To Heal Our Trauma We Must Get Proximate
Reflections on travel with the Phoenix Black-Jewish Cohort
A flame burns in the Hall of Remembrance, a circular reflection room of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is a quiet flame, a solemn flame. The benches are cool to the touch, and the walls are curved, bowing with the heft of human emotion. This room bears heavy grief. Every sound follows the three floors of gut-wrenching images reverberate in the center of this sacred space.
There, above the flame, are inscribed these words of Torah:
Guard yourself and guard your soul carefully,
lest you forget the things your eyes saw,
and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life.
You shall make them known to your children, and your children’s children. (Deut. 4:9)
As Jews, we visit this museum to remember. We see the replica of the crematorium and we know the tragedy of our collective memory. We force ourselves to walk through the cattle car so that we will not forget what it feels like to touch the open wound of trauma. The flame of the reflection room burns like a yartzeit candle, because for us, this museum is like a cemetery. In the brittle leather of aging shoes, we see the imprint of our relatives. And in the eyes of portraits hanging on the walls, we see ourselves.
This past Friday, I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. It was not my first visit, but this visit was different. Before this day, I had always toured the museum with other Jews. But this time, I was with a group of new friends — the Phoenix Black-Jewish Cohort.
This is a group that formed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Paul Rockower, Executive Director of the Phoenix Jewish Community Relations Council explained that the vision was — and is — to bring together young Black and Jewish leaders in the Phoenix community. And together we determined our goal was — and is — to simply know each other. To have each other saved in our phones and to be close enough and comfortable enough to ask our toughest questions. The goal is simple: to build relationships that are deep enough and authentic enough that our outreach to one another is not just symbolic, but true.
Lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson calls this ‘getting proximate.’ And he believes that this is how we begin to change the world. By being in proximity to those who are excluded, those who are marginalized, and those who are suffering, we change the narrative from a story about ‘someone’ to a story about someone we love. When we hear each other’s stories, when we spend time together, when we stand together in our vulnerable moments, we learn how to ease each other’s pain. Stevenson writes, “There is power when we get proximate, and only then can we have mercy and compassion.”
I wonder if Stevenson is familiar with the old Hasidic story about the nature of love between two friends.
“Tell me, dear friend, do you love me?”
“I love you deeply,” the friend replies.
“Do you know then, my friend, what gives me pain?”
“How can I know what gives you pain?” the other asks.
“If you don’t know what gives me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?”
Understand then, the sages teach, that to love — truly to love — means to know what brings pain to your fellow human being.
Our Cohort is made up of eight people: four from the Jewish community and four from the Black community. We began meeting over zoom, and we only just met each other in person for the first time a few months ago. Since then, we have sought out shared experiences. We have toured the Phoenix Black History Month murals, enjoyed shabbat dinner, heard presentations from Jewish Free Loan and UPI Loan Fund — (Jewish Free Loan’s counterpart in the African American community), and we even ate hamantaschen together while wearing masks and silly hats for Purim. But the idea of traveling together felt new, and risky, and a little uncomfortable, and very exciting. With a generous Civic Incubation Grant from Jewish Federations of North America, we were able to make this trip a reality.
After our tour of the Holocaust museum we huddled together in a circle. From the sanitized online space of Zoom to this bare and brutal walk through the ugliest chapter of Jewish history, we felt the power of proximity. I led our group in the mourner’s kaddish.
“This prayer is both an acknowledgement of memory and also an appreciation of life” I explained. “It is not only an expression of sadness, but also an affirmation that life is for the living.”
Only the Jewish members of our group said the prayer, but together we all said amen.
Amen. From the Hebrew verb l’ha’amin — which means ‘to agree.’
Amen means ‘I support you,’ or even, ‘I believe this is true.’
Amen itself is a prayer that we can say together, a prayer we share in proximity.
This one word is like an outstretched hand.
Amen is an offering.
The next morning, we set out for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We were bleary eyed from staying up too late talking about our experience the day before. The rectangular bronze lattice-like building stands in juxtaposition to the tall, narrow walls of the Washington monument. In the context of our trip, the history speaks for itself: the monument was built in the 1800s, in large part by enslaved Africans. It honors our first president, who himself owned hundreds of slaves in his lifetime. Just the placement of the African American history Museum asks visitors to notice the complicated beginnings of our country. Before even stepping through the doors, we examine our personal relationship to slavery, freedom, and the journey from one to the other.
