For as long as I can remember, pursuing justice has been a central part of Jewish communal life. But my understanding of how we pursue justice in the American Jewish community is shifting, especially around the relationship that white Jews have with historic and current structures of white supremacy.
Maybe because my father and grandparents were immigrants and spoke with accents, I never quite felt “American.” Or maybe I felt like I was American, but I didn’t feel that American history was really my history, or that the American story was my story. My story was somewhere across the sea, sung in a minor key, transmitted through recipes for apple cake and Shabbos candlesticks and tales of wandering and seeking a safe home.
So it takes a conscious effort for me to try to understand my experience as a white person in the United States, to own this history. It takes effort to see myself as an inheritor of the benefits of white supremacy. It takes effort to understand that my father could make a middle-class life for our family after coming here with just a few dollars in his pocket, not only due to his hard work and devotion, but also because of the path that was already paved for him once he arrived here — a white person’s path that is not, and has never been, available in the same way to people of color.
It takes conscious effort for me to see that my story is not only the history of the genocide of the Shoah, and the story of European Jews. My story is also the story of this place, a country built on the genocide of the middle passage, the infamous voyage of slave ships. A country built on the economic and political structures that have sought to dehumanize the survivors of the middle passage and their descendants. And my story is also the story of a country built on the genocide of indigenous peoples, their forced displacement, and the relentless attempts to erase their cultures and identities — attempts that persist to this day.
A few years ago, I had an experience that taught me about spiritual audacity. The Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone people held their California Big Time Gathering at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, which was built on a sacred Ohlone site.
My story is not only the history of the genocide of the Shoah … my story is also the story of a country built on the genocide of indigenous peoples.
The listing for the all-day event said: “At sundown, the Costanoan Rumsen Ohlone Tribe will lead a traditional Bear Dance healing ceremony to begin to heal the damage done at this site, which was sacred to the Ohlone people. Ancestral graves were disturbed during the building of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the early 1990s, and although ancestral remains were reburied elsewhere, the tribe will dance to communicate with ancestral spirits in an attempt to bring peace and healing.”
I went to the gardens that night with my son Jesse, who was about 11. As people gathered for the ceremony, the leaders explained that in some parts of the ceremony, everyone would be invited to join in. As the tribal chief Tony Cerda said, “People in the city need healing too, not just people in the woods and in the mountains.”
The Bear Dance was healing for me. I saw new possibilities for how I can live and move forward, both as a Jewish person and as a white American. I felt, and feel, called to cultivate radical generosity, openness and a willingness to notice my fears, without being deterred by them. And I had entered a new relationship with the indigenous people of the place where I live.
It feels clear that this time is one of great change and struggle. The untended wounds of our country are open and festering. Our beloved earth is groaning under the weight of our greed and disregard.
In this time, we can ask ourselves two particularly Jewish questions. First, which parts of Jewish historical experience can help us, and help our allies and partners, to understand what’s going on and how to respond? How can our particular historical experiences and wisdom serve the movement to resist hate and authoritarianism and to build love and healing? Second, which parts of our Jewish historical experience will seize us with a terror that sends us retreating into the fortress, where we try desperately to hold the terror at bay by closing our hearts to others, seeing other people as a threat and using our material resources to bolster our sense of security?
In my community, Kehilla Community Synagogue, we’ve been talking about a strategy of beefing up solidarity instead of beefing up security. It means opening ourselves up instead of closing ourselves off. It means building more and deeper relationships with other communities, especially those that are targeted. It means being curious about the ways that we support and benefit from the structures of oppression that target others. It means being Jewish in public and inviting people to join us — sharing all the amazing teaching and celebration that are part of our practice.