With my eyes I can take everything from you: Rededicating ourselves to seeing Black lives

This piece by rabbinical student Josh Weisman was originally published on State of Formation.

Chanukah is a festival of lights, which makes it an opportunity to reflect on what we see and how we see it. The rituals of Chanukah are all about light and seeing: we’re commanded to kindle Chanukah lights each night; we’re commanded to enjoy their light; we’re commanded to spend time appreciating their glow. Chanukah is all about our eyes. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (Reb Shlomo), following the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, took this focus on light and the eyes to teach that Chanukah is a time for fixing the eyes, for repairing the sins we have committed with our eyes.[1] Chanukah is a chance to correct the ways we fail to see what is really in front of us, or the ways we see with distorted vision.

Last year, Chanukah came on the heels of the failure to indict the white police officers who had killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Since then, police killings of unarmed black people — including Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, and many others — have sadly continued. The impunity and lack of transparency surrounding these cases — and others like the death in police custody of Sandra Bland — has also continued. In response to this ongoing tragedy, a movement has taken shape around a truth so simple it should never have needed to be stated in the first place: Black lives matter. Many white people – including white Jews, white people of all faiths, and secular white people – are opening their eyes to the ways in which they have failed to see Black people as they truly are, and the devastating consequences of this in terms of Black lives lost to racially-influenced police violence. Black people – Black Jews, Black people of all faiths, and secular Black people – and their allies of all races are taking bolder action than they have in years to demand an end to the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. Those of us who are white are starting to recognize that even when we don’t hold a gun, our distorted vision has negative consequences, such as when we see news of these killings and often see a Black “suspect” instead of a Black son, brother, father, child of God. We have sinned with our eyes and it’s time to fix our eyes – to address the damage done, and to learn how to see truly.

That a real error is taking place is not merely in the eye of the beholder. White people literally can’t see Black people right, and the result is sometimes a matter of life and death. Research studies collated by faith-based community organizing leader Gordon Whitman demonstrate the following alarming facts about how white people and police tend to see, or fail to see, Black people: White people see Black boys as older – and therefore more threatening – than they really are, by an average of over four years. Police who dehumanize Blacks are more likely to have used force against Black children. In simulated tests, white police more readily shoot unarmed Black people than unarmed white people. Reb Shlomo said that “with my eyes I can take everything from you.”[2] How true.

Jewish tradition teaches that each human being is created in the image of God. The problem here is that too often, when we look at Black people, white people do not see the image of God. We see instead our fear, our projections, our mental images of what Black people are. Thankfully, not all white people are oblivious to this bias. But it’s not just the blatant racists out there that are part of the problem. Even those of us who have made efforts to unlearn these patterns of misperception are still not seeing things right. Despite being educated alongside – and often by – Black people since childhood, despite learning about Black history, despite Ethnic Studies classes and anti-racism training, despite my personal relationships with Black friends and family members, despite working for social justice alongside Black people for years – in other words, despite having benefited from numerous means of overcoming racial bias, and despite truly believing in racial equality – I still failed the Implicit Attitude Test for race, which tests unconscious visual perceptions of Black people vs. white people, with a score of “moderately biased.” Our eyes are in need of significant repair.

Chanukah is also a holiday of rededication (Chanukah literally means “dedication”), and so it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves. Over two thousand years ago, the Jewish people’s holy Temple was treated as if it were not holy by an oppressive government. Today, Black people’s bodies – reflections of the image of God, temples of the Divine spark – are being treated as if they are not holy by the dominant racial group in this country. The miracle of Chanukah was that, during the work of rededication – of repurifying the Temple after it had been profaned – the light that shouldn’t have been enough turned out to be enough.

At this time when we Jews celebrate our resistance to a dominant culture that wanted to see us out of existence – that recoiled at our difference – it’s time for white Jews and all white people to rededicate ourselves to the holy task of seeing with true eyes, of seeing the holy in the temples that are Black people. We are starting without enough light – our eyes have not yet learned to see – but, with help, we can turn it into enough light, enough light to see truly.

