Public Justice

I have said the words of the Yom Kippur Vidui many times, always awkwardly aware that most of the list of sins did not apply to me. I never thought I would come to embrace its awkwardness, and I certainly never imagined that it could guide me towards making decisions I was afraid to make.

This year I have experienced a radical shift towards embracing the Vidui.” A few weeks ago my rabbi asked me write a “Racial Justice Vidui.” She’d noticed my recent Facebook posting about the events in Ferguson, and she hoped I could translate these themes for our congregation. I agreed without remembering how awkward I felt about the prayer, but when I sat down to read through the liturgy to find the best part to adapt, I found myself immersed in language that felt oddly familiar.

As I read the Vidui I began to notice that the prayer shares a narrative framework with the ideology of social justice facilitation; privileged groups have collective responsibility for ending oppression, whether or not the individuals started the oppression. I suddenly saw that my rabbi had given me a great gift in the form of a seemingly simple ritual request. I have spent so much time trying to explain that I think that white people should collectively account for racism, but I never noticed the powerful rhetorical tools that Yom Kippur offered me. As I wrote my “Racial Justice Vidui”, I found myself making a decision.

This Yom Kippur I will recite my “Racial Justice Vidui” in front of my congregation in West Philadelphia, and a few days later I will be in my hometown of St. Louis. There, I will join with clergy and activists from across the country to stand against continuing inaction on police brutality, and will participate in civil disobedience that will likely lead to my arrest. I have been afraid to commit to this action, but yesterday I bought the plane tickets. I now see that this is the natural action to follow my recitation. It is the next step in my process of communal and familial teshuvah.

My family escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe and settled in Alabama in the 1900’s, where they found safety and prosperity under Jim Crow. In Alabama, my family’s drastic rise in fortune contrasted starkly with the suffering of their black neighbors. My parents were largely cared for by black women who were prohibited by law from using the same restrooms as them. Their high schools were integrated amidst bomb threats. Lynchings were committed in their name because now they were white. This contrast is not just ironic, it is criminal.

It is clear to me that whether or not I asked for it, racism is my legacy and these are my sins. This Yom Kippur, I will ask forgiveness from God in the plural because I need to believe that other white people will ask forgiveness with me. I cannot stand out here alone, airing my family’s dirty laundry. I need my white Jewish family to stand with me.

And, yes, I do this too because I need my white family to act on behalf of my family that is not white. I need a public accounting as a member of a multiracial family unit, and as a member in the united human family. I need this for my black husband and his siblings, for my brown niece and nephew, and for my friends and their children. I wrote this prayer because I need to hear love and apologies spoken aloud. Because, as Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public,” and because apologies are what God commands on Yom Kippur and acts of justice are what God expects in the year that follows.

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