Rend Your Hearts: Confronting Racism in America

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Rosh Hashanah 5780 | September 30, 2019 – 1 Tishrei 5780

The Gadsden Daily Times-News, in its afternoon edition, on Tuesday, September 30, 1919, ran a story above the fold. The headline read Three Negroes are lynched in Montgomery. The three black men were Miles Phifer, Robert Crosky, and Will Temple. The Alabama newspaper reported that Miles Phifer and Robert Crosky were accused of attacking white women. Will Temple was accused of fatally wounding a police officer. Miles Phifer and Robert Crosky were lynched on September 29, 1919, one hundred years ago yesterday. Will Temple was lynched on September 30, 1919, one hundred years ago today. The newspaper article claimed that Phifer and Crosky had confessed to their alleged crimes, but history proves that such confessions were often forced upon African Americans.[1]

According to a piece published last year in the Montgomery Advertiser in a series titled Legacy of lynchings:  America’s shameful history of racial terror, here’s what really happened:  “On September 29, 1919, a Montgomery mob kidnapped Miles Phifer and Robert Crosky as they were being transported to jail over allegations they assaulted two white women in separate incidents. The masked group drove the two men – both veterans – to some woods near Hughes Ferry Road, and told them to run. They then shot them multiple times. Phifer, reported to be wearing a U.S. Army uniform, was killed on the spot. Crosky later died at a hospital. Early the next morning, a band of white men broke into a Montgomery hospital where Will Temple, accused of killing a Montgomery police officer, was being treated for a head wound. The mob overpowered two policemen on duty, then shot Temple to death in his hospital ward.”[2]

Newspapers at the time, “denigrated victims while wallowing in racial stereotypes.”[3] Worse, perhaps, than how the Gadsden newspaper covered the lynchings of these three black men, was how the Montgomery Advertiser covered the story on October 1, 1919:  “All right-thinking people deplore lynchings, but it wise to utter a solemn truth, with the old, old lesson brought home again, as long as there are attempts at rape by black men, red men or yellow men on white women there will be lynchings. Lynchings will end in America when there are no longer attempts at assault. A volume of moralizing will not affect this primal, immovable fact.”[4]

Let me say their names again:  Miles Phifer. Robert Crosky. Will Temple. Three black men lynched one hundred years ago today. Three black men from among well over 4,000 racially motivated lynchings between 1877 and 1950.[5] I say their names today and tell this little bit of their stories, because this day of Rosh Hashanah is their yahrzeit, the 100th anniversary of their deaths. Zichronam livracha, may their memories be a blessing.

The legacy of lynchings in America demonstrates that racism in America didn’t end when slavery was abolished. It didn’t end with the end of segregation. It didn’t end with the Civil Rights Act. Racism in America is alive and well today. Last month, I made a pilgrimage with nearly 50 colleagues to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama to confront America’s racism and what I learned overwhelmed me. I have long thought that racism is one of the most pressing issues facing our country, but I underestimated the impact that visiting the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and hearing the truths of black Americans would have on me.

In 1808, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished by Congress, but the invention of the cotton gin two decades earlier created a demand for slave labor. As a result, the domestic slave trade began from the upper south to the lower south as well as from New York and Philadelphia. By the time Congress had abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery was already permanent, hereditary, and justified by legal, political, religious, and scientific organizations. While my pilgrimage to Alabama focused on issues of race in the south, there was a constant reminder that northern communities were not immune and still aren’t today. By 1860, 4 million black people were enslaved in America. Montgomery, Alabama was the heart of the domestic slave trade and today, the Legacy Museum:  From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is housed in the former warehouse and slave pens. Painted on a brick wall as you enter the space, these words stare you down:  “You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused.”

“The enslavement of black people in the United States created wealth, opportunity and prosperity for millions of white Americans.”[6] How many of you, by show of hands, know that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in this country? That’s what I thought I knew, too. I was embarrassed not to know the full text of the 13th Amendment:  “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except as punishment for crime. The Legacy Museum asks, “Should slavery be completely abolished in the United States?” Adelbert Ames, Governor of Mississippi in 1875 said, “They are to be returned to a condition of serfdom, an era of second slavery.” Through convict leasing, African Americans were arrested, branded criminals, charged with false crimes, fined, sold to private interests, and then re-enslaved as prisoners. By 1878, 73% of Alabama’s revenue came from convict leasing.

The legal end of slavery did nothing to address the narrative of racial hierarchy that sustained enslavement. The reality in America is that mass incarceration has replaced slavery. A presumption of guilt and dangerousness is assigned to African Americans. Half of the people in prison are there on drug offenses. Two-thirds of them are people of color. “President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, explained that the war on drugs was fueled by a desire to criminalize black people.”[7] In the 21st century, 1 in 3 black baby boys can be expected to go to prison unless we change something.

