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Despair and indifference are not Jewish options

June 2, 2020

A letter shared with the Central Synagogue Community:

Dear Congregant,

Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor…

“It is not your job to complete the task,
but neither can you desist from working at it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

Over the last few days, the fissures of racial injustice and brutality in our country erupted with the cry: “I can’t breathe.” But long before George Floyd’s murder, our country’s legacy of racism against African Americans has wrought violence upon their families, and created barriers affecting education, employment, and their physical safety, as the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates.

The work of fighting racism cannot be left only to the Black community, just as we know that antisemitism cannot be fought only by Jews. As we look at these recent turbulent days, we have to separate the violence and looting from the call for change echoing across the country. We must hear the groundswell of voices and listen to the pain and protest emanating from every corner of our beloved nation.

Last night at the dinner table, my son said he felt at a loss for how to make any dent in what ails the nation at this moment. I think many are feeling a similar anguish and impotence. No single person can fix the overwhelming issues around racial injustice, but neither can we give in to despair and allow it to paralyze us. Pirkei Avot reminds us that each of us has a role to play. As I challenged my son to think of ways to act, it galvanized my own resolve to do so as well. I have committed to taking these steps myself and with Central Synagogue, and hope they may also inspire you, and that you might also share your own.

Rather than spending time going down the Twitter rabbit hole, I am reading some texts that help me try to better understand the Black experience:

How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, by Audre Lorde
Between the World and Me, by Ta Nehisi Coates

I am reaching out to Black clergy, friends, and neighbors. After the Pittsburgh shootings, Christian and Muslim clergy, college friends, and neighbors reached out to just say they were pained by the attack and were thinking of me and my congregation. It touched me that they understood that even though I was not a Jew from Pittsburgh, this felt like an attack on Jews everywhere. We can do the same for those we know in the Black community.

Rebuilding communities will require funding. Find your way to support the people doing this work that you cannot do yourself.

Central sees our work in criminal justice reform as part of our commitment to dismantling systemic racism in our country. We have continued to engage in advocacy work on this issue during the pandemic. In March, Central Synagogue asked Governor Cuomo to release those incarcerated under technical parole violations, or near the end of their sentences, given the high rates of infection during the pandemic.

We have also supported people who are incarcerated and returning citizens through letter writing and resources for reentry. To learn more and get involved, visit the Community Organizing page on our website.

Central Synagogue members are invited to join some of our Clergy team this Wednesday night, June 3, as we take some time to reflect on recent events together. These events are only open to the Central Synagogue community; please use the links sent in the email to the community Monday night at 7 pm to register in advance.

Remember: despair and indifference are not Jewish options.

We may not be able to fix what is broken in our country with these actions, but we will begin—starting with ourselves. May the memories of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others be an inspiration to us to bend that arc towards justice.


Rabbi Angela Buchdahl