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“Black Lives Matter”: My Talk at an African American Church

I still recall the time many years ago when I told my children, now grown and with children of their own, about the story of one of the Jewish holidays.  It might have been Passover, or it could have been Chanukah or Purim, or some other holiday.  I explained to them that there were bad people who tried to kill the Jewish people, but that fortunately they did not succeed.


One of them asked me a simple question.  My child, sitting in my lap, looked up at me and asked with those big innocent eyes all children seem to have, and said just one word, “why?” meaning, “Why did they want to kill us?”


I was at a loss for words.  I didn’t know what to say.  My voice choked and I had tears in my eyes, because I did not have an answer to her question.


I thought about the history of the Jewish people, about what we had done to make the world a better place, of all the Jews who had made so many important contributions in so many fields and helped improve society in whatever country they lived – and of how the world had treated us in return.  We never asked for anything other than to be able to live in peace, to be able to practice our religion and preserve and pass on our traditions.


I thought about what it was that I was passing on to my children, what they were inheriting, about the glory of our accomplishments, but also about how the history of those who had tried to hurt and destroy our people, how much cruelty we had endured, how much suffering we have known, and how senseless this hatred is.


Just as there is no justification for racism, bigotry or prejudice, there is no way to explain why anti-Semitism exists.


While I was not able to explain why this was our fate and destiny, I want you to know – It is precisely because of that experience, an experience that has followed us and persisted throughout history that I stand here today.


It is because of that experience, of knowing what it is like to be an outsider that I am here today.


It is because of that experience, of persecution that I identify with the persecuted, with those who are singled out and discriminated against.


It is why Jews have always been in the vanguard of the effort to ensure that all people deserve to be treated equally and why we have historically been allies marching together for civil rights.


Our Bible and our sages teach us that every single person is created “B’tzelem Elohim: in the image of God.”  The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that whoever saves a single life saves an entire world – or to put it in terms we can understand today – It teaches us that lives matter, that all lives matter, and yes, that black lives, especially black lives matter.


I come here today on a Jewish holiday, Tisha B’Av.  Last night we sat on the floor in our synagogue in a darkened chapel illuminated just by candlelight and read from Scriptures about the tragedies that have befallen us on this day.  It is the saddest day of the year because we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and the loss of our independence in the land of Israel.  From that time in the year 70 until 1948, 2,000 years later, we were in exile and the land of Israel was ruled by outsiders who invaded and conquered the country until we returned and regained our independence.


And still every day, the tiny state of Israel, a country of only 8 million people, the size of the state of New Jersey must fight for its existence.


Like many of you I have watched the Olympics and shared in the pride of the victories of our athletes.  One of the most inspiring aspects of the Olympics is to see the intense rigor of competition coupled with respect for one’s opponents.


But when the Israeli Judo player Ori Sasson defeated Islam el Shababy from Egypt, in violation of the rules of conduct and of the sport, the Egyptian refused to shake the extended hand of the Israeli.  And that is a country that is supposed to have relations with Israel, because the two countries signed a peace treaty!


Or Joud Fahmy of Saudi Arabia preferred to forfeit her judo match and give up her dream of competing in the Olympics so she wouldn’t have to face an Israeli athlete in the following round.


This is typical of the treatment Israelis must deal with each and every day.


Worst of all was the Lebanese team who refused to ride together with the Israeli team on the bus to the opening ceremony.  The Lebanese actually blocked the Israeli team from getting on the bus and said they wouldn’t ride with them.


So I am here to tell you, that we Jews know what it is like and what it means to be denied a seat on the bus!


And just as we have ridden together on the freedom rides throughout the south, just as we have fought together against forces of discrimination, let us ride together and stand up together against bigotry, against prejudice, against racism, against anti-Semitism and against those who single out and discriminate against you and me, against the people of Israel and against people of color.


We will stand together today and forever, for we are all God’s children, created in the image of God.

Also published on Medium.


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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.