We Are Not at the Beginning

The anguish over recent events—wanton murders, peaceful protests sometimes turned violent – has bought cries of despair from several quarters. Voices proclaim, “We are back at the beginning. It is as though all the progress we made in the 60’s and 70’s was for naught.”

Make no mistake: We are not back at the beginning. 

  • At the beginning the Minneapolis police officers who murdered George Floyd would not be facing murder and manslaughter charges.
  • At the beginning they would not have even been fired.
  • At the beginning no one would have recorded the knee on the neck of George Floyd.
  • At the beginning it would not have been broadcast worldwide.
  • At the beginning the world would not have risen up in outraged protest.

When I was a kindergarten student in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1951, my recess play partner was usually an African-American named Dickie Harvest. We had a great time throwing an orange, volleyball size ball back and forth in the Ashland School playground. We went to each other’s birthday parties, and we played in each other’s homes.

But even then I was aware that most of the other White kids and Black kids kept to themselves. I was also aware that schools in the south were segregated, and people of color there were forced to stay in separate hotels, eat in different restaurants, drink from separate water fountains and ride in the back of the bus.

In my kindergarten naiveté I asked my Dad, “Why don’t they just make a law that all people everywhere must be treated the same in all things?”

My Dad responded, “That would be a wonderful thing, my son, but that day will never come.”

I don’t remember when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, but I do remember when Elston Howard became the first African American player on the New York Yankees.  Back then when all players had roommates at hotels on road trips, Elston Howard had a room by himself. 

Those days are distant memories. We are quantum leaps forward from “back at the beginning.”

Times have changed enough so that we can envision the day I asked my Dad about as a child. Our profound rage and sorrow over events of recent weeks should not lead us to despair. The perpetrators will answer for their crimes. Their cases will come to justice.

Of course these things should never have happened, and we as a nation must live with the reality. That reality is not that we are back at the beginning. That reality is that we still have such a long, long way to go. 

Where should we start?

Recently we read from the Torah about the vows taken by Nazirites. The restrictions seem strange:

  • No haircuts
  • No wine
  • No contact with the dead.

As strange as they seem these outside the box activities enabled the two known life-long biblical Nazirites, Samson and Samuel, to better fight the Philistines and lead the Israelites respectively.

Maybe we need to think outside the box as well in the fight for racial justice.

Our rabbinical student son, Leo Fuchs directed me to the Twentieth century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who taught: “God’s face is found in the face of the Other – the face of the one who disturbs us and make us feel that we should do something.”

When asked recently why he joined a protest march, Rabbi Adam Schaffer of Woodland Hills California, responded, “Just trying to do my small part to bend the proverbial arc of history just a little.”

If we all do just a little, we could end up doing a lot.

Many of us have long thought of ourselves as allies and partners in the struggle of People of Color for equal justice, equal access and equal opportunity. No doubt we have been. But these times call for more.

To be sure we are not at the beginning, but we are at a fork in the road.

Perhaps if we look deeply into the “face of the other” and listen closely to their words, we shall see the path God would have us follow as we continue the sacred march toward liberty and justice for all.

Joy in Jerusalem

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

Leo Fuchs and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs. Jerusalem 10/21/2018

Jerusalem, October 2018

How blessed I am to be on this trip. It is far from my first, but in several ways, it has been my most gratifying.  

I have not gone to the Dead Sea, Masada, Tsevat, Tel Aviv and all the other places Pastor Dr. John Danner and I look forward to seeing with our group from Bat Yam Temple of the Islands and Sanibel Congregational UCC at the end of April and the beginning of May.

No, on this trip I remained exclusively in Jerusalem.  I have had the joy of witnessing the Bat Mitzvah of Zahra Levy, a young girl I have known for four years now from the work Vickie and I have done in Germany where she and her family live.  Zahra’s mother, Yancy Sol Velasquez Levy translated my first book, ״What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives,” into Spanish, and I am so grateful to her.

When, over a year ago, Yancy invited me to come to Zahra’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony at Robinson׳s Arch at the Western Wall, I knew I wanted to be here.  I have also had the joy of delivering Divrei Torah, in Hebrew and English respectively, at Kehilat Har El, Israel’s oldest Reform Congregation, and to first-year Rabbinical and Cantorial students at Hebrew Union College in this city.

By far, though the biggest pull that brings me to Israel this time is the presence of our older son, Leo.

At the age of 42, Leo decided to step away from his successful career as Principal of Learning Without Limits in Oakland, CA.  LWL is the academic elementary school Leo and a group of others founded to give inner city kids a better shot at life.  By all measures it has been a great success.  In his role as Principal, Leo stressed to his overwhelmingly Latino and Afro-American student body the importance of knowing their roots and on whose shoulders they stand.  Increasingly, in recent years, while encouraging his students to be in touch with their roots, he was feeling the pull of his own.  So, “b’kitzur” (“in brief”) as we say in Hebrew, that is why he decided to study to become a rabbi. The HUC program mandates that all first-year candidates to be Rabbis and cantors spend their first year of study in Israel, and that is why Leo is here.

My great joy is sharing a small slice of his experience. We get to hang out together after classes, to stroll the streets of Jerusalem and just talk.  How often does a father get to spend with an adult child the amount of quality one on one time we are sharing? I thank the Eternal One continually for these shared hours.  As objective as I can be, I was amazed at Leo׳s sensitivity, skill and poise in co-leading with an Israeli Rabbinical student, the first shared worship service between the American students in Leo׳s program and the Israeli rabbinical students.

I have also gotten to see and observe many of his future colleagues. This purpose-driven group is well-aware of the issues of assimilation and declining synagogue involvement that has Rabbis, Cantors, Educators and lay volunteers wringing our hands with concern.

I admit that the Jewish leaders of my generation have not found effective solutions to these realities. But the qualities of intellect, spiritual depth and compassion I observe in the current crop of HUC students gives me real hope for the Jewish future.

 

 

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

Leo Fuchs and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs. Jerusalem 10/21/2018