Refusing to acknowledge the role that our predominant whiteness played in this transition requires willful blindness. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we must ask: Have we arranged our lives in ways that allow us to ignore the suffering of other Americans?
Racial justice is right in front of me. I am blessed that every day when I come to work at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I pass the conference room where my predecessors and their allies in the civil rights movement — black and white, Christian and Jewish — drafted significant parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It is an honor to carry that legacy. During these Jewish High Holy Days, a time of deep reflection, that legacy also agitates.
The Supreme Court’s evisceration of that same Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder three years ago was a clarion call for the Reform Jewish movement. During the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, we are compelled to protect the right to vote. We must defend and encourage electoral participation, among all Americans and especially among people of color who are targeted – with “surgical precision” in the words of a North Carolina judge – by voter suppression efforts underway in several states.
And as we enter the final month of the 2016 campaign season, the Jewish community must also engage in a collective cheshbon hanefesh, acknowledging that election protection is not enough. As we recommit ourselves to the work of racial justice, in partnerships across lines of faith and race, with a dual focus on both voting rights and criminal justice reform, we are challenged to account for our own indifference.
We are pained by the pattern of black lives ended too soon, often during interactions with law enforcement. We seek immediate remedies to the systemic racism that plagues our society, and we consider how our own community has evolved since the 1960s and the ways in which we have failed to live up to our ideals.
The Jewish community in the United States is today in some ways more diverse than ever. People of color make up roughly 10 percent of American Jews. Our diversity is a strength and blessing in Jewish life. At the same time, paradoxically, we need to acknowledge that over the last 50 years, Jews in America have benefited from white privilege.
In the years since the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were signed, Reform Jews have remained deeply involved in the pursuit of social justice. But that does not excuse us from considering how we have turned a blind eye to the New Jim Crow system (to borrow Michelle Alexander’s phrase) that has emerged.
While our community has often thrived, incarceration rates have increased dramatically and the funding of public education has been tied to local taxes. These trends have disproportionately harmed black Americans.
The recurring pattern of black Americans killed by law enforcement officers is as tragic as it is undeniable. The recent shooting deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott and Tyre King have formed a familiar pattern, but we refuse to be desensitized to the shock.
Coupled with the nationwide trend of mass incarceration and the attempts at racially targeted voter suppression in places like North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin and Ohio, my responsibility as a white American Jew becomes clear: to stand together with the black members of our American family.
Standing together is not a short-term project. It means exploring the ways that we have allowed ourselves to accept privilege while others suffer.
But we face an emergency. The racial injustice that we live with is unacceptable. The American covenant, illuminated in our founding documents yet applied so imperfectly throughout our history, is for all people. We cannot rest until we have repaired this breach in the American promise. Our own discomfort – in our own complicity or in the tone that the conversation may at times take – is no excuse for accepting the status quo.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He can be found on Twitter at @JonahPesner.