[1] The Soul of Chanukah: Teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Shlomo Katz, ed. Mosaica Press, 2013. p 21

[2] Ibid. p 23

Josh Weisman works, writes, studies Torah, prays, and parents at the intersection of social justice and Jewish spirituality. Before becoming a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, Josh was a grass-roots organizer for ten years in Northern California.

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A late-night argument with my husband about hope

A message from our Executive Director, Karla Van Praag.

It was late Sunday night, after all the kids were finally asleep and the school lunches had been made. It was that moment you look forward all day, the moment you finally put your feet up. The “free” moment you have to chat, to make plans, to laugh.

It started innocently enough. We were discussing how we would go about helping one of our children prepare for something. The details aren’t important, but if you looked under the surface of the words we were saying to each other you would see we were talking about something bigger than the issue at hand. It was the subtext that made us raise our voices. He was saying if we work hard at it, we can make a difference in this situation. I heard myself saying something different: what will be, will be. The cards are stacked against us, so let’s not work so hard. It went on for hours, our discussion of destiny, our heated efforts at persuasion and understanding.

Fate has been on my mind a lot lately. For a year and a half I’ve been battling an illness that has taken away a lot of who I am. I’ve had several unsuccessful surgeries and take medication to manage the symptoms of my condition.  Uncertainty about how this will end abounds. Still, the biggest battle by far has been keeping my faith about whether anyone can really shape their own lives and collective future, when illness and cruelty and disaster seem to be ever-present in our lives. Aren’t we fools to believe we can influence our future when so much is out of our control?

The day after the argument, with the benefit of sleep, I rose to a bright sunrise and went to work. Sarah, our Communications Officer, had asked me to write an introduction to our November ENEWS about appreciation. I procrastinated. Instead, I read my email and there, the first email I read, was a link from a student in JOIN’s online course Don’t Kvetch, Organize! reflecting on attending a Fight for 15 rally for a living wage.  This is a campaign with growing success led by thousands of people around the country with plenty to lose and little reason to have faith in their power to shape their own lives, given the institutional barriers in their way.  But as Maimonides said, hope is the belief in the plausibility of the possible, as opposed to the necessity of the probable. There they were, creating a different reality, fighting and winning when most thought it was improbable.

I felt hope rising in myself, and I remembered again who I was. My illness and the many forces of injustice in the world cannot take away my agency, or my part in our collective efforts to make an impact on the world around us.  I was reminded by these leaders who have so much to lose that hopelessness is never a good option when the possible is plausible.

And so, this is what I’m feeling appreciative of.  In this line of work, I keep getting reminded of the ways that we can influence our own destinies.  Much in life, including my illness, is out of my control.  But in other parts, our agency is crystal clear.

JOIN for Justice is the embodiment of the belief that though the challenges we face in the world are hard and sometimes overwhelming, we still can make a big difference, if we’re smart about it and we work at it together.  We’ve seen the results again and again. We are the type that takes responsibility to play a role in the future; we don’t withdraw and allow what happens to happen.

And sometimes, thankfully, we win.

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Fighting for 15

This beautiful d’var torah was written by Salem Pearce, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College and a participant in our online course Don’t Kvetch Organize!  It originally appeared on Salem’s blog No Power In The ‘Verse.

On Tuesday afternoon, I skipped my halakha class in order to attend a “Fight for 15” rally downtown. This local effort was part of a nationwide day of action, a “March for Racial and Economic Justice,” aimed at increasing the minimum wage in our state to $15/hour. Outside of Faneuil Hall, we listened to a dozen plus speakers, and then we marched with our signs about a quarter of a mile to the state house, where we heard from state Sen. Dan Wolf about a bill that would mandate a $15/hour wage for fast food and big box store employees. The bill has moved out of committee and now heads to the full Senate. If implemented, the policy would effect more than 200,000 workers in the state, many of whom now make less than $10/hour.


