When I was a college student in Minnesota, I went to a protest against the first Gulf War. It generated a fair amount of attention and the local news stations were on hand to cover the demonstration. I have a vivid memory of the person standing next to me holding an American flag, lighting it on fire and throwing it to the ground—while a camera filmed for the evening news. I felt guilty by association.
My father was a World War II vet and while I was against the Gulf War, I was also against burning the American flag. The flag flew at our home on every patriotic holiday. From that day on, I have never been much of a marcher. I try to do the work in the background. This memory comes to mind as protests fill the streets three blocks from our main JFS office on Capitol Hill.
Last weekend, my wife and I brought our children to the healthcare workers march for racial equality. Our son asked me why I was wearing my kippah, which I usually only wear when studying or for religious events. I explained to him that I viewed this march as a holy act and wanted people to know that I was there as a Jew and not just as a citizen of Seattle.
It was a bit unusual bumping into my physician on the march, but also a bit inspiring. As I read some of the placards it was clear I did not agree with all the sentiments among the 7,000 people trailing from Harborview to City Hall. I often don’t agree with the five people in our home, so the odds were against me.
But I do agree that as a community and a country we need to address the issues of institutional racism, unconscious bias and the serious flaws in our law enforcement system that have been the lived experience of virtually the entire Black community since the first slave ship appeared on the horizon off the East Coast over 400 years ago. Many of us have been willfully blind, but the murder of George Floyd has removed the cataracts from our eyes.
Roughly 2,000 years ago the rabbis taught, “Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of their community and does not protest is liable for the transgressions of their community.” Today that is how I feel. This is a time for each of us to reflect upon these words and act in a way consistent with our values.
And so I am asking you not to look for the things you disagree with as a way of continuing with the status quo, but to seek common cause with the things you do agree with in this movement – to recognize the generations of pain, loss and suffering and accept that you don’t have to be a bystander even if you aren’t going to join a march.
Part of growth—be it spiritual, emotional or intellectual—is being willing to hear uncomfortable truths and engage in uneasy conversations. To examine our assumptions and be willing to learn with an open heart and a curious mind. This is core to rabbinic thinking. It is only through this discomfort and curiosity that we can begin to build a better world for all our children and for all of us. It is this spirit that animates our work at JFS.
I want to share some of the specific actions JFS is taking to address these issues.
We commit to:
• Continuing to provide our essential services to people of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Social service is the left hand of social justice.
• Closing our offices on Friday, June 12, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter-Seattle King County statewide day of action and reflection.
• Having necessary and honest conversations around racism, in both private and public spaces. We are currently in the process of meeting with community partners (including the United Way of King County, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and the Seattle Foundation) to have these vital discussions. I continue to meet with a group of Black and Jewish clergy to study and learn together. I am committed to following the lead of the Black community and supporting when and how I am asked in ways consistent with the mission of JFS.
• Taking steps internally as an agency to create a Safe, Respectful and Equitable workplace. We plan to do this by bringing on local diversity consultants to assist us. We encourage our community to stand with us in doing this work.
• Amplifying, promoting and sharing community resources and content like the Anti-Defamation League’s #JusticeShabbat, that deepen our understanding of racism and inequity in our country.
B’Shalom (In Peace),
Rabbi Will Berkovitz
Chief Executive Officer