Skip to content

America’s journey for Justice is Ours to Make 

This is my Kol Nidre Sermon for 5776. There is a special post script after that happened the next day.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah  May you be inscribed in the Book of Life and Memory. .

On this holy night of Kol Nidre –we just prayed that God forgive us from making vows in haste.  Vows that we made last year that we couldn’t fulfill.  Promises that we made to ourselves when last year we stood before God and the Torah scrolls and vowed to change our ways.  How comforting that God forgives us.

Together we recite the Kol Nidre prayer each year knowing that God is always ready to receive us in repentance.  And if you don’t know that—then let me reiterate. God is always ready to receive your repentance and accept your prayer. Today on Yom Kippur and any day of your life even at the very end of your life.  That is why we recite the Viddui prayer on our deathbeds.

The viddui is a prayer we recite also at this season.  We recite the short confession—the Ashmanu and the long confession Al cheyt shechatanu l’fanecha.  For those familiar with daily prayer a form the viddui, is in the Tachanun service added on in the daytime service. The other is the beside vidui—a final confession and last rite for Jews.  No not just for Catholics—the last rites—where do you think they got it from? The viddui prayer helps us confess any of our personal sins while affirming our hope in God.  It ends with a recitation of the Shema and the final words Adonai Hu HaElohim—Adonai is God.  Our Neilah service tomorrow afternoon concludes with these very words.

As the Midrash Tehillim teaches us.  It is written, “Cast your burden upon God and Adonai will sustain you.” (Ps. 55:23)  No matter how many time you bother Adonai,  God will receive you. (Midrash Tehilim 55:6)

But our task on Yom Kippur is two fold—confess and make teshuvah to our God for the sins committed between God and me.  But the much harder task is actually to confess our sins and make teshuvah to the individuals we have hurt. To those we have sinned against-in our words and behavior.  I think it is infinitely harder to go to someone you have a dispute with, someone you know you have hurt, look them in the eye and say the time has come to apologize to you for my behavior toward you. I am truly sorry and I want to take steps to heal our relationship.

That is the beginning of real teshuvah.

My friends we have to make real teshuvah.  We have a pervasive problem.  One that America must deal with.  One that white America must deal with-and that is the sin of racism and bigotry against African Americans.  We as a nation have never come to grips with the horrors of slavery and the continuing systematic dehumanization of black Americans in our country.   And its time for learning and listening and teshuva. Not only in a general way for the sin of bigotry or racism but it is time to come to grips with the institutionalization of racism in the fabric of our American society, the sins of slavery and the ways in which the African American community still suffers from its effect.

I am not saying that we all are bigots. But I am saying that some of our actions have reflected this problem.  When African American members of our congregation tell me –that some question their authenticity as a Jew—we have a problem.  When the African American or mixed race children of our congregation are whispered about—we have a race problem. When you are still using the Yiddish derogatory word – Shvartze to describe an black or brown skinned person –we have a race problem.  And for this we must make teshuvah.

We all have a role to play in the way white privilege has caused us to turn a blind eye about the challenges of being a person of color in this society.

We Jews  didn’t used to be white—we were Jewish.  We were ethnic—white was for Anglo-Saxons Protestants.  We too were excluded from the same covenants and restrictions in clubs, and work and neighborhoods.  But something happened as we Jews  climbed the economic ladder and ladder of privilege.  We began to break into circles that used to not want us.   We worked to throw off our difference changed our names,  got rid of our particularism as Jews  and for most of us—the ultimate horror of the Shoa- made it increasing unfashionable to discriminate against Jews.  Oh there still is Anti-Semitism—I am not naïve.  But lets be clear—we have allowed for the most part the white skin that many Jews have to help us pass in society.  Why now there are even clubs who used to not want us as members and secretly still don’t want us Jews as members who will accept us as members….. As Groucho Marx famously said—“I don’t want to be a member of club who has me as a member.” Go figure.

I know this isn’t a comfortable conversation to have. It never is comfortable or convenient.  But my job as a rabbi is to be a nudge- to wake you up out of your complacency.  America has a race problem.  And that means we do.

There is teshuvah to be done-for the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner,  Dante Parker, Kajieme Powell, Jordan Baker, Rumon Brisbone—I could go on and on listing young men of color, unarmed, shot dead by police or wound up dead in police custody in the last year or so.   Some are names you recognize because they have received publicity. But there are many more that have not.