“The most insidious tool of racial discrimination throughout the era of racial terror and its aftermath, the criminal justice system remains the institution in America least impacted by the Civil Rights Movement, and the system’s endorsement of racially biased narratives has never been meaningfully confronted. Understanding how today’s criminal justice crisis is rooted in our country’s history of racial injustice requires truthfully facing that history and its legacy.”[8] Thousands have been wrongly convicted. Mass incarceration and voter intimidation are the new Jim Crow.

The title given to my rabbinic pilgrimage to Alabama was Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation. In Hebrew, these words are emet, tzedek, and t’shuvah v’shalom. We can’t have reconciliation without truth and justice. In the Talmud the Sages note that the Hebrew word for falsehood, sheker, is comprised of letters that appear beside each other in the Hebrew alphabet, but that the Hebrew word for truth, emet, contains letters spread out through the alphabet, notably at its beginning, middle, and end. Why is this the case? Because falsehood is easy to find. It clusters together. Truth, on the other hand, is only found with great difficulty. We have to work to find it.[9] Throughout the pilgrimage I was confronted with the truths of racism. As I moved through the Legacy Museum, I found myself alongside a grandmother and her grandson, who is about my son Zak’s age. At first, I was shocked. I’d never consider taking my almost 4-year-old to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I’d never take him, at this age, to Yad Vashem in Israel. But I quickly realized that the Legacy Museum is not a story of the past. It is a story of the present, one which her 3-year-old black grandson needs to know.

We asked three black pastors in Montgomery, Rev. Dr. Agnes Lover, Pastor Edward Nettles, and Pastor Richard Williams, what truths they wanted us to confront on our pilgrimage. Rev. Dr. Lover called us to understand the reasons and rationale for the lynchings and how minor they were. She called us to look for the common threads for why people target us – black and Jews – and see what we have in common. Then, we, as Jews, can begin to empathize. Pastor Nettles cautioned us not to allow our white complexion to let us blend in. “You look like the man,” he said. “I don’t know who you are until you speak out.” He called us to be vessels of good use, which whether he knew it or not, is exactly what our tradition calls us to be, k’lei kodesh, holy vessels of God’s light.

Pastor Williams responded by asking us a question:  What has been your individual role in racism? “I don’t have one,” he said, “is not an answer. Has your role been silence? You may have RSVP’d, but people are still waiting for you to show up.” At this point, Rev. Dr. Lover chimed in again:  “We need to know you’re invested. Is this just another notch in your belt or are you serious? When you’re in harm’s way, are you still going to be loyal to the cause?” I know this congregation. I know that we are committed to tikkun olam, the repair of our world, both in our congregational life and in our personal lives. We are good people who believe in making the world a better place. But I think, all too often, we’ve RSVP’d and people are still waiting for us to show up. When it comes to dismantling systemic racism in our country, people of color need us. Their lives hang in the balance. This morning what I want to know is will you show up?

One of the things that shocked me the most on the trip was how deeply systemic racism is ingrained in our lives, far beyond what most of us even realize. In the Talmud, the rabbis consider a verse from Jonah, the Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, that reads, “And let them turn, each from their evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8). They ask what is the meaning of this phrase, “the violence that is in their hands.” Shmuel says, “Even if one stole a beam and built it into a palace, he must tear down the entire building and return it to its owner.[10] Elsewhere, Hillel and Shammai debate this. They wonder how one would go about returning the beam to its owner. Shammai says that the palace must be torn down and the beam returned. Hillel says that you pay the person the value of the beam.[11] The value of the beam, though, has changed now that it is part of the palace. The same piece of steel used to make a Maserati or a Hyundai has different value depending upon the car of which it becomes a part. Either way, restitution must be made. The oppression of African Americans in America is not a beam in the palace of our nation. It is the entire foundation.

One definition of the word ‘racist’ is anyone who has benefited from racism. So, then, are you a racist? Have you benefited from racism? For those of us with light skin, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” If this doesn’t sit well with you, ask yourself what you are doing with the anti-racist wisdom you hold while you are standing immersed in systemic racism. Those of us with privilege or benefit need to use it to get us into the places we need to be to dismantle racism. I imagine that this doesn’t sit well with some of you, your rabbi telling you that you may be a racist, but if we are to solve the problem of racism in America, we have to confront this truth about ourselves.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo coined the phrase ‘white fragility’ and defines it as a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These are the rules of those who succumb to white fragility: 

