very weird way it turns out that I made aliyah to the American Jewish community. I’m a part of the Jewish people, and I felt clear that when the history of this era is written, two centuries hence, it will be what happens now in Israel, and what happens now in the USA, that will most determine not only the future of the Jewish people, but also what influence the Jewish people has on the trajectory of the world. Will we add new chapters of which to be proud? I don’t know; but the American Jewish community has wealth and power and influence, and we must strive to use it for good. Consciously or not, that’s why I’m here.

I don’t have US citizenship, and for a long while couldn’t figure out why I didn’t – given that, as a Green Card holder, I’m now entitled to it, and have been for some while. And I knew – I could feel – that there was something in me resistant to doing so.

And maybe I will take citizenship or maybe not, and maybe indeed I will live the whole of the rest of my life here. Or maybe not. Many people don’t have that choice, either. (And maybe, of course, I will die tomorrow; we, none of us, know when our time will be up.)

In other news: Isabella Freedman is closed, but we’re going to do a virtual Isabella Freedman retreat this Sunday. We invite you to give a donation if you wish, but there is no charge, and no obligation to do so. Speakers and teachers include Diane Bloomfield (teaching Torah Yoga); rabbis Matti Brown, Yaffa Epstein, Jill Hammer, and Ezra Weinberg; Yoshi Silverstein and Dr. Shamu Sadeh; and many others. This week’s After The Plague will be at noon, as part of our virtual retreat, and my guests will be Rabbi Jill Jacobs, from T’ruah, and our own rabbi-in-residence, Isaiah Rothstein, offering perspective, advice, and perhaps tochecha (rebuke) in relation to the state of this country right now. Do please join us. Click here for registration and more info.

Finally, and in a somewhat weird and disjunctive way, Hazon’s Hakhel project won the Jerusalem Unity Prize this week. If you click here you can see (in Hebrew) the ceremony in which Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel, awards the prize to Hazon staffers Aharon Ariel Lavi and Leah Palmer. I remember the murder of Eric Garner and we saw last week the murder of George Floyd; and many of us also remember the kidnapping and murder of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naphtali Fraenkel in 2014. It felt like the whole of Israel searched for them and prayed for them, and it was in the aftermath of the discovery of their bodies that their families, together with Nir Barkat, then mayor of Jerusalem, established this prize. The idea behind it was, in a sense, let us take this tragedy and find a way to play forwards that which was good, within it – that sense of unity.

And so I end with that thought, with that inspiration. The prize didn’t come out of thin air. We have the fast of Esther (commemorating incitement and the risk of genocidal murder) and then Purim, a celebration which also summons us towards clarity and the journey to Pesach. We have the fast of the first-born (another near-death experience) and then seder night – in which, famously, although we made it through, we commemorate the deaths of our enemies, who did not. Coming up next month we have the three weeks, commemorating the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – and then we come back to life, and the messiah is born, and six days later a festival of love.

So…. it is a little hard to imagine a festival of love, in this country, anytime soon. The messiah is nowhere to be seen. We don’t have clarity, redemption feels far off, and too many first-born sons have died in this country.

And yet…. ani ma’amin; which is to say, ”I believe….” 

And my “belief,” whatever it is, is not theological. I don’t believe in divine deliverance. I don’t believe in American exceptionalism. But I do, somehow, believe that every Western democracy sooner or later can and should and will find its way back to solid ground. I am blessed not to have been born a Tibetan, abused now for 61 years by the (truly evil) Chinese regime. I am blessed not to live in North Korea, with its forced labor camps and its grotesque totalitarianism. I am lucky, perhaps, not to live in Hong Kong, and thus to fear what the future might hold there, as the Chinese strive to stamp out all forms of democracy. Many tragic things have happened in my lifetime, but we have avoided (thus far) the nuclear war that people feared in the fifties and protested against in the eighties and nineties. The memory of two world wars helped inoculate two or three generations of world leaders from stepping too far into the brink. Black Lives Matter is a slogan which, taken seriously, will help this country be a better country, for all its inhabitants. What is happening now is not just a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue. So we must lean in to the justifiable anger, and use it to drive systemic change, in whatever ways we can, just as the knowledge of impending climate crisis can and should cause us to change our ways. And so I believe – I do believe, I choose to believe – that things will be better, and that together we can make them better. That is what Jewish tradition stands for. That is why Hazon exists. Let us, each and all of us, make our own stand for good, this week, this summer, and this year.

Shabbat shalom – and I hope to see you on Sunday,

Nigel