Our group entered the museum. A glass elevator serves as a time machine, bringing visitors back to the 1400s. The museum was so packed it was hard for our group to stay together, so I experienced the story on my own. On the bottom floor of the museum, through narrow passageways and low ceilings, I stood at the helm of a reconstructed slave ship. I peeked inside a slave cabin that stood on Edisto Island in South Carolina. I read story after story of brutality, and yet as we made our way up from the bottom floor of the museum and forward through the timeline of African American history, there was also hope, and progress, and affirmations of humanity that took far too long to honor.
I walked through the ‘colored’ section of a railway car and sat at an interactive replica of a lunch counter. I took a few extra moments to stand quietly before the casket that once held the body of Emmett Till. I took in the story of the 14-year-old boy who was brutally lynched by men who believed he whistled at a white woman in a grocery store. I took in the photograph of his mother’s face as she buried who her son who was still a child, still her child, and words of kaddish flowed through me once again.
As the museum winds upwards, the floors are brighter, and lighter. The top floor of the museum feels — almost — like a celebration. It highlights the accomplishments of the African American community, displaying contributions to music and sports and television and science. Large windows offer views of the national mall. Reunited with my group, we were aware of the proud power of the present, in view of a powerful, and complicated past.
Just minutes after standing alone before Emmet Till’s casket, Blacks and Jews stood together before a glass case holding Trayvon Martin’s bullet-riddled hoodie. There were his shoes, and the bag of skittles that he bought just moments before his death. I felt it there, again, in the sacred space between us: the open wound that trauma leaves behind.
How can we say we love our neighbor unless we know what causes their pain?
Amen, friends. We support you.
Amen. We stand with you in the brutal honesty of this moment.
At dinner that night, my colleague, Pastor Warren Stewart Jr explained:
“All that history reminds me: I’m a survivor. All that trauma, and I’m here.” Amen. We all agreed. All of us around this table: We are here because of the grit, the perseverance, and the luck of both the survivors who came before us, and the survivors who are us.
And then our phones pinged with a news notification — 10 people shot in a Buffalo supermarket. Killed because they were Black. And our hearts that had just begun to heal shattered again, ten times over.
This news hurt in a new and specific way.
It hurt because I could see the suffering in the eyes of my friends in real time, and I hope that they could see the love in mine. Proximity is painful: and it drives us towards compassion.
This is why we have these hard conversations.
This is why we have shlepped the extra few miles to pray our most important, most sacred holy day prayers at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.
And this is why we will plan two trips to Israel in the span of four months this year, so that we can share one of them with an important part of the Phoenix Black community.
Because loving each other means growing together.
It means being there, feeling the heft of human emotion, together.
Before we left the Museum of African American History and Culture, the Phoenix Black-Jewish Cohort stood together in the Contemplative Court. Like the Hall of Remembrance in the Holocaust Museum, this room is circular, with benches and curved walls. From the oculus overhead, water rushes down like a pillar of rain. And on the wall are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and our prophet Amos:
“We are determined… to work and fight until justice rains down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
As Jews, we visit this museum to remember: it is not our duty to complete the work of justice and compassion. But neither are we free to desist from it.
As Jews, we see the bullet holes in Trayvon Martin’s sweatshirt, and we make the pain of the African American narrative a part of our collective memory.
As Jews, we visit this museum to bear witness:
lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life.
I am reminded of the Israelites, leaving the narrowness of Egypt. Entering this promising wilderness, they were warmed each night by a pillar of fire and cooled each day by a misty pillar of cloud.
This is the hard work of memory, of contemplation and reflection.
We burn with a fiery hope for justice and thunderous drive for peace.
We are torches: lighting the way by listening. And we are rivers: rushing to bear witness.
Let my fire be proximate to your water, for this is how we will change the world.
Together we are two powerful pillars: guarding each other on our shared path to freedom.
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, 5.20.22
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale AZ