Privilege and Responsibility Rosh Hashanah Eve 5779/2018 Rabbi James Prosnit
While our gathering is always the first of Tishrei we are mindful that the Holy Days have arrived earlier than normal. The kids have barely been settled in school, the list of summer chores and summer reading only partially completed. And here we are –supposedly ready to do the important work of hesbon hanefesh, the annual accounting of our lives that the season encourages and even demands. If we ready our taxes on April 15th, we are to ready our souls on the first of Tishrei. Challenging, always! But when it’s still the second week of September it takes extra work and focus.
So importantly, we consider a central metaphor of these Holy days. We pause to survey the credits and debits of the year gone by. The mitzvot performed are weighed against the errors and misdeeds. And we worry that the Divine bank manager on High as it were, may determine that we are in fact in the red and as a result we may not be written in the ledger of Life, for blessing in the year to come? So we pick up the Machzor, our High Holy Day prayer book, engage in a heart to heart talk and promise to turn in repentance and promise to do better and try harder.
We plead our case, but according to our tradition we can do one more thing. We can call upon the merit of the ancestors — Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah and all the others, whose righteousness while maybe not so stellar if we take a close look at some of the biblical stories, are actually viewed by Jewish tradition as exemplary. We ask that we be given some slack for our failings; that we may be written in for blessing in the year to come on their account. This is all because of what our tradition calls Zechut Avot – the merits of our ancestors. We have been granted certain privileges because of the faith and accomplishments of those who have come before us.
The Hebrew phrase zechut avot is a concept central to these sacred days. It plays out by increasing our humility and encouraging us to recognize that much of what we have is due to those on whose shoulders we stand. At this time of year no matter how far we may have strayed, we are under Divine embrace and are welcomed back because of them.
I think of that tonight for a variety of reasons. This year will mark the 160th year of this congregation and as I get ready to turn things over to the next generation of leaders I am keenly aware of the shoulders on which I have stood. That no doubt will be something I reflect on a lot during these days and over the next 10 months.
But I also think about zechut avot because as many of you know as a congregation we spent some time this past year considering the immigrant experience and the privileges that have come our way based on the struggles of those who made the journey to America. Many of us sought to learn more about our make up through MyHeritage, a program of DNA ancestry testing. For some, the pure askenazic expectations revealed a bit of North Africa or Mediterranean roots and several unsuspecting congregants found out that they had a long lost relative right here in our midst. Anne Kirsch, who many of you know, and I found out that in some deep realm of our DNA we are cousins.
And some of us also spent time considering another part of the biological make up of our ancestry and identity. We saw some films, read some books and held a series of conversations on race. Zechut avot may focus on the merit our ancestors provide for us at this time of year when we get some extra credit before God because of their righteousness, but it also might speak to the leg up we have gotten because those ancestors for most of us happened to be white.
And while I’m not a big fan of the term white privilege because I think it fosters too much defensiveness and I know how hard some of our ancestors had to work to make it in this country – I do think we need to be honest with our history and our reality – especially the fact that in main it has been easier to overcome a Jewish sounding name or a Jewish look (whatever that may be) than to overcome one’s skin color.
About 20 years ago, the anthropologist Karen Brodken wrote a book with the provocative title, How Jews Became White People. She looked at the acceptance Jews have received in this country since the post-World War II years and the diminishment of our ethnic separation from the majority culture. The Greatest Generation as it has become known tended to be children of immigrants. They were born into a world in the early part of the last century when anti-Semitism was at its peak. Restrictive immigration laws were first past in 1923 and were designed to keep more people like us from coming in to this country. These folks began their families with the Holocaust and the execution of the Rosenberg’s indelibly etched into their psyches.
According to Brodken’s thesis the Jews of that earlier generation had a unique ethnoracial identity that separated them and kept them apart – either by choice or by prevailing patterns of discrimination. Their children, however, me and those of my generation and our children, have for the most part grown up white middle class suburbanites, unaffected by the barriers and quotas that kept our parents and grandparents out of certain jobs, neighborhoods and universities.
I believe most of us who sit in this or any Reform or Conservative congregation this evening have come to see ourselves as generic American white folks who happen to be of the Jewish religion. And if we agree with that understanding, then we should acknowledge the opportunities that come with it.
That was the challenge laid out for us when Rev. Anthony Bennett, from Mt. Aery Baptist Church spoke here on MLK weekend. But he didn’t want to be our educator. A congregation of mostly white people he implied should not entirely depend on our congregants of color, or on people of color outside the congregation, to educate us. Most of us who are white don’t think about our race and what it means to be white. And, in addition he implied that inter-racial dialogue groups don’t accomplish that much and just make white folks feel better. He suggested we had homework to do.
