Friday, May 1, 2015

Living in the Hyphen - Confronting Internalized Racism

Parashiyot Achrei Mot (hyphen) Kedoshim
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
May 1, 2015 ~ 13 Iyyar 5775
Temple Shir Tikva

It was an image out of a utopian movie. Children seated in organized rows. Some dressed in traditional African garments. A vast array of what you could see: skin tones, hair color, height - and, of course, a vast array of what you could not see: religion, ability, disability, personality, and socio economics.  Children all singing together: “Jambo, Jambo, Jambo, sana, jambo. Jambo, jambo, jambo watato, jambo.” This was a 1974 song by Ella Jenkins using basic Swahili that meant: “Hello, hello, hello, everybody, hello” sung as part of the yearly celebration focused each year on a different part of the world - this time Africa.

The year before that we dressed in red, white and green and did traditional dances from Mexico. And the year after that, wandering through the halls in kimonos, we practiced the sacred art of a Japanese tea ceremony and the origami folding of a 1000 Cranes.

It was a public school created after the Civil Rights era as a means to bridge racial, ethnic and socio-economic gaps through Fine and Performing Arts and Multicultural exploration.  It was exceptional and it was well before Crayola came out with its box of Multicultural (a.k.a. skin tone colored) crayons. Some children came from the neighborhood where the school was located, of which some were white, hispanic or asian, but many were black. I was actually bussed in, as were many of the other white children from neighborhoods as far as 30 minutes away. It was a reverse commute from what we understand bussing to be today. While I was and sometimes felt in the minority as a Jew, I did not know that I was, nonetheless, actually in the majority because I was white. In fact, while I knew I had white skin, I had no idea what it really meant to be White with a capital W.  Until perhaps 7th or 8th grade while watching the results of the OJ Simpson trial at school during Show Choir.  The Show Choir was the most diverse group in the school - and I could feel the sharpness of divided reactions emerge among kids who had grown up together singing in swahili, playing our orff instruments, and raising our voices with utopian choral music that praised the rainbow of American society.  That’s when I learned I was White with a capital W.

And so today, I share with you the sadness of extremes that exists in the hyphen of our Torah reading calendar. Achrei Mot hyphen Kedoshim. This week is a double portion.  Achrei Mot (After Death) hyphen (-) Kedoshim (Holiness.)

Achrei Mot, after death. Freddie Gray’s death by police brutality, officially deemed murder 
and homicide by Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor.  
A brutal and senseless loss like so many others.
Achrei Mot Freddie Gray.
Achrei Mot Eric Garner.
Achrei Mot Michael Brown.
Achrei Mot Trayvon Martin.
Achrei Mot an endless list.


Kedoshim, holiness.  As Baltimore residents take to the streets, “Not on our watch,” they say.
Kedoshim, holiness. As clergy from around the country, such as members of T’ruah - Rabbis
for Human Rights - flew to St. Louis to join hands with an interfaith community
marching in the streets of Ferguson and this week also in Baltimore.
Kedoshim, holiness. As people called in orders of pizza to feed protesters.
Kedoshim, a little boy hands a police officer water;
Kedoshim, safe houses for teens to come to to talk about the issues under one roof
Kedoshim, blacks and whites cleaning up together after riots.
Kedoshim, holiness. As Baltimore convulsed in protests-turned-to-riots, “Not like this,” said
Freddie Gray’s mom. “I want justice for his death but not like this. 
Don’t tear up the whole city.”
Somehow Achrei Mot, even after Freddie’s tragic death, his mother has found her way beyond the hyphen to Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot hyphen Kedoshim. 
After these deaths, I find myself primarily still in the hyphen for I did not suffer a loss and I did not protest. Of all the kids with whom I grew up, I have one black friend. I have barely any friends who are not Jewish and mostly friends who are rabbis, which is about as homogenous as one can get. I’ve become one of those people who at times will lock the door when I see a man of color approaching late at night.  I could justify that away with our increasing need for caution these days, but I also know the assumptions in my head that are inherently racist.  When I encounter a black person well dressed in a suit and tie or heels, and when I encounter a black person wearing a hoodie. More often than not - I am in the hyphen.

