September 4, 2020

Dearest Congregants,

Against the backdrop of the recent events in Kenosha, Portland and elsewhere, I thought it important to update you on Beth Jacob’s ongoing engagement in the struggle against racism and our efforts to make that engagement an important part of the life of the shul. We have already begun a conversation on the issue that will continue during the coming year (and beyond), and also plan on offering a number of lectures, discussions, and learning opportunities.

As part of Beth Jacob’s commitment to anti-racism, our shul has decided to display a powerful work of art created by Aaron Hodge Silver in the main hallway of the synagogue. The synagogue’s Board has devoted a good deal of thought and discussion to the issue, and last night approved the decision to place it in shul by a large majority. This papercut depicts a traditional tallit inscribed with the words Black Lives Matter on it. The work therefore combines a sacred and ancient symbol of Jewish tradition with words that have come to express an unyielding insistence on justice and equity for all of this country’s citizens. I’d like to explain this important decision by Beth Jacob’s Board, and my support for that decision against the larger context of our tradition’s insistent demand for justice, freedom, and equality.

The decision to display the print is one part of a larger, synagogue-wide conviction that we must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who are struggling against systemic racism and injustice. As I noted several weeks ago in my d’var Torah, Judaism is at its core a series of urgent questions demanding answers, a call requiring a response. It speaks the language of obligation. We are obligated according to Torah law to protest against wrongs committed against others; we are forbidden by the Torah from aiding others in the commission of wrongdoing; we are obligated to see that all human beings are infinitely precious, created in God’s holy image. I believe that we are therefore obligated to affirm that Black Lives Matter, and that conviction is rooted in my understanding of what the Torah demands of us.

I first saw Aaron’s work before I arrived in Minnesota, and to be honest, I was ambivalent. I knew that the words “Black Lives Matter” represented a stirring call to mobilize against racism, but were also linked to a controversial organization that had expressed to militantly anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic ideas. With that in mind, I was hesitant to support displaying the print in the shul.

I have changed my mind, and now very much support the decision to place the print in the synagogue hallway, and have arrived at this conclusion for a number of reasons:

  • After doing some research into the origins of BLM and the original controversy around anti-Israel and pro-BDS statements issued four years ago in a manifesto, I discovered that the disturbing ideas were in fact issued by a small group called Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) that was not linked in any official way to Black Lives Matter. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find that manifesto anywhere online, and there are no anti-Israel sentiments of any kind on the BLM website. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs conducted an in-depth study of the issue and concluded: “To counter anti-Semitism and to live out our Jewish values of equity and justice for all, that the Jewish community should not abandon the largest movement for racial justice in decades because of fear of a position, even one as objectionable as that included in the M4BL platform in 2016, taken by a small faction also participating in that fight.” For more details, see the study here.
  • Recently, over 600 Jewish organizations signed a letter published in the New York Times insisting that Black Lives Matter. Signatories included United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) which represents Jewish Community Relations Councils across the US, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) signed on, as well as hundreds of synagogues across the denominational spectrum, Federations, and other organizations. Had I known about the existence of the letter, I would have urged our congregation to sign it as well. In supporting BLM, we join the mainstream of the organized Jewish community in the United States. I believe we should join these institutions in supporting the fight for justice for people of color (see the letter here).
  • As Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of USCJ, notes, BLM is more an idea than a coherent movement, connected to a wide variety of institutions and leaders, and was begun by the Black community in its struggle for equality and against systemic racism. “There is no one organization responsible for its thinking. Much as the Jewish community is extremely diverse (even our Conservative movement is quite diverse!), that is also the case in the Black community.”
  • In reading the “official” website of BLM, it became clear to me that I did not agree with every idea and proposal found there. That’s perfectly fine, because I certainly don’t expect the Jewish community’s allies and supporters to agree with every position espoused by our institutions. After the terrible massacre in Pittsburgh, a number of Muslim clergy and lay people reached out to my synagogue in the Vancouver area, despite their passionate opposition to Zionism and the Jewish State. These positions did not prevent them from reaching out to a Jewish community in trauma, and I don’t believe that we need to insist on a perfect alignment of views to lend our support to a just cause. Rabbi Saul Berman, an Orthodox scholar and writer who supports BLM, recently noted that he marched alongside a number of Catholic activists during the Civil Rights struggles of the early 1960s, before the Second Vatican Council had been completed; despite his staunch disagreement with a number of Catholic theological positions regarding Jews and Judaism, he was able to find common cause with priests and nuns in the pursuit of justice.
  • * It’s important to remember that the print is a work of art and not a manifesto. As such, it invites a variety of interpretations and does not make a claim to one, definitive meaning. Serious art provokes a number of responses among its viewers – for example, Picasso’s Guernica and Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring provoked fierce debates among partisans and opponents. I believe print will stimulate thoughtful engagement, critical thinking, and even disagreement…which is as it should be!

The decision to display this work of art represents an important step in our community’s ongoing commitment to fight racism and stand up for justice. Its importance is not limited to the specific issue of putting the print in the synagogue hallway, but also because something larger and even more important to our community’s future is at stake. During the coming year, I pray that we are able to respond in the affirmative to a question that has echoed throughout history – it is the question Cain posed to the Holy Blessed One after he killed Abel. Ha-shomer akhi anokhi? Am I my brother’s keeper? By insisting that Black Lives Matter, our answer is clear.

Bi-yedidut rabbah/Affectionately,
Rabbi Adam Rubin, Ph.D.