Author Salem Pearce with her friend

I learned about the event through an organizing class that I’m taking this semester: The local group JOIN for Justice is pioneering an online course called “Don’t Kvetch! Organize!” The class has participants from all over the country. At the rally I met up with several of my Boston-area classmates, as well as a few JOIN staff members. The action was meant to be a way to put into practice, or at least witness, some of what we’ve learned so far.

The speakers at the rally represented a wide variety of workers: All people of color — and more than a few undocumented immigrants — they included students, home health care workers, fast food employees, adjunct college professors, and child care providers. One woman spoke about her eldest daughter, the first in the family to get into college — and then told of her sadness at the family’s not being able to afford that college. A fast food employee testified that he was striking that day — for the 11th time in three years — for $15/hour and the right to unionize at the McDonald’s where he works. The adjunct compared her insufficient full-time salary, and the paltry wages of the university’s staff, to that of her college president, who makes $3 million/year. They had in common long hours, exhausting work, job insecurity, lack of benefits, and painful choices around spending because of their paltry compensation.

I am proud to report the robust Jewish presence at the rally. Besides the JOIN students and staff, also represented were the New England Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Moishe Kavod House, and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, plus just some individual, good old fashioned Jewish activists — some of whom are part our community here in JP and at Nehar Shalom. And this is just here in Boston: All over our country, from L.A. to Chicago to Miami, on Tuesday Jews marched for racial and economic justice.


This demonstration of our commitment to justice as Jews got me started thinking about the Jewish values that underpin that commitment. I’ve learned — and will teach as a rabbi — lots of texts that speak directly to those values and that commitment. But this week, as I learned part of our parshah to chant tomorrow morning, I wondered about workers’ issues in relation to Toledot.

This week’s parshah, as so many in Genesis, is filled with the continuing family drama of the Abrahamic line. Rivka gives birth to twins Esav and Ya’akov, who spend their lives at odds with each other, starting in utero. The tension between them, the text explains, stems from their differences.

Esav is a character derided by the Jewish tradition. Depicted as a brute, unintelligent, and powerful man of the field, Esav is often seen as the opposite of the rabbinic ideal of his brother Ya’akov. Rashi even sees a religious difference between them: He claims that at bar mitzvah age, Ya’akov went to yeshiva, and Esav turned to idol worship. But before being swindled out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, Esav comes home from working in the field all day. The Torah makes a point of noting that he was עָיֵ֖ף, “tired.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the significance of this verse: “Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed . . . [And so the verse says], Esau came from the field and he was tired . . . Focused solely on physical success, Esau finished his day existentially exhausted: unfulfilled, demoralized, and disappointed.”

Before I explore this further, I want to note that this interpretation of Ya’akov and Esav is uniquely Jewish. Growing up a Protestant, I learned the story of the warring twin sons of Yitzhak quite differently: I was taught to strive to be like Esav, not Ya’akov, who in my tradition was regarded with great suspicion because of his dishonesty. The difference in Jewish and Christian traditions in their interpretations of this story continues to be one of my most surprising experiences as a convert.

As a Christian I learned to valorize Esav’s unvarnished physicality, and I saw a bit of this value in the clergy invocation offered at the beginning of the rally on Tuesday. The Christian pastor prayed for workers’ continued mobility and physical stamina, that with Gd’s help they might have the strength to get up each day and run, and that we at the march might continue the walk to justice. I have to say — as a future rabbi who hopes someday to be asked to give an invocation at the beginning of a rally — I was disappointed at the ableist language that he used. And yet asking Gd for vigor wasn’t totally out of place. It’s physically draining to be a fast food worker, or a child care provider, or a home health aide in way that it’s just not to be, say, a rabbinical student. The pastor recognized that and prayed for the need he saw in the workers at the rally. To bring the metaphor back to our parshah, he identified them with Esav.

As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow morning I’ll be chanting Torah here, and since we’re in the third year of the triennial cycle of Torah reading, we’ll be looking at the end of parshat Toledot. As I practiced the leyning, I found myself quite moved by Esav’s distress at the discovery Ya’akov’s deception of their father Yitzchak. Incredulous, he wails, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” And then וַיִּשָּׂ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ: “Esav raised his voice and wept.” We’re also told that he cried a great and bitter cry, וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה. Much of this vocabulary will later appear at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the pain of the Israelites reaches Gd’s ears. It’s hard not to see some anticipation of the slavery in Egypt in Esav’s reaction. So even though traditional commentators have been quite harsh with Esav, I see points of strong poignancy in the text with regard to him.

