My head is just spinning. As Jews around the world are busy scurrying to prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days, the daily news is barraging and buffeting us, demanding a moral response. Particularly for those of us who are entrusted with the sacred work of delivering divrei Torah that will help make Judaism, Jewish teachings and values relevant as we address the pressing issues of the day, the focus of our global attention keeps changing: one minute we are trying to find appropriate responses to the homophobia that still exists in large pockets of this country, even in defiance of the Supreme Court decision that guarantees the freedom to marry to all, including those who are LGBTQ, another minute we are trying to counter blatant and institutionalized racism, the devaluing of black lives through racial profiling, excessive use of force, and mass incarceration of those who are African American and other people of color. And the next minute our hearts are breaking as we witness the incredible loss of life, including that of innocent three year olds whose bodies wash up on shore, as thousands and thousands risk their lives by boarding boats or storming trains or climbing fences, as they leave their homelands in search of asylum and safety and security. As each issue barrages and buffets me, I wonder: what can I do? What can we do? What must we do?
I must admit: I often don’t know what to do in response to all of these various, important issues. Sometimes, I feel so overwhelmed, no knowing where or how to best use my limited energy and resources. To choose one issue necessarily means to turn away, at least to a certain extent, from others. Sometimes, the multitude of issues ironically leaves us paralyzed, unable to respond to any of them.
It makes me think of someone here in our very own city of Seattle who has been an important role model for me. Her name is Killian Noe; I met her shortly after I moved to Seattle. Killian and other members of the faith community that she helped organize created the Recovery Café—some of you may have seen it on Denny Street, downtown. The Café and its School for Recovery serves men and women traumatized by homelessness, addiction and other mental health challenges who need an on-going supportive community in order to stabilize and maintain their stability—in their mental health, relationships, housing and employment/volunteer service.
I remember talking with Killian and asking her: With all of the many issues that call on us to respond, how do you choose? Killian said: “When we put our weight down with one place of pain in the world, it connects us with all the other places of pain. And when we put our weight down with one expression of healing and hope it connects us to all the other expressions of healing and hope in the world: we become a part of a movement of healing and hope through our response to that one place of pain.”
So I decided to do just that. Literally. In what was not entirely a spur of the moment decision, I decided to fly to Raleigh, North Carolina on Sunday morning, to participate in America’s Journey for Justice, organized by the NAACP. It began on August 1st, and will continue until September 16th, covering 860 miles. Though I will walk only 20 of those miles, I will add my name to the nearly 200 other Reform Rabbis, the many other leaders, activists, and others in the African American communities, as well as many individuals and groups from other organizations. The marchers—and now I am happy to include myself in that category—are demonstrating to our nation’s leaders—quite literally, putting the weight of our feet down on the pavement, one foot in front of the other—that Americans from a diverse array of faiths and backgrounds share a commitment to racial justice, and that it is past time for this country to achieve racial justice—for all of its citizens, and would-be citizens—those from other countries who have immigrated here, in hopes of calling this land home. One of the specific goals that the march hopes to achieve is the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act; I’ve printed out some material, and you can also find it on www.reformjudaism.org. Next week, I hope to include more details in a message I will send out, as I am soaking my sore feet, in my hotel in Raleigh, North Carolina.
By the way, in July of this year, following the terrible shooting in the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the African Methodist Episcopal Council of Bishops designated September 6, 2015, as a “Day of Confession, Repentance, Prayer, and Commitment to End Racism.” They ask every church, temple, synagogue, mosque, and place of worship to focus on race. They ask every pastor, Rabbi, Imam, and others to preach on race and be reminded and that God created all of us to dwell together in unity and together confront the ways that racism permeates our communities.
So this Sunday, as I am flying to Raleigh, I hope you’ll spend a little time considering some specific ways that you too can put your weight down to confront racism in this country. Will signing a petition solve the issue? No, but if 10,000 or 50,000 people do, perhaps it will indeed help to make a difference.
As we enter into this season of introspection and reflection, I hope and pray that this will be a time for all of us to remember the ways in which Jewish Tradition calls on us to respond. Even if it is only one act, one step at a time.
Rabbi Zari Weiss