D'Var Torah for Saturday 6th June 2020

by Rabbi Leah Jordan

Good morning, everyone, and Shabbat shalom! It’s so wonderful to finally be here with you all! 

As a young student, I immigrated here to London from the United States in 2011, nine years ago and so have spent most of my adult life in Britain. I immediately loved it: London and Britain. London at the best of times is like its own progressive city-state, diverse and bustling, excited and exciting. And I fell in love with the British love of irony, of words, of the NHS, the BBC, Doctor Who, the rightful pride in our national democratic institutions. 

I also arrived the year before the Home Office instituted its “hostile environment” policy, a set of administrative and legislative measures to make staying in the United Kingdom as difficult as possible for people, like me then, without leave to remain, in the hope that we would “voluntarily leave.” My years here have included: the 2012 Olympics and the 2018 Windrush scandal. The best and the worst of modern Britain, both its great democratic, progressive promise (the national health service and our mostly gun-free streets are genuinely almost impossible for my fellow American compatriots to imagine) AND the UK’s always present and now increasingly unleashed xenophobia and anti-black racism.

As I sat down to write this sermon for you all today, I was struck by two, what seemed to me, almost conflicting impulses: on the one hand, the desire to share with you about my own life story, and about how excited I am to be here, at last, as your new rabbi, and on the other hand, the need today of all days to be part of opening up a space, here, to reflect together, about what we as a community must do to confront racial injustice and racism within our community and without. 

And I couldn’t help but think about my arrival here in 2011, and about how I could literally feel, year by year here, a heating up of anti-immigrant feeling. There’s a reason I often introduce myself to people here as having come from “deepest, darkest” Midwestern America… quoting the famous lines from Paddington Bear, who the author tells us hails from ‘deepest, darkest’ Peru it is a wry acknowledgement of Britain’s history of Empire, of our historical oppression and other-ing of those who sometimes are perceived ‘not to fit’ into a model of white Anglican English-ness. 

And in trying to share with you both about myself and about this global moment, I am struck anew that where I grew up has a lot to say about now: I grew up in a big ‘high-church’ German Reform synagogue in Kansas City that loved to tout in part, deservedly our participation in the US civil rights movement. For many years in my childhood, in fact, one of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s own sons would come, always dressed in what I thought as a child was an incredibly natty suit, to address us from our bimah, the pulpit, on the Black-Jewish alliance of the 60s and 70s, which was always a wonderful occasion… But sometimes this focus on Black-Jewish partnership erased Black Jews themselves, congregants in my childhood synagogue and in our community today, who can speak to both identities.

Part of this is to say though one of the Reverend King’s sons may have come to visit my childhood synagogue, so many structures of Jim Crow, of racist segregation and dispossession, remained in the synagogue and the city of my childhood. To this day, school districts there are almost entirely segregated on racial lines, and the police department is very much part of the system of brutality we saw depicted so harrowingly in the video of George Floyd, killed before our very eyes. Yes, as we Kansas Citians like to proudly point out, perhaps the current, most famous ‘child of Kansas City’ is Janelle Monáe, the queer Black Afro-Futurist artist, but the concurrent reality is also true: as we meet together today, protesters in my hometown are chanting ‘Ryan Stokes, Terrance Bridges, Cameron Lamb, Donnie Sanders’ the names of Black Kansas Citians killed by my city’s police department. 

We, as a London Jewish community, so bound up with this wider city, must follow in their example, and take on the same acknowledgement of responsibility, and if we don’t know the stories of these names, black Britons killed by systemic racism in our own London, we must learn more about them: Belly Mujinga, Naomi Hersi, Sarah Reed, Sheku Bayoh, Mark Duggan, Christopher Alder, Cynthia Jarrett, Sean Rigg, Joy Gardner. 

Some of you have reached out over the past week, because you are personally hurting. And some of you have reached out to ask: what can we do? Already Jewish communities across the city, I know, are talking about how to organise with Black-majority-led communities to redistribute our city’s funding more justly. Organisations like the new Jewish Justice Centre are talking about b’nai mitzvah racial justice curriculum. And we must commit to working to tackle racism within our community. As they often do, the young people in our cheder are taking a lead and today have requested that we learn together about Black Lives Matter after this very service, where I’ll join them soon. 

As a white Jew and as your rabbi, I wanted to offer this commitment, in the hopes that it will be a starting point for some of us: 

“My intentions and hope are to work with our community to learn the best ways to stand up for Black lives. First, to our Black community members I stand with you, I commit to amplifying your voices and your work, I commit to listening to you when you speak and also to learning more about anti-Black racism without asking you to do the work for me. I commit to standing both literally and figuratively between you and those who wish to harm you, to act as a barrier in all the ways I know how and the many ways I commit to learning. To our non-Black community members of colour, I commit to fostering a space and dialogue for those of you who want to work with us together to learn more about anti-Black racism. While our focus today is on anti-Black racism specifically, I commit to expanding my learning and our conversation as a community to become better educated on the many ways racism and privilege work in our world. I acknowledge the impact of racist policies on all communities of people of colour. To our white community members, I know that I need to do better in supporting and defending Black lives, and I am sure that many of you know that you need to do better too. 

“As a Jewish community committed to the prophetic ideals of justice in our tradition, we must feel a responsibility here in our community to share in our knowledge, learning and conversation surrounding White privilege, the Black Lives Matter movement, social and restorative justice, and community work, so that we can join together in fighting the centuries of injustice and violence against Black Bodies. … AS a white person, I have sometimes hesitated before speaking and have often chosen my words carefully, too carefully, for fear that I would say or do the wrong thing. I cannot be afraid any longer, and instead I must listen to those who correct me, if and when I make an error in my efforts, in whatever ways, tones or manners in which they choose to correct me in to learn, to stand up again, and to do better.

“I want to encourage us all to do the same, to be brave in speaking out while conscious of not speaking over, to be willing to step back and to listen, to be intentional in amplifying Black voices in our community and homes and in our public life, and to respect when those around us challenge or correct those good intentions. As a white person, the most important thing I can consistently remind myself is that this is not about me.”

“…I also know that self-care is a critical component of doing any justice work, and that our community is one of comfort, solace and shared community for so many of us. I honour that and commit to continuing to foster this space and our shared love of Judaism and all that it stands for in its many forms. I want to challenge us though to remember that self-care is only part of the larger work, and that if you walk with white privilege, that means that after you recharge you go back out to keep up the fight.” 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the American author and son of Black activists, told Ezra Klein, on his podcast this week, that he was feeling hopeful. He had asked his own father how this compared to the murder, racism and anger before and during Civil Rights and his father had said “there’s no comparison”. Coates and his father found hope now in the way that solidarity is emerging across the world that at least everyone now knows and can see the murder of George Floyd and that so many are responding. I find hope too in the protests in our city today, to which my partner Benji too is headed, as we speakfulfilling that beautiful democratic promise of modern Britain I first felt arriving here as an immigrant. May we go forward together.

Shabbat shalom.lla