We Must Sweep Away the Racism Along with the Broken Glass

Jews know that broken glass always means more than one thing.
June 1, 2020
ATLANTA, GA – MAY 30: A man sweeps broken glass out of a window at McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant following an overnight demonstration over the Minneapolis death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 30, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Demonstrations are being held across the U.S. after George Floyd died in police custody on May 25th in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Each morning, it seems we are waking up to a different city than the one we lived in a few days ago. Of course we must acknowledge that far too many citizens have for too long been living in a different reality than the blessed one most of us inhabit.

That imbalance, which is deeply unjust and undermines the lofty stated values of our nation, is the source of today’s pent-up outrage, pain and sadness. We were afraid, justifiably, over the last few nights. For our well-being. For our neighborhoods. For our shuls. There is reason to fear that the unrest may still impact us. And we must also confront the fact that so many in our society, just because of the color of their skin and the accident of their birth, are afraid many nights. For their well-being. For their neighborhoods. For their livelihoods.

We will not solve this centuries-old societal malady, imbalance, injustice and conflict today or this week.

We will not solve this centuries-old societal malady, imbalance, injustice and conflict today or this week. We, as the extended Jewish community, will not ourselves bring peace to Los Angeles or the nation. But we also cannot refrain from our duty to do the right and the good, to listen to others’ pain, and call out injustice when it is obvious, and to call out and refuse to tolerate lawlessness when it spills out from righteous and legally protected protest. We cannot stand idly by and wait for others to do tikkun — the sacred role of fixing what is broken.

Tens of thousands of us have spent many of the last nights within a few hundred feet of pretty terrifying and damaging looting. Many of us are living through a trauma within the larger trauma of COVID-19. And again, we must search our consciences and hearts to find solidarity with so many in our society who are traumatized by injustice, racial profiling and the brutality that has claimed far too many lives of people of color. Our nervousness about the former does not absolve us of reckoning with the latter. And our sensitivity to the latter does not preclude our focus on the former. We can, as Hillel taught us, both be for ourselves and for others. We must. Simultaneously.

I am hurting. As a resident of this city, I am hurting. As a citizen of this nation, I am hurting. As a man who considers assessing another’s worth, and treating another’s person as a result of the color of their skin to be about the foulest way to express one’s humanity, I am hurting. As a leader who tries to stand for important issues while maintaining stances of nuance and clear-headedness, I am hurting as I witness yet another moment where society devolves into screaming matches, out-outraging the other, and the good and the just and the righteous and the obligatory deteriorating into lawlessness, violence and mayhem.

Sunday morning, members of my shul, Temple Beth Am (along with many members of many local Jewish communities) spent hours sweeping up broken glass, recommitting ourselves to our neighborhood and bringing deeply-appreciated comfort and care to small business owners up reeling from the violence. The work felt like a mitzvah, nothing less.

At the same time, Jews know that broken glass always means more than one thing. If we focus only on the lawlessness of those who diverged from the peaceful and just protests, and absolve ourselves from the obligation to look inward, into the crevices of our own souls that may unconsciously or consciously harbor hatred, racism and bigotry…If we focus only on sweeping away the glass shards of neighborhood stores and then look away as too much of society tries to sweep away years, decades, centuries of racist policies, thuggery and brutality….If we focus only on condemning those that exploited rage to wreak havoc and commit robbery without condemning those who committed the sins that serve as the engine of the protesters’ indignant rage…then we are only conveniently righteous.  And we will condemn ourselves, and our brothers and sisters, to a never-ending cycle of broken glass, sweeping up glass, broken society and empty promises of liberty and justice.

We must come together in this moment. For the blessed and tortured memory of George Floyd. For the good of our city. For the well-being of our conscience. And, yes, for the officers of public safety, including the overwhelming majority of police in our city and every city who are decent people, risking their lives to protect ours.

We must stand against racism, eradicating it in our midst and even where it hides in our souls. We must continue to think and act both righteously and wisely. We must do all this as Angelenos. As Americans. As humans. As Jews. I write this with a heavy heart, and with great love for my fellow Jews, my fellow residents of this great city and my fellow citizens.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am. 

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