In my family, there are two career paths: serving the Jewish people, which my parents and I love and serving low income, predominantly African American children in public education settings. My sister teaches minutes away from Ferguson. My brother and his wife are building in New Orleans a school modeled on the very school in which we grew up. I’ve always sought a way to merge their work with mine. I’ve chosen this active use of myself tonight, not because I hope you will assuage me of any guilt nor to guilt you; nor do I need reinforcement that, of course, I also reside in the work of Kedusha. I know that. Rather, I use myself, my faults, my internalized racism - as a model and as a call to action for myself and for us all.

Where are you in the hyphen?
Though we share not the same precise streets as Ferguson or Baltimore, would you run into the streets if we did? Well guess what? We actually do. We have those same streets. It cannot go ignored or unsaid just how highly segregated Boston truly is and just how possible those events of Baltimore or Ferguson could easily take place here.

Where are you in the hyphen? In what ways do you have thoughts, fears, and opinions that are known as internalized racism? I ask not because I think if you do these things you are inherently a horrible person but because we all have them within us and we rarely admit it. But how often do you cross the street or lock those doors? Do you refer to a neighborhood as shady - when what you really mean is that black people live there? Do you celebrate gentrification because it means better restaurants and hipper coffee shops? (I’m guilty of that.) Have you ever used language like “the hood”, “that’s ghetto”, “those thugs”? Yes, the Jewish community suffers our problems in how others believe false truths about us, but do we realize how lucky we are not to be suspected of shoplifting, racially profiled, and never in danger when wearing a hooded sweatshirt in the chilled night air?

This past week at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience - I was inspired by Rabbi Susan Talve, a social justice giant in downtown St. Louis, and Aaron Jenkins, the Executive Director of Operation Understanding DC, an organization that brings together black teens and Jewish teens for a year long process of discomfort and exploration of racism and anti-Semitism. They pushed us to consider our assumptions, our internalized racism, and what we can do about it. We do not yet have this particular organization in Boston -  but there is capacity and I think urgency. On Monday, I’m speaking with Operation Understanding’s Founder and St. Louis Jewish community leader, Karen Kalish, to see in what ways our community might push this forward. This project would be for me, both personally and professionally, a way to move beyond the hyphen.

A final teaching:
The order of our parshiyot, our Torah portions, is Achrei Mot Hyphen Kedoshim Emor.
After Death, hyphen, there is Holiness. And then - Emor - Speak.

You do not have to wait until next week when we read Emor - to take action.
Emor, speak up.
Emor, speak up about the internalized racism you find within yourself.
Wonder: what are my assumptions? What assumptions have I taught my children?
What assumptions do I hope to challenge and change?
Emor, speak up when you hear others using the language of racism and otherness.Thug
these days - is tantamount to the 'N word' - sometimes they don’t even know they are
using it. Sometimes they do.
Educate yourself on the issues.
Emor, speak up so as not to further normalize language and behaviors that are clearly not 
working for our world - and that elongate indefinitely that hyphen
that separates us from them.
It is a hyphen that continually reinforces the black community’s unequal status in America.

Rabbi Talve entreats us: "find YOUR Ferguson, find that sleepy suburb that is ready to erupt, and jump in together to save all our children."  

