JCUA Community Organizer Avra Shapiro and JCore Member Joseph Grant shared these inspiring words at Mishkan’s Yom Kippur service this Saturday.
Gmar Tov. My name is Joseph Grant. I am a builder here at Mishkan and a leader with ONE Northside and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, two of Mishkan’s Justice Team partners.
I used to be someone who wanted to keep my politics and my Judaism separate. I would bristle when in synagogue a rabbi would draw connections between a Torah passage and current events. I did not think that my spiritual life could or should have any relationship to my political life. I came to synagogue to pray, to feel a spiritual connection to my people and our history, not to be reminded of worldly affairs.
My thinking on this question has changed so much it is hard now to recall the sources of that mentality, but I think there were a few different things going on. First, political concerns felt so ephemeral, even petty, in comparison to the longevity of our tradition and to the infinite eternity to which we pray. Second, I was keenly aware of the dangers of introducing prophetic rhetoric into public life. I thought of Jerry Falwell describing the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center as a divine punishment, brought on by the country’s tolerance of “the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians.” I thought that insisting on the secularism of politics was the best defense against such morally repugnant language.
It was not a single revelatory moment that changed my thinking on this issue. Rather it was the long accumulation of many experiences.
After the election in November I fell into a deep despair. Now I want to recognize that none of the crises that our country is experiencing right now began in November, and there are people in our community who have been experiencing these crises for generations. For me, the idea that the most reactionary and racist political forces in our country now occupied the White House terrified me. What made the situation worse was that I was still hearing friends and relatives and political leaders say things like “give him a chance” and “we don’t know what he’ll do yet.” The President of my university sent out a message about coming together after a divisive campaign. They seemed blind to the dangers which for me were an everyday reality. A few weeks later, Rabbi Lauren and her friend Pastor Lindsey Turner conducted a dialogue during a Mishkan Friday evening service. During their exchange, Pastor Lindsey mentioned the neo-Nazis in the White House. I did not know until that moment how desperately I needed a public figure and spiritual leader to confirm my reality. It was invaluable.
I have had more personal encounters with antisemitism in the past eleven months that I had in the previous thirty-two years. I have also come to see, in a way I never did before, the intimate connection between antisemitism and antiblack racism.
A few months ago I went to the library to pick up a copy of John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident. At the Algiers Motel in Detroit during the 1967 uprising, officers of the Detroit police, Michigan state police, and Michigan army national guard murdered three Black teenagers. On the book’s title page I found the words ‘kill them.’ Elsewhere in the book someone had scrawled the n-word and a swastika across the pages. And of course the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville carrying Nazi flags and chanting ‘blood and soil’ were very clear: they want to kill Blacks; and Jews. The struggle to end antiblack racism, to end police violence against Black people, to create a polity in which Black lives matter–this is also my struggle. I have often heard that none of us are free until all of us are free. Now I understand why that is true.
In a moment we’ll read Isaiah, telling us that our fast today is meaningless. The world is a catastrophe of oppression, the prophet says, and we are on the wrong path. But imagine how beautiful our world could be if only we were to turn in a new direction. “This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.” My political work is deeply rooted in my relationship to Judaism. Our theological and ethical tradition, as well as the political history of the Jewish people, obligates us to struggle for freedom for all people. And in that spirit, please open your Machzor to page two hundred and thirty-two for the haftarah.
A re-interpretation of Isaiah inspired by the works of Rabbi Shefa Gold and Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Hey! HEY! How can we chant sweetly when we need to shout!
1 Cry out! Make some noise for God’s sake!
We need to look around and see-
we’ve made some huge mistakes!
2 Yes, the Divine hears our prayers every day,
Our longing to be near her
Yet we hunger for transcendence
While believing our harmonies can tune out the 2,632 shots fired by the CPD between 2010 and 2015.
Believing our meditations can silence the screams of Quintonio LeGrier, 19. Of Bettie Jones, 55.
