Good Yontif. I hope everyone is having a safe and meaningful fast so far. May these next 24 hours bring you peace, a cleansed soul, and a satisfied spirit. It’s good to see so many of you here this evening. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the way Yom Kippur tugs at the hearts and souls of even some very unobservant Jews. Every year, I think about those who never attend Shabbat services or observe Jewish law in their homes, but fast and/or come to services on Yom Kippur. Nothing feels as quintessentially Jewish to me as the ending to the original Jazz Singer, where Al Jolsen’s character is torn between following his dream of performing in his jazz show and following his family and heritage to sing Kol Nidre in place of his ailing father. He ultimately chooses the latter, but is still able to salvage his career, and the movie has a happy ending. He can have it all. How many of us feel constantly torn between the demands of secular life, dictated by Christian hegemony in the United States, and our spiritual desires? How often do we choose the former out of convenience or because we feel like we simply have no choice? How could we better find the balance between the two? Can we, too, have it all?
These questions, among others, were raised for me and my fellow social justice-minded observant Jewish friends when news broke of a March for Racial Justice happening tomorrow. The main march is happening here in DC tomorrow, though other sister marches have been planned in other cities around the country. Once the organizers learned that September 30th this year was Yom Kippur and that they had hurt many, many people who would otherwise have supported their march, they sought to ensure that at least the sister marches could occur on other dates, but so much had already been planned for the flagship march, and the protest permit calendar here in DC fills up so quickly, that there was really no option to move the DC march. Tomorrow, while we are all praying, fasting, and cleansing our souls, thousands of people (presumably) will be marching through the streets of our nearest major city, demanding greater racial equality in this country of freedom.
Obviously, this oversight was, as I said, very hurtful to many Jews who would have otherwise attended such a march. Some people let their anger overtake them, lashed out, and were completely unforgiving to the march organizers. I understand that feeling. So often, our holidays are overlooked and dismissed. Our employers or teachers refuse to allow for absences or extensions and excuse this violation of anti-discrimination laws with flippant, “Oh but you just have so many” comments. So when even other interfaith social justice minded groups, who claim to be about liberation for all of us, behave in this ignorant manner, it’s heartbreaking.
However, some folks were able to rise above that feeling. Directors of Jewish social justice organizations and prominent Black Jews reached out to the March for Racial Justice organizers and discussed the matter. As a result, the march organizers released a statement that really communicated heartfelt teshuvah. It was an honest apology, an explanation of why the DC march could not be changed but an assurance that the sister marches would be more accessible for Jewish participants, and a promise that they would never make such a mistake again. It included a commitment to work together, an acknowledgement that wedges between Black and Jewish communities only serves white supremacy and erases the experiences of Black Jews. And it explained in part why September 30th had been chosen in the first place.
Now, I don’t really live my life by the Jewish calendar, and I’m guessing none of you do either. That’s why we feel that tension I mentioned earlier between “American” life and “Jewish” life. I know that Yom Kippur is on the 10th of Tishrei every year, but I still have to look at a calendar in the Spring to think ahead and know exactly when that will be. It is not always September 30th, and if even rabbis and committed Jews need to double check when it falls, it’s not super reasonable to expect that non-Jews will immediately know when it will fall. Of course, Google is free, and almost all calendars have Jewish holidays on them, and Yom Kippur is always in the mid-fall. I have certainly been frustrated at non-Jews’ seeming inability to check for these things before scheduling major events that might affect some of us on our holy days.
September 30th, on the other hand, is always the anniversary of the Elaine Massacre. On September 30th, 1919, approximately 100 Black sharecroppers gathered in a church in Elaine, AR to discuss plans for demanding fairer pay for their labor and their cotton. During the meeting, a car full of white men pulled up to antagonize the Black guards posted in front of the church. No one knows who shot first, but a shootout erupted in front, and one white deputy was killed. The next morning, the county sheriff sent out a troupe to investigate the violence. Although the vast majority of residents of Elaine were non-violent, and just wanted equal rights to assemble and fair working conditions, the sheriff categorized the events of the evening before as “an insurrection,” and the U.S. Department of War sent actual soldiers to help the local police kill civilians in the town. Exact numbers of the massacre were not recorded, but reports at the time estimated around 200 African-Americans were killed, men, women, and children. An approximately equal number of Black men were also arrested, mostly as conspirators and accomplices to the so-called “insurrection”. Some were sentenced to death, some were sentenced to over 20 years in prison; some of the sentences were carried out, and some were overturned. All of the juries were exclusively white, and were praised for restraining themselves from explicitly lynching any of the arrested men.
For almost one hundred years, September 30th has remained constant on the American calendar as the date of an act of large scale racist violence and yet I did not know. This is why the March for Racial Justice was set for this day. Though we can feel disappointed that none of the organizers thought to check a calendar or the internet, knowing that our high holy days are always this time of year, if we are to feel ire at them for that, we must also feel contrite for our own ignorance. We can take this opportunity to learn about this and other such important dates. So many lynchings and acts of violence in our nation’s history, so much teshuvah to still do, and we don’t even know about a lot of it. Toward the end of their apology letter, march organizers state: “We are marching in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are observing the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing antisemitism. We recognize and lift up the intersection of antisemitism and racism perpetrated by white supremacists … and we recognize the need for all of us to work together.”
As Jews, we must also recognize this intersection and be willing to acknowledge our own similar missteps. As we approach this final stretch of the Days of Awe, I know I will be thinking about how my teshuvah can make me a better ally to other oppressed groups, and how I can advocate strongly but with sensitivity for other oppressed groups to be allies for us Jewish people. I encourage you to think on that as well. Where are the gaps in your knowledge of America’s racial injustices, and what can you do to make up for them? Where have you let injustice against yourself or another slide because you just weren’t sure how to speak up? Where have you exacerbated a difficult situation because you let your own anger cloud your sensitivity? How can we balance our Judaism and our responsibilities toward others? They aren’t easy questions to ask yourself, and there are no easy answers. But it’s Yom Kippur, the time for that difficult and painful introspection. May your final hours of teshuvah be meaning and thorough, and your year ahead be one of sweet coexisting. Amen and g’mar chatima tova.