What I hope for us is that seeing the story of Esav through the lens of the struggles today of hourly workers might engender some understanding — and maybe even some righteous indignation — about the situation of both. The vitriol that I see directed at Esav by traditional sources is quite troublesome to me: He is almost universally condemned as wicked, a adulterer, and a despiser of Gd — predicted to be — and later accused of being — a murderer. I see in the rabbis’ attitudes toward Esav a parallel to some of the unflattering narratives that our society creates around the working poor.

But I think the Torah actually creates sympathy for Esav’s plight by comparing his pain to that of the later, enslaved Israelites. And like many workers today, Esav is completely depleted by his work. Like many workers today, Esav suffers because of others’ perception of scarce resources. Like many workers today, Esav is forced into painful tradeoffs for basic necessities. We can and should feel compassion for people in these situations. The jobs that the workers at the rally describe are generally not ones that we do want or would want for ourselves and our loved ones.

I marched on Tuesday because I believe that low pay is not worthy of the dignity of human beings. I see the racism that underpins the fact that low-paying hourly jobs in service industries are often filled by people of color. It’s not good for our communities when families struggle to make ends meet. And even though as a rabbi I don’t expect to make a comparable hourly wage, I think that our obligation as Jews is to act boldly for the common good — and that our real birthright — available to us all, not just the firstborn or his trickster younger brother — is our commitment to this kind of everyday revolution.

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JOIN for Justice in Los Angeles

Last week the halls of Los Angeles synagogues Shomrei Torah and PICO Shul were buzzing as rabbis and lay leaders gained skills in community organizing and explored how to put them to work in their own communities.


JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer Jeannie Appleman conducted trainings with synagogue lay leaders of the rabbis in our LA Cohort of the Clergy Fellowship, focusing on building a culture where members feel ownership over the synagogue, and exploring how to use house meetings to kick off these culture shift projects.

After Havdallah on Saturday night, Jeannie participated in small-group conversations with 30 members of PICO Shul, a vibrant Jewish community committed to spiritual growth and living mindfully led by JOIN Clergy Fellow Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. Synagogue lay leaders discussed the struggles members were facing in their lives and possible social justice campaigns they could support through their synagogue. They also discussed internal organizing efforts that could help them envision the future of PICO Shul, and the particular talents they plan to bring to creating that future.


Thank you to the LA Jewish community for welcoming us and joining us for these trainings!  We’re inspired by the commitment there and excited to see how this work continues to unfold.

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Shifting Synagogue Culture at Shape the Center

Two weeks ago, we were excited to lead a day-long community organizing training for 12 Conservative rabbis and their lay leaders at Shape the Center, the Conservative Movement’s biannual conference.  JOIN for Justice Senior Trainer Jeannie Appleman led the training along with JOIN Board member Rabbi Noah Farkas.


We spent the morning exploring how to catalyze a culture shift in synagogues.  We discussed how to move from a transactional culture where members expect certain things in exchange for the dues they pay, towards a relational culture where all members take responsibility for the future of the congregation.  Then Rabbi Farkas shared the basics of conducting one-to-one meetings, and the importance of listening deeply and understanding interests of new leaders.

In the afternoon, participants explored the cycle of organizing and how to use house meetings to build new bases of leaders for their synagogues.  Finally, Rabbi Farkas led the group through a case study of the recent campaign on homelessness and affordable housing that his synagogue has played a critical role in.  Participants had the opportunity to explore what tactics worked best in this campaign, and think through how to conduct a power analysis and unearth the best tactics in their own communities.



We enjoyed the opportunity to further deepen our relationship with the Conservative rabbis and lay leaders, and look forward to hearing about how the participants in this training put these ideas into action in their communities and congregations.

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