And may we journey together from Achrei Mot hyphen to Kedoshim to Emor - from senseless deaths to communal equality and holiness and to speaking out for justice.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Unbound: the Year of Unraveling - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

Since I'm unable to insert my sermon with proper citations in this setting - check it out on Temple Shir Tikva's website.  Shana tovah!  Jen

Erev Rosh Hashanaha Sermon 5775 - Rabbi Jen Gubitz

Friday, September 26, 2014

Shabbat Shuva: Return to Sender (From 5774)

Shabbat Shuva: Return to Sender
September 6, 2013 ~ 3 Tishrei 5774
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

Turning the key, with a creak the mailbox opened.  Thumbing through the pile she found another packet from AdSense with unusable coupons unless you plan to redo your house every month; a charitable foundation’s solicitation with more return address labels; another’s solicitation that was an exact replica of the form email they’d sent her 10 times that week; an excise tax bill from the town; and an envelope so dog eared and tattered it looked like it had traveled through decades. And in big bold sharpie-black letters across the front: Return to Sender, Address Unknown.

You can probably already predict this extended metaphor: for we are in that period of Jewish time when the postal service to the divine needs to add Sundays to its delivery schedule, needs to hire extra elves (wrong holiday), needs to hire extra messengers (perhaps angels), to support all the influx of pieces arriving in the mailbox on High.

And so we must ask ourselves: To whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?
Prescribed to us by the month of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im, these days of Awe, we engage now in a reflection of our inner Rolodex - organizing, optimizing not the actual cards but the relationships represented by each.
We read and re-read, we write and re-write, letters to our loved ones, letters to the universe, letters to God…

So to whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?

In a stationary store, it’s as though there is a card for every occasion…
Thank you!  Happy Birthday! New Baby! Mazel tov on your Wedding! Condolences on your loss.

But it is rare to see a card that says in a non-cheekish, non-hipster, or non-sarcastic way, “I’m sorry… “I regret when I… “Forgive me… or “I forgive you…

While the industry may one day catch on to this opportune business endeavor, sans stationary -

To whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?

Our body clocks are attuned to the Jewish calendar and there are people in our lives who are waiting to hear from us. Don’t send them a form letter. Don’t send them an automatic email response. Or a printed holiday greeting.  

That’s not enough.

And so too are the Gates on High waiting to hear from you.  What will you say and how will you say it? And how does the Divine open each letter? And how does the Divine consider its contents, giving each its due time?  

But wait, before you head to the mailbox, there’s one more person waiting to hear from you.

What will you say to yourself? And how will you say it? How will you consider the contents of your letter? How will you give yourself your due time?

[An aside: you can give yourself that due time on a website called, which invites you to reflect on 10 personal questions. After locking it, it will allow you to return to your answers in 5776.]

On this Shabbat Shuva, and in these days of return, may your hand tire
from all the letters that will transpire as you seek to build and rebuild, write and rewrite, and I pray, read and re-read all the soul correspondence you send and receive...

So to whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?

O source of this New Year, 5775, we pray that our messages be worthy of your merit. We seek to address you in your holy dwelling place so we may return and return to sender, return and return to ourselves - again and again, a Forever Stamp embossed on our souls.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

There shall be no needy... Parashat Re'eh Flasback - 5773

There shall be no needy... Parashat Re’eh
August 2, 2013 ~ 26 Av 5773
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

We ran bags of winter coats down broadway, hung them on the racks,
turned our backs, and within 10 minutes they were gone.

It was freezing in New York City that winter. Filenes Basement, may its memory be a blessing, was going out of business. The flagship store in Union Square had rows and rows of racks and racks stocked with discounted winter wear: coats, hats, scarves, gloves.

We had 45 minutes, a huge store credit to spend, and the HUC Soup Kitchen’s clothing rack awaiting our purchase a mere 10 blocks away.

As I marched around that winter in my tundra-looks-like-a-sleeping-bag- down winter coat, multiple options for hat and scarf to suit my daily outfit
or mood, warm gloves, usually a hot cup of coffee in tow - I knew that the winter wear we were purchasing was not as insulated, not as aesthetically pleasing, not as comfortable, not as nice - and simply not as warm - as I felt each day out in the cold.

I also knew that the amount of time I wore a winter coat to protect me from
the gray, harsh, turn-your-lips-blue cold was far less time than those
whose homes or lack of homes were always cooled by the gray, harsh, turn-your-lips-blue cold.