As example, in post-World War II America, my parents were able to buy a home in an emerging suburb in Westchester County for something like $16K. By the time they retired there was considerable equity in that property. That coupled with their hard work and achievement enabled them to retire comfortably and leave a modest inheritance for their children and grandchildren. A black GI returning from the war did not have that opportunity. Redlining prevented the purchase of a home in many neighborhoods and made it much more difficult to achieve the type of middle or upper middle class life many of us were blessed to be born into. That white privilege had and continues to have a generational impact.
This summer I ran some errands at Home Depot. After I paid at the self-checkout line, and exited the store with purchases, the security alarm at the door sounded. When I turned around to show a clerk my bag, she waved me off, simply saying, “It’s fine go ahead. All good!” But now, imagine my skin were black. Would the clerk’s response have been different? Sometimes white privilege is simply being given the benefit of the doubt. I never had to give my sons a talk about where to place their hands if they were ever stopped by the police.
But there’s something else that I realized about our privilege that has somewhat subtler implications. Earlier this year I happened to be in a race awareness group with Rev. Bennett’s wife, Donna. And she said something to the group that was so very obvious but something I’m embarrassed to say I never twigged into. Much of our self-identity is connected to our ancestry. We like to think of ourselves as Jews, but also connected to some national roots. Czech or French or Polish; for us as well as the Italians or Irish or whatever — our immigrant experience is an important piece of who we say we are.
African Americans for the most part don’t see themselves as immigrants and because of the slave experience, that area of their ancestry is usually unknown. Ibo, Kikuyu, Congolese – it remains unclear. Perhaps it’s changing with those genetic testing samplings, but you get the point she was making. Knowing one’s roots is an important piece of self – understanding and identity and knowing that is part of our privilege.
In a number of sermons over the years, I’ve suggested that Jewish tradition teaches we need not feel guilty for what we have as long as we are mindful of others. So privilege is not about guilt. It is about acknowledging and recognizing that the playing field has not been level and assumptions that we make and experiences we have had are vastly different than those of others – especially people of color. Acknowledging it may be a step – but then it’s important to ask what is it within my power that I can do to work for justice and reconciliation.
Monuments to confederate soldiers erected to glorify and rebrand history began to come down when mayors like Mitch Landrieu and Governors like Nicky Haley began to understand the exclusionary impact that such pedestaled figures held. Landrieu was told the story of a young girl who asked, “Mama, who is that?” “Robert E Lee”, the answer. “Why’s he up there?” “He was a General who led the Confederates in the Civil War?” “What was he fighting for?” “He was fighting to keep people slaves,” the mother replied. “Then why is he up there?” the girl responded.
As controversial as his decision to relocate the monument became, Landrieu wrote, “Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. …This is about choosing a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.”
We may not have the power to exact the level of symbolic change that such an action displayed, but we should not fail the actions that are within our world orbit.
Rabbi David Stern of Dallas urges us, “The God who heard the cry of the oppressed requires us to listen – to narratives of racism, to exposures of white privilege and educational inequities and mythic meritocracies. We do not need to agree with everything we hear, but we need to hear it. And when that hearing produces pain, then we need to feel it. And if that pain motivates us to create a more just and safe society instead of silencing the truths that disturb us, we will know that we have broken through the silence towards hope.”
As a congregation I believe that for a good part of our history we have raised the mantel of social action and tikun olam, especially pertaining to our location here in Bridgeport. But we also have to acknowledge that we moved here 60 years ago when the Jewish community began leaving the city for more room, better schools and safer streets. Thank goodness they did because I’m pretty certain that if we had stayed downtown, this congregation would no longer exist. One of my earlier sermons some 20 years ago included a line that suggested when most of us leave the synagogue tonight we’ll turn right, up Park Avenue away from the city in which we worship. Twenty years later, I note that has not changed.
We have privilege and we have a set of Jewish values built on the fact that God has called us into a partnership to repair a broken world.
As I think back on the past almost three decades I am grateful for what we as a congregation have accomplished in the realm of tikkun olam. The homes we built for Habitat for Humanity; the hundreds of tons of food that we have collected in our Yom Kippur drives; the overwhelming amount of money that we with one simple “ask” raised last year for Puerto Rican storm relief and the advocacy that we as part of being a founding member of CONECT, Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut have done to support new immigrants, better schools and police accountability in the City of Bridgeport.
It is one of the privileges – of this pulpit, as my predecessors Rabbi Sher and Shapiro found out – to be the Jewish voice in Greater Bridgeport when it came to building bridges, forming coalitions and fighting for social justice. You have allowed, encouraged and supported those efforts and I am grateful.
This is the Jewish privilege the zechut and the challenge that our avot, our ancestors understood. From Abraham to Moses from the biblical prophets to the rabbinic voices ancient and modern there has been a recognition that with privilege comes responsibility. I trust and pray that as this congregation moves from strength to strength we never squander that commitment.
 Brodken Karen, How Jews Became White People, Rutgers University Press, 1998
 Landrieu, Mitchell, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, Viking, 2018
 Stern, David, https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-jews-must-live-the-pain-and-healing-of-america-s-racial-rift-1.5408644opinion July 12, 2016