We are thrilled to welcome you all to Temple Sinai in prayer, in hope, in fellowship and friendship and in observance both of the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement he led in this country and in quiet reflection of the heaviness of American history when it comes to race relations, racial justice and the march we are still on toward a culture of full equality, fairness, justice and multi-culturalism.
As many of you know, Rev. Holloway and I have become good friends over the past year. He’s a good teacher and has become an important confidante for me, especially in matters of social justice leadership. As we are both fairly newish as religious leaders in Reno, we got to know each other first that fateful week of the vigil for the Charleston Nine. And since then we have remained committed to dialogue about racial justice and the road we are still walking on towards full justice in our society. And we have remained committed as well to not stand idly by, to do something specifically about gun violence in this country. In the process, we have become good friends. And it is in that spirit of friendship that we gather tonight. To open doors to fellowship, friendship and dialogue. To get together and be together and see our history with clear and unpretentious eyes, and to forge a new bond as well between our communities in Reno. Both of our communities have experiences and stories to share, of overcoming persecution, oppression and that insidious, unspoken particular kind of oppression in America which eats away at our cultural identity and tries to white-wash everyone—of all backgrounds, assimilation. Tonight we stand up and say who we are matters. Dr. Martin Luther King taught us to judge people based on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin, or based in their ethnic or religious background, and to that list today we would add gender and sexual orientation. At the same time, it doesn’t mean those aspects of our identity — our blackness or Jewishness or cultural particularities—that identity doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary: They do matter. They matter because our identity gives us strength, and roots and a moral compass and community that teaches and encourages us to live out our values. Perhaps we don’t have to be religion-blind or color-blind or blind to any difference or diverse aspect of one another– to be kind. To be loving. To walk humbly with our Lord, together. And yet, even as our particular identities are important in shaping who we are, they are not all of us, they are not aspects that others have the right to essentialize or make assumptions about or categorize. I am Jewish and for me, my Jewishness is so much richer, so much deeper, so much more important to me than any label could signify. May we be interested in one another not as people who check off certain categories, but as people with unique histories, values and communities of culture that lift us up, give us strength and enrich the greater society to which we contribute. May we continue Dr. King’s legacy by getting to know the content of one another’s characters and the experiences that make us who we are—rather than judging one another with the blindness and the violence of convenient categorization, of superficial interaction, the essentializing that can happen when people think they know you, when they assume they know what you’re about because of a label. Identity is so much deeper than labels and so much more important than to be able to endure the violence of others’ assumptions.
We each have stories: of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. We have stories of self and stories of struggle with God. We have family stories and stories of community. And tonight is about sharing some of those stories with people who you may be meeting tonight for the first time, along with those you may have known all your life, in some cases.
Let me tell you a story about my family. My grandfather was a Jewish accountant in Detroit. Along with white-flight to the suburbs after WWII, a very painful part of American history, my grandparents and my mother with them moved to the suburbs of Detroit. They were part of this systemic problem of white flight even as they did whatever they could to get ahead and improve the lives of their children. On an individual level, my grandfather esp was a huge mensch, Yiddish for a god person. He and a black IRS manager he worked with were the first to integrate a restaurant in downtown Detroit that had previously been for so-called white people only. He was a lover of people. My father had grown up as a WASP and converted to Judaism to marry my mother, and my grandfather on my father’s side was more prejudiced. At my parent’s wedding, my Jewish grandfather knew that my father’s father had some ignorance and prejudice against Jews. My Jewish grandfather embraced him anyway, and invited him to sit next to him through the whole ceremony. My Jewish grandfather sat the whole time with his arm around my white grandfather. And my father was amazed: he couldn’t believe his father wore a yarmaka through the entire ceremony and didn’t even take it off during the reception that followed. My father’s father felt accepted, his own prejudice about Jews caring only about their own was lifted, even if temporarily. But even good and decent people are working within a system of racial injustice that prevents them from seeing their own blind spots.
Every year on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I feel we say, we have covered some ground, but we have so much ground yet to cover to create a society in which racism, bigotry, ignorance and the violence of assumption based on superficial categorization, are of the past. Our society is built on systemic racism and we need to look at that head on. How will America pay the massive debt all Americans owe to the descendants of victims of slavery? How can we, in our small communities in Reno, do more to promote justice, to partner together, to commit to creating a society in which fairness is real, love rather than fear guides us, a society that educates, that prosecutes criminals fairly and justly, that gets to know our neighbor, that protects our children from violence successfully, that actively encourages everyone to vote regardless of the categories people put us in. How can we contribute to these areas of needed change, and keep these issues at the forefront of our minds and hearts and deeds not just on Dr. King’s birthday, but every day?
Dr. King and his legacy of non-violent resistance, his legacy of change in this country, on this 50th anniversary year since the march in Selma, is strong. So too must the force of justice be strong in each of us. Because even though Dr. King was assassinated for his courage and for speaking truth, each of us is charged with continuing the mission he began.
It has been an important and heart-wrenching year for racial justice in this country. The AME community and the Jewish community and every decent and peace-loving community of faith lost the Charleston Nine.
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) Susie Jackson (87) Ethel Lee Lance (70) Pastor Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) Senior Pastor and Senator Clementa C. Pinckney (41) Tywanza Sanders (26) Pastor Daniel Simmons (74) Pastor Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) Myra Thompson (59) died as the victims of racialized hate, gun violence and domestic terrorism.
In addition, this year, systemic racial bias in our criminal justice system and police forces around the country have been exposed. The most extreme cases of racialized violence are what explodes on the surface for the naked eye to see. I worry most about what we cannot see. The hate people have in their hearts, the ignorance and entitlement and internalization of the falsehood of white supremacy that lingers beneath the surface, people blind to their own ignorance. And I pray that we as a society can see the value of reparations for the black community. Without reparations, without a blatant acknowledgement by our government for the massive debt our country owes to African-Americans, how can we as a country ever be able fully to move on from the weight and immoral stain of our history?
Tonight we honor the movement and its prophetic leader, who inspired massive change and a charge toward justice in this country, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we pause to reflect on the work that is undone. The road we must continue to march on, together, hand-in-hand, as did our rabbis 50 years ago in Selma: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thank you each for being here in our house of God, Beit El, or Bethel, tonight. May our communities come together in friendship and in common cause to create the world we need. Shabbat shalom.