  1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.
  2. If you break Rule #1, proper tone is crucial. If you are at all emotional, the feedback is invalid and does not have to be considered.
  3. There must be trust between us—namely, you must trust that I am in no way racist before we can talk about race. And you must focus on my intentions, which cancel out the impact of my behaviors.
  4. You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. And you must be indirect. Otherwise, the feedback is invalid because I am embarrassed.
  5. As a white person, I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Point of clarification:  When I say “safe,’ what I really mean is “comfortable.”
  6. Focusing on my racial privilege invalidates the form(s) of oppression that I experience (i.e., classism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism). We will then need to focus on how you oppressed me.
  7. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You must allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

At this time of year, especially, we have to confront our shortcomings and our self-delusion. I ask again, are you a racist? Do you suffer from white fragility? Now is the time to confront those flaws in our character.

The prophet Joel declares, “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joe. 2:13). What does it mean to rend our hearts? Our hearts should be breaking about racism. If they are not, we have to open them up. When we pound on our chests during Ashamnu, Bagadnu, don’t think of it as beating on your heart with your fist. Rather, think of it as knocking on the door of your heart, begging it to open up. We have to be the opposite of Pharaoh who hardened his heart in the face of our plight. We must rip our hearts open.

In Selma, Alabama, I gathered with colleagues on the steps of Brown Chapel AME, which became the home of the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t where the movement began, but it became the center of it. We met there with Joanne Bland who was 11 years old on Bloody Sunday, whose sister was the youngest marcher from Selma to Montgomery, turning 15 on the march. By the time Joanne was 11, she had been arrested a documented 13 times in civil rights protests. The first time, when she was 8 years old, she was trying to help black Americans register to vote. She is the youngest person jailed in the Civil Rights Movement. Joanne implored us to say black lives matter. “Don’t say,” she demanded, “all lives matter,” because this isn’t true. ‘Black lives matter’ is a call for black lives to matter. All lives should matter, but black lives don’t, not in the America in which we live.

When Joanne was a young girl, her mother died and her grandmother moved back to Selma from a northern community to help raise her. Her grandmother was horrified to see that Jim Crow was still alive and well where her children and grandchildren were living. Joanne thought she was free, but when she wanted an ice cream at the counter of a local soda fountain and couldn’t have it, because that counter was for whites only, her grandmother told her, “When we have freedom, you can sit there and have ice cream.” Now, Joanne understood the idea of freedom! But while she can sit at just about any lunch counter and have an ice cream, Joanne knows, and now I know, that she still isn’t free, not until we learn to change how this country treats people of color.

Let’s turn for a moment to the text of this morning’s Torah reading, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. “For more than 200 years, African Americans have identified with Hagar:  the African slave, the woman pressed to bear the child of her master, cast out at the end of slavery with nothing, but somehow expected to raise the child on her own – a woman of faith, where God is in ways coopted by the oppressors, but a God who is nonetheless invested in her survival, making a way out of no way.”[12]

Radak, the 12th and 13th century medieval rabbi and commentator examines this scene. “Sarah did too much to [Hagar] and worked her ruthlessly, and it is possible that she hit her and cursed her until she could not endure it and Hagar fled from before her. Sarah displayed in this neither the quality of morality nor the quality of piety. Not morality because even though Abraham gave up his honor for her and said to her, “Do what is right in your eyes,” she should have restrained herself for his honor and should not have tortured [Hagar]. Neither piety nor compassion – for a person should not do whatever is in their power to those who are subject to their authority… This whole story was written in the Torah to teach people good qualities and to distance them from bad qualities.” What will we learn from Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion into the wilderness this year? We will again be like Abraham and Sarah, not utilizing their power to help the oppressed or, worse, using it to oppress them further? Or will we get it right this time?

The work of racial justice is not just about other peoples and other communities and what they need from us, the Jewish community. When Rabbi Jonah Pesner became the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, our movement’s political influence in Washington, DC, it was at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, on the heels of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The Black Lives Matter platform had anti-Israel sentiments and white Jews called on our movement not to participate. Jews of color, however, demanded a meeting with Rabbi Pesner. They asked him, “If members of your family were lying injured and dying in the street, you’d run to help them, right? Well, we, as Jews of color, are lying injured and dying in the street and you’re not running to us.” This isn’t only about black Americans. This is also about black Jews and Jews of color. This is about children adopted into families in this very congregation who will be the target of racism. There are one million non-white Jews in America. That’s one in eight. But when we look at Jewish communities, we don’t see that representation. This is also about the racism within our communities. This isn’t someone else’s story. This is our story, too.

