How Can You Live When You Can’t Breathe?

“I can’t breathe,” my friend said, when I asked how he was holding up Friday morning. He is part of my small Black/Jewish clergy study group. I told him I would follow his lead while standing by his side. I said I couldn’t fully understand. He was grieving and thinking through how to respond to the many unfolding tragedies that we are seeing across our communities, and across the U.S. I won’t go into the details of the day, but I swayed between optimism and sorrow. Today it is harder to see the optimism as the protests that began in response to the tragic death of an unarmed Black man are being distorted and hijacked.

Across the country there is lot of dry tinder and the winds are blowing. If we don’t recognize these growing disparities, soon we will all be struggling for breath.

My college roommate in Minneapolis, where I grew up, texted the other day saying, “We are ok, but not doing ok. The last nights have been awful, smoke, fire, noise, not knowing how close it’s all gonna come…the Walgreens a block from our house was ransacked….It hasn’t been acutely scary as much as the anxiety and sorrow and anger—at a bunch of levels—that’s been wearing. And the boys have been freaked out.”

Another friend, who lives in the same neighborhood shared, “The memory of George Floyd has been coopted as anarchists and white supremacists have infiltrated with their agendas.”

George Floyd is the latest human face of so much pain – pain that some of us are only beginning to comprehend. Many of us are late to a party no one wants to attend. I find myself thinking, how can you “have a dream” when you can’t breathe? How can you “cash a check” when you can’t breathe? How can you “respond to the fierce urgency of now” when you can’t breathe? How can you live, when you can’t breathe?

I was in touch with Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best on Thursday to ask how she was holding up. Her sadness was evident. A Black woman leading the very department, which is the symbol of so much anger. As a Jew I understand the challenge of holding multiple identities. In my childhood whenever someone was on the news for doing something either good or bad, the question was always, “Are they Jewish?” I was taught to be aware people won’t separate me from every other Jewish person on the planet. Part of their guilt is mine; part of their pride is mine. That is true for all Americans today. We want to see a world in binaries, but it is not the way of the world. Life is about hard decisions made in the grey.

Receiving a text alert about curfews in Seattle the other night, and National Guard being called up, I was left saddened, confused and angry. As I struggle to explain to our young children what is happening and why, I am becoming deeply aware of the limits of my understanding.

I want to assure you that despite the length of the road we will continue to be on this journey together – as we have been for generations. I have always seen social service as the left hand of social justice. I know some may disagree. So in our way, we will continue to walk with all those who work for a more just and compassionate society, and we will continue to seek partnership with those who have a greater understanding than our own. I see this as foundational to our work at JFS as it always has been since 1892.

It is only by working together over the long arc of time that we will help each other breathe deeply the pure air of justice.

In peace,


Rabbi Will Berkovitz
Chief Executive Officer

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