Growing up, I heard the idea that God lives in a big round room with many doors and that each of those doors were religions, ways that we as humans taught ourselves how to live in a way that honored each other and helped us understand having a relationship with a higher power.
My door is Christianity, with all of its essential teachings and all of its flaws — misinterpretations in the hands of those who misunderstand and dishonor it.
This understanding has helped me embrace and learn so much from other religions and belief systems and Judaism has been hugely important to my family and I. My sister learned the Hebrew alphabet before the English one and I remember my father’s art, ceramic sculptures engraved with Hebrew writing, all around the house. To me, growing up with Jewish teachings and tapes of songs to celebrate the high holidays was just a part of life. A few years ago, in a joint Seder with Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills, New York and Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, I found myself laughing with the Rabbi as I sang along, surprised to find myself knowing the words to some of the songs.
Over the years, I’ve joined many churches and left others, either because they didn’t fit my lifestyle or because there were beliefs and practices with which I could not agree. I have found some de-churched communities, as we called ourselves, and in one such community we practiced a Friday to Saturday Shabbat and it brought such a calming routine into my life to understand that the rest is a part of the process. Like music, there would be no rhythm without the rest. This lesson and that community has, as Eckhardt Tolle would say, “miraculously transformed” my life.
Growing up, I was taught about Black and Jewish joint activism. Knowing that Jewish activists have always been essential to social justice and civil rights movements had a huge impact on my understanding of what it means to be in community with others. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is one of my favorite voices on the importance of outrage and the images of him marching next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are the images I grew up with that represented to me what true community looks like.
This week I am outraged and I am mourning. I can’t write this without tears streaming down my face. I listened to the New York Times’ The Daily on October 29th and 30th and felt debilitated and frightened. As they put it: the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is one of the most violent attacks on the Jewish community on American soil in decades. It is all too similar to the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. These were attacks targeting specific groups of believers, Black and Jewish believers. It is also one of many instances in the last few years that point to a rise in anti-Semitism in our country. That is the name of the hate.
I struggle to understand if the hate is real or if it is fear and weakness grasping for something to hold onto, someone to blame. I want to think that the hate that brings young people out to Charlottesville, burning torches and yelling “Jews won’t replace us” is not real hate, that it is hate that would crumble when tested. As if that is somehow better, as if a hate with less conviction is less dangerous. I see what I am doing: trying to explain away the hate as a mob mentality, as if that makes it less dangerous. As if I am not aware that mobs lynch, just as individuals massacre.
I am afraid of the hate and I find myself trying to understand this psyche and wondering if it is an easy way to hate, and that’s why it’s happening. I struggle with the idea that it might be real, real hate. Yet, as I struggle, this massacre points to the truth, that it is. It is hate. Hate that will cut short the lives of people with so many life lessons to share, so many years of experience to pass on, lives focused on community, connection, goodwill.
As if simply existing each day is not hard enough for each of us.
I am not Jewish myself, did not grow up in a Jewish community and have not spent years dedicated to studying these texts, so I am aware that my understandings of certain teachings will always be surface level. However controversial, this teaching Tikkun Olam has become a familiar and important one to me. It is most often interpreted contemporarily as a Jewish responsibility for “repairing the world.” These days that meaning is extended to mean very tangible ways of repairing the world, like helping with hurricane relief. I’m aware that some argue that it has been misconstrued and taken out of context to be used in this way by those who want to use it to justify their specific causes, something we’ve seen happen with religious teachings across all religions. Yet, I like the modern interpretation, I think the text should progress with the times. And so, I still find Tikkun Olam to be a helpful reminder to me that the work of peace is our duty.
I talk often about how I struggle with the word ally, because I want a more perfect word. A word that says this is our duty, a word that says that the struggle at hand affects us as much as it affects others fighting beside us for justice, even if the attack is less direct. And it is a fight. I am reminded every day now of just how hard-won freedom is and just how much we must fight to maintain our freedoms. I often use the word co-conspirator in lieu of ally, it feels more committed. And I refer to the quote from Lilla Watson, an indigenous Aboriginal activist, to explain that preference:
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
It is my duty to mourn, to speak out, to be outraged in response to the killings of our Jewish brothers and sisters. It is our duty to mourn because our community has been attacked, and I define that our in community as humanity. It is our duty to speak up against hate, wherever it rears its ugly head.
As a black woman in America, as an activist, as a sister and a granddaughter and a friend, as a child and a neighbor, as someone who believes in service, it is my duty — despite the news cycle, despite what new horror is being unleashed via tweets and press conferences from the white house, despite cat videos and new baby pictures — it is my duty to remind others that I will stand next to you and fight for your freedom of identity, of religion, your freedom to worship, to express your culture and that I will fight for your right to safety.