We have to work with black communities to dismantle systemic racism in our country and we have the tools to do it. The Rev. Dr. Agnes Lover asks us, “How can post-Holocaust theology help black and brown people?” We rebounded after the Holocaust, but the black community hasn’t. We have to teach them how to do that, but not without them. “Nothing about us without us,” some say. But it’s more than that. In the words of Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian visual artist, “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.” Because of this, I’m working with local leaders in communities of color to assemble a panel for our Yom Kippur study session so that we can hear what black Mainers need from us.

We have to use our white benefit for the good of humanity and make it our sacred purpose in life. When Patrick Kennedy was elected to Congress to represent the state of Rhode Island in the House of Representatives, some said that he was only elected because of his privilege. He said, yes, he is privileged, but he has an obligation to use that privilege to help others. Each of us has to do this. If you are completing a puzzle and a piece is missing, the picture isn’t complete. It doesn’t matter which piece is missing. That makes you the most important piece in this puzzle. Say it:  I am the most important piece.

It was related in the Talmud that Rav, Rabbi Chanina, Rabbi Yochanan, and Rav Chaviva taught, “Anyone who had the capability to protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest is responsible for the sins of the members of his household. If the person could protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, but does not, they are responsible for the sins of the people of their town. If the person could protest the sinful conduct of the whole entire world but fails to do so, they are responsible for the sins of the whole world.”[13] There are risks, no doubt, to engaging in this work, but the world is counting on us.

I stood with Joanne Bland on a small concrete slab behind Brown Chapel AME in Selma, Alabama, where the march from Selma to Montgomery began. Joanne had each of us pick up a small rock. This was the one I selected. She looked at each of us and recited names. “John Lewis stood on that rock. Hosea Williams stood on that rock. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on that rock.” She didn’t say it, but I thought, “Joanne Bland stood on this rock.” This rock. She told us we could put them back or take them home, but if we brought them home, we had to keep them somewhere where we could see them. When we think we can’t do the work anymore, contemplate the ordinary people who did extraordinary things who stood on this rock and then get back to work.

At the end of our pilgrimage, I walked a few blocks from our hotel in Montgomery to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, Dr. King’s pulpit in Montgomery, situated at the foot of the Alabama State Capitol. I found my way to its western wall and placed my forehead and hands on the brick warmed by the afternoon sun. I asked God for the fortitude to keep doing this work of racial justice, not just to RSVP, but to show up. I glanced down and at my feet were small, crumbled pieces of the brick façade of the church. I picked up this one. It will live beside the one from Brown Chapel, from Selma to Montgomery, reminding me the world needs me. What I want to know is do you know that the world needs you, too?

The last stop on our pilgrimage was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s parsonage in Montgomery, the house that was bombed with his wife and infant daughter inside while he was at church. There, we met with Dr. Sherry Cherry. Dr. Cherry grew up in Montgomery. She was 10 years old when 14-year-old Emmitt Till was lynched and murdered. Her parents told her never to look a white person in the eye again. Stay in your place, they told her. Dr. Cherry lost all hope. But then came along, as she described him, a little preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., who stood only 5 feet, six-and-a-half inches tall. He taught her that nobody can ride your back unless it’s bent. She learned MLK’s definition of character:  Where do you stand in times of discomfort and inconvenience? Who will stay with you when things get tough? She also learned his definition of love, which he learned from Howard Thurman, the first black chaplain at Boston University:  To find ultimate security in an ultimate vulnerability, this is to be loved. Love, that is, is knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are safe.

Dr. Sherry Cherry went to Tuskegee University and her mother paid for her education by pressing clothes, including the robes of Klansmen. She declared to us, “I went to college on a Klan scholarship!” Dr. Cherry no longer bends her back or avoids looking others in the eye. She has lost all of her fears but two:  God and ignorance. She told us, “You have to learn there are things in your life that will break your heart. Learn how to let them break your heart, but don’t let them break your spirit. Tell yourself:  I am no better than anyone else and no one is better than I.”

Friends, we have a lot of work to do. Shanah tovah u’metukah, have a happy and sweet new year.

[1] “Three Negroes are lynched in Montgomery.” The Gadsden Daily Times-News, Afternoon Edition, September 30, 1919.

[2] Brian Lyman, “‘There will be lynchings’:  How the Advertiser failed victims of racial terror.” Montgomery Advertiser,, April 20, 2018.

[3] Lyman.

[4] Lyman.

[5] The Legacy Museum:  From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, Montgomery, Alabama.

[6] The Legacy Museum.

[7] Legacy Museum.

[8] Legacy Museum.

[9] Shabbat 104a.

[10] Ta’anit 16a.

[11] Gittin 55a.

[12] Rabbi. Dr. Rachel S. Mikva.

[13] Shabbat 54b.

Image via Pixabay.

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