The Jewish Responsibility: A Call for Action

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The Jewish Responsibility: A Call for Action by Sarah Phillips - Photo by Jade Lowe

The Babylonian Talmud Taanit, 11a states, “At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, ‘I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.’” At the core of Judaism is a basic expectation of compassion and menschlichkeit (Jewish value of integrity and honor) toward others, instead of an overconcern about self. The Babylonian Talmud affirms our human responsibility to stand up for the justice of others. As the Jewish community itself has suffered outbreaks of religious intolerance, persecution, and genocide over millennia, it is incumbent upon the American Jewish community to stand up for social and racial justice, as Black Americans continue to endure discrimination.

Living a Jewish life means more than engaging in ritual prayers; it means enacting tikkun olam, “world repair,” making the world a better place than one finds it. As a young child, I learned that core Jewish value by giving tzedakah every Friday before Shabbat started at sundown. As I got older, I learned the value of volunteering and aligning myself with important social causes, as that, too, is tzedakah. Part of repairing the world is committing my time and energy to help others, including caring for the environment and ensuring that those with the greatest needs receive help and support. Now, as a teenager, I understand that adding my voice and activism to protest against unfair systems and racist structures is also a part of tzedakah and tikkun olam.

As a Jewish teen who has grown up in Harlem my whole life, I see many commonalities and some tensions between the Black and Jewish communities. Both communities include far more diversity—of backgrounds, languages, geographic representation, for example—than most people realize. We share a history of hardships, including overt discrimination and violence directed toward us for being who we are. Geographically, about 175,000 Jews lived in Central Harlem the 1910s, according to Jeffrey Gurock, author of The Jews of Harlem: the Rise, Decline and Revival of a Jewish Community. This neighborhood then became the capital of Black America with a peak of 233,000 Black people by 1950. As I walk in my neighborhood, I recognize the religious pull that Harlem synagogues and churches have had on Jewish and Black histories within the Harlem community, respectively. Black and Jewish culture have been long been intertwined, and, sadly, racism and antisemitism have long perpetuated in an America that, at times, considers Black people and Jews as “other.” While there exist some current tensions between both groups with issues of urban gentrification, there are far greater commonalities, including a history of shared advocacy for civil rights. Jewish and Black leaders worked together to support the establishment of the National Urban League and NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which united both Blacks and Jews in opposition to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). At the same time, there were tensions as Jews became commercial landlords across 125th Street and other business corridors, as well as when Jews purchased Harlem apartments, with some members of the Black community decrying their social displacement by middle class Jewish families.

Tragically, Jews have experienced violent outbreaks of antisemitism, whether during the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, pogroms in the 19th century, the Holocaust during WWII, or the Farhud in 1941. Even today antisemitism is still prevalent. At age six I was publicly shamed while sitting on an MTA bus by an antisemitic man who mocked my heritage, my grandmother, and my “Jewish nose.” Because we know bigotry and outright intolerance, the Jewish community has a moral responsibility to call out and address prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and attacks when others are the victims. Over the past few months, I have seen videos of brutality toward Black people in so many different parts of the United States, and I stand with Black Lives Matter protesters who decry the years of people, especially public officials, turning a blind eye to this pattern of injustice.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once stated, “When we hear and accept what we hear without meeting others, without asking how can it be, without looking for friends outside our circles, when we accept hatred for a group as a legitimate discourse—Pharaoh is alive and well, inside ourselves.” Rabbi Heschel, an outspoken Jewish leader and ally of the Civil Rights Movement, underscores the importance of all people in reaching out to others, including those who are not in our “circle.” As Rabbi Heschel points out, as Jews we have an added responsibility to act better than the way we have been treated because we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of bigotry and hatred. He reminds us that if we do not speak out and act for justice, then we are just as blameworthy as those who have wronged us. Elie Wiesel once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Judaism invokes in us the values to eliminate hatred and discrimination. We understand the severe consequences of being silent. Being a Jew means standing up, rising to help others, and making the world a better place. That is the Jewish responsibility.

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