So when we ran bags of winter coats down Broadway (we took a cab), hung them on the racks, turned our backs, and within 10 minutes they were gone - and it was freezing in New York City that winter - I felt guilty in my tundra-looks-like-a-sleeping-bag- down winter coat.

As we headed back toward the subway, I said to my sister: Why did we even bother? We bought 20 coats, but there were 40 people who needed coats. Did we really help anyone if we didn’t help them all?

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, draws our eyesight to a great deal of teachings.  Literally “Re’eh” it compels us - “See, notice, focus!” Focus on our pilgrimage festivals; notice our human capacity to choose between blessing and curse; pay heed to the need to find central locations for worship; and notice, engrain in your minds eye, the laws of kashrut, the sabbatical year, how to treat slaves, and a prohibition from worshiping other gods.

Each teaching a sermon in itself, there is one quick sentence halfway through most compelling.

“There shall be no needy among you...” Parashat Re’eh teaches us.
Efes ki lo yi’hiei b’cha ev’yon.

“There shall be no needy among you — since God will bless you in the land that God is giving you as a hereditary portion...For Adonai your God will bless you as promised: [and] you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself.”  (Deut. 15:4-6)

When the text says “no needy among you” it means no needy Jews, but we know that’s not true. Even if its not always apparent to us, we know there are Jews in need.

The text continues, and I paraphrase: When you encounter another in need, “You must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs...Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so....For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

This imperative to help the needy among us exists throughout the Torah
not just here, but this time its harder to hear.  This time, Torah suggests,
that no matter what you do to help there will always be needy ones in your land.

It’s exhausting, debilitating even, to think of all the people in need among us.  To think of all the systems our country has in place, all the mitzvot and tikkun olam projects communities like ours have in place, all the teens, all the families, working hours to collect goods, to serve food, to house the homeless, to feed the hungry. It’s exhausting to know that
with all of our effort there will still be needy among us.

But it’s a first world problem to be exhausted and upset by all the need in the world. It’s far more exhausting to be the mother trying to feed her children, to be the father trying to keep a roof over their heads.  It’s far more exhausting to find work that pays a living wage. And it’s far more exhausting to navigate the many systems created to help the needy among us.

And while many have their critique about why people are ‘needy’ in the first place, the bottom line is that from the beginning of time there have been needy among us.  And till the end of time we are obligated to help them.
And while some of that help is direct service - like raising money, goods, or serving food - much more of the work we need to do deals with attacking root causes. The work of: repairing global hunger while also feeding the globally hungry; creating systems of equitable education while also teaching youth already in the broken system.  

As we headed back toward the subway, I said to my sister: “Why did we even bother? We bought 20 coats, but there were 40 people who needed coats?.  Did we really help anyone, if we didn’t help them all?

Also an aficionado of summer camp music, many songs of whose lyrics
come from Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of Our Fathers, she responded thoughtfully. “You know that song? Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor/It’s not your responsibility to complete the work...”

I nodded yes as the train whizzed us back to Brooklyn.

“Well,” she continued, “it concludes like this: Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor/V'lo ata ben chorin l'hibatil mimena.  It’s not your responsibility to complete the work, Jen...but neither are you free to desist from doing it.”

Little sisters can be very wise.

The Torah teaches us that even though there will probably always be needy among us, and even though 20 winter coats are never enough for 40 cold people, and a truckload of food collected at the high holidays is never enough for two truckloads of hungry people - even though there will always be needy among us and both root causes and immediate causes for which to respond - even though it may not be our responsibility to complete the task, we must remind ourselves when we notice all the need around us, that as overwhelming as it may be, and so much easier to avert our gaze...

Re’eh, we must see it, we must notice it, we can never desist from it, we can never refrain from it. V'lo ata ben chorin l'hibatil mimena - Re’eh! We are never free to look the other way.

To donate to Hebrew Union College's Soup Kitchen, among many worthy causes - click here.