By Jane Ramsey
Executive Director, JCUA
Delivered at Yom Kippur services, Sept. 18, 2010 at Congregation Hakafa, Glencoe, Ill.
Abraham Joshua Heschel described the unique aspect of the Jewish prophets not as soothsayers or diviners who attempt to discover the will of their gods, but by their experience of theotropism — God turning towards humanity. Others define a prophet as a person gifted with profound moral insight and exceptional powers of expression, an inspired teacher or leader.
Thirty-one years ago I met such a prophet. I didn’t know at first that I had…only later did I learn.
When I applied to be assistant director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, I had recently finished graduate school and was seeking refuge from my position as a planner for the City of Chicago’s so-called economic development department. I sought work instead that would help me explore community and how Judaism fueled my passion to tackle the poverty and injustice that I had come to understand was so prevalent in our city and world.
The description of JCUA was very intriguing.
I couldn’t have known then how defining that interview would become, how it would anchor my next 31 years and counting, and deeply, wonderfully, root my daily life in the Judaic imperative to pursue justice.
I had never heard the term “interstitiality” before. It was several years before I understood the truth, depth and significance of this modern prophet’s sage analysis regarding the Jews as the people in between the parts, neither the controllers of power nor the most oppressed, requiring us to make choices regarding with whom we will align.
I didn’t first learn the dynamics of injustice from this modern prophet, as you might have guessed by now, our rabbi, Robert Marx. Vivid pictures of black men hanging from trees, trips with my family to the South where signs instructed that as whites we couldn’t drink from the “colored” fountains, and my beloved late father’s righteous, deliberate disobedience sitting on the “colored” benches, ingrained and laid the foundation for my own anger and determination to be part of our deeply Jewish tradition to seek justice.
But Rabbi Robert Marx envisioned and created the wise vehicle through which I was unbelievably fortunate enough to walk. He brought – he brings – extraordinarily, even uniquely sage insight, great compassion and respect for the dignity of oppressed inner city communities.
Then I met our other rabbi. Well, he wasn’t a rabbi yet. He was JCUA’s youth educator, young, determined, serious–hoping to follow, even then, in the footsteps of Rabbi Marx. What better evidence of his success than when just last week, on Rosh Hashanah morning, Rabbi Elder boldly urged the women of this congregation to have their pictures taken with the Torah immediately following services in protest of the recent arrest of an Israeli woman detained for the forbidden act of carrying a Torah at the Western Wall!
Prophets agitate. They act. They teach. They urge. They model. They are provocateurs. They write. They guide and change our lives and the lives of our families, our communities and our children in so many remarkable ways.
Over the past few weeks, I have become increasingly alarmed by evidence of rising incidence of Islamophobia, racism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
My friend, our mentor, Hakafa’s prophetic voice shines a light by his example that implores us to reject intolerance, and to reject thinly disguised excuses for intolerant words and acts.
For the sin of silence and indifference. For the sin of passing judgment on others. For the sin of hating without cause.
I’ve recently been thinking about what we want to be as a country and how our country has become unrecognizable. I shared some of my thoughts in a recent JCUA blog post:
Is it our country where adherents to one religion can schedule a very public burning of another religion’s holy book – and even in the past week where the Quran is burned doors away from Chicago’s Muslim Community Center? Can we accept living in an America where a cab driver who identifies himself as a Muslim gets his throat slashed?
Is the America that’s our home a place where a state can adopt legislation that targets people of color and immigrants, violating the civil and human rights of millions?
Is our America one where highly vocal citizens yell in outrage when members of another religion propose to build a cultural center that’s patterned after the Jewish Community Center model?
Our America was founded on freedom of religion, as protected in the constitution.
Our America is a home where we can practice Judaism freely and openly, unlike most of our ancestors throughout thousands of years of Jewish history. In our America, those who are “yearning to breathe free” (in the words of Emma Lazarus) are allowed to do so.
In our America, we celebrate the diversity of ethnicities, we embrace the cultures of our neighbors, and we seek to share and learn from each other.
In recent weeks, a provocative, ugly debate has raised Islamophobic and racist sentiments to a pitched level not often seen since the mid-1960s, when Rabbi Marx, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest discrimination in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood.
“Silence cannot dominate truth,” Rabbi Marx prophetically wrote in 1966.
On Yom Kippur, we seek forgiveness for the sin we have committed with our words, and help to understand that injustice and hate will not forever afflict the human race.
It’s time to transform speech into deeds, to make a High Holy Day commitment to speak out.
We must take action now against the words and acts of Islamophobia and racism, against attempts to restrict our cherished freedom of religious expression. Learn about Islam. Urge our Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act.
This fall, thousands of Jews and members of other communities across the country will join in a historic civic engagement campaign. Join JCUA’s Define America 2010 campaign and volunteer to register, to enfranchise new voters, and help get those voters to the polls on Nov. 2.
A prophet implored that we listen, that we hear the crying, that we meet at the mountain. Let’s do just that and keep our country a land that cherishes its diversity, promotes tolerance and celebrates religious freedom.