3/4 We say, “Don’t you see we’re fasting?
Don’t you see I came to shul?
Don’t you see how holy we are?”
We seek spiritual depth
But deep down lives an itch unsatiated
Because on our fast day we sit here with hands caked in blood
Donning clothes made by slave labor
Praying on stolen land
Putting our money in places that are wrecking the earth
Thinking it’s all too much thinking well, I’m safe thinking thinking thinking
5 You think this is the kind of fast She wants?
A day that will feed our self-righteousness?
What if the state was killing your children?
What if you were afraid to walk through city streets?
You call this a fast?!
6 No! This is the fast She desires-
Unlock the shackles of oppression put on by state violence and corporate greed
Abolish the chains that lock up 450,000 people each day because they can’t afford bail.
Cast off a police union contract that allows officers to kill with impunity.
Break off the yoke that lets them delay testimony by 24 hours so they can collude so they can shoot 17 year old black boys 16 times so they can bury it
7 No. The fast She wants is one of sharing our food with the hungry,
redistributing the wealth of this land fairly,
fighting so the residents who were just evicted two blocks away from here can have a home
So no one is told this country is not their home.
So that a prison cell is no one’s home.
We are each other’s flesh and blood
So let’s show up.
8 Then our radiance will burst through like the dawn,
As Shechina shines through us again.
And we will feel in our kishkes how gorgeous this world can be
We will taste the sumptuous fruits of collective liberation
We will know Oneness
Because we will have fought for it!
9 Then when we call, the Breath of Life will answer gladly,
Whispering, Hineni, Here I am!
10 If we humble ourselves to our own complicity
and our own responsibility
And lift up the ones who have been beaten down
by this unjust system,
11 The presence of being will guide you always,
The Divine force will waterful through you when life seems too dry,
And give strength to your bones when you are weary of the work
13 If you, for one day a week,
Put it all down. The collecting, the consuming, the scheming with resources that were never yours to begin with. If you would rest in the delight of Pure Being,
14 Then you are delighting in Source,
Then She will set us on the high places,
So we can truly enjoy this precious
life She has given us.
For this word comes from the mouth that Breathes all life.
My name is Avra Shapiro and I’m a member of Mishkan and an organizer with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. You may have noticed that among the many issues of justice that Isaiah raises that I brought into modern language, I mentioned the Police Union contract.
This contract gives Chicago police officers rights and privileges that actually foster misconduct and reduce accountability for it. As it currently is written, officers can delay their testimony by 24 hours after an incident, allowing them to coordinate stories, leading to cover-ups like what we saw with Laquan McDonald last year. The contract allows officers to change their statements retroactively after accessing video or audio recording of an incident. No complaint can be submitted anonymously, a clear intimidation practice. People feel afraid to submit a complaint against a police officer in this city, and brutality goes unpunished. The contract recently expired and is up for negotiations, so the time to act is now.
Why is this a Jewish issue? Many of us are grateful to police officers for putting themselves in danger for the sake of protecting the community. Many of us, like me, are white and don’t experience being profiled by the police. But this is a Jewish issue because some of us are black and brown and carry this fear and this risk every day. This is a Jewish issue because even if some of us don’t experience it now, many of our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents, have experienced fear of the police and fear of government authorities, and that memory should inspire us that no one should have to face it again. Because we ALL live in this city together and because people are dying in our streets. Because casting off the yoke of antisemitism means building deep partnerships with our neighbors and other marginalized communities, rather than ceding to the existing power structure.
JCUA and Mishkan are not doing this work in a vacuum, we do this work as part of a broader coalition largely comprised of people of color, to whom we are accountable. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re asking people to show up. To engage in this messy, constantly evolving work of transformation. To love ourselves and our people. To hold ourselves with compassion, and push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. And we need to hold in our minds a dream of what true safety could feel like.
Gmar tov and shabbat shalom and may you be inscribed and sealed for a year of goodness and making good trouble.