But you say they were running from police or doing something they should not have been.  We should not  try to justify that kind of brutality done in our name.  We are innocent until proven guilty—at least for white people.  Something tells me that none of those young men if they had been white would be dead now.  Arrested maybe—but not dead.  Even the horrific white murderer Dylan Roof  of 9 African American people in the church in Charleston was arrested and served Burger King because he was hungry. There is a cavalier attitude about the worth of black men and women in our country dates back to the horrific period of slavery-and the very founding of our country when African slaves were only counted as 3/5 of a person.  Not really human.  Not a whole man or woman.

And so out of the fires and protests of Ferguson, MO and Baltimore and Philadelphia and Cleveland, OH, reminiscent of  1993 in our own city we now have to result to a hashtag #blacklivesmatter.  Shouldn’t that be self-evident?  But tragically in our society it is not.  That hashtag is no different than the sign the sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, wore in 1968 as they marched for a  10 cent pay raise, and the right to get out of the rain in the cab of the truck where the white driver sat rather than in the back of the garbage truck with the garbage.The sanitation workers marched that April day in 1968 with signs around their necks.  I am a Man.   It was that very strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis where he was assassinated. Murdered because of racism.

I am speaking tonight about the deep repentance we must do as a country on this issue of race  because our cities have been burning again. Young people are dying here at home. And because this summer I had the honor and privilege to go to Selma, Alabama and carry the Torah on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and each of you as part of the NAACP’s Journey for Justice.  The fact that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed, and 50 years since the march from Selma to Montgomery by Dr. King and other leaders including  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel —and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath who held a Torah during that march who was head of the then Union for American Hebrew Congregations the old, name of Reform Judaism, that we still have to march to restore access for voting for all Americans—means teshuvah must be done. Fifty years ago there were protests for civil rights.  Massive outpourings, the Freedom Summer.  But in the last number of years there has been a steady and constant tearing down of equality for African –Americans and people of color.  Even as we LGBTQ Americans come into fuller equality—we especially who are tasting a bit of liberty and freedom must not turn our heads away from others.   

This summer I was on the first leg of the march of 1000 miles from Selma to Washington, D.C. that ended Sept. 16 with a rally.  More than 200 Reform Rabbis were part of this journey. Every single day through the rural south, often in over 100 degree temperatures—Reform Rabbis marched along side members of the NAACP for fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.

I marched with a Torah from Chicago Sinai congregation—one of the nations oldest Reform Synagogues-Over the Edmund Pettus Bridge—site of the Bloody Sunday riot.  Like Reform Rabbis of the 1960’s  I knew that what I did that day was help renew a long historic partnership between the Jewish and African American communities.  And I know my participation along with 1 of every 10 Reform Rabbis, helped to make a bit of teshuvah-each step of the way.


You may not know but Reform Jews were instrumental in the founding of the  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—now NAACP.  Founded in 1909 some of its earliest Presidents were philanthropist Julius Rosenwald- part owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck and VP  of Chicago Sinai (hence the Torah from that community), and Kivie Kaplan- who was also a founder of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC. our public policy arm.

Fifty years ago this year-the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.  It was an historic turning point in the civil rights movement.  It was drafted in the conference rooms of our own denominations’- the Reform Jewish movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington D.C.  The involvement of Reform Rabbis, and the Reform movement both lay and clergy in the advancement of civil rights has a long history.  But in recent years beyond the pulpit exchanges of Martin Luther King weekend—we have let the deep bonds fizzle-and the commitment to fight racism in this country expire.  And we dare not sit idly by as our country slides backwards—destroying the advances that we once had made.

The Voting Rights Act was destroyed by the Supreme Court, denying access to the ballot box for millions. In a 2013 case:  Shelby County v. Holder by a 5-4 vote.the court struck down a key section of the act. It struck down as unconstitutional Section 4(b), which contains  formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance for any changes in their election law or voting rules based on their histories of discrimination in voting.

And so I marched in Selma to restore and press for the Voting Rights Advancement Act which would fix the problems identified in Shelby v. Holder and restore the protections of the ballot box and equal access to the ballot box for all citizens.  No more keeping African American and Latino citizens from exercising their franchise to vote.

I marched in Selma because the education system in this country is limping not only for African American children but all children as the surge to privatize the greatest gift we give our children has taken hold.  And the lack of funding for public education, in particular in zip codes that have greatest poverty is part of the unwillingness to support the common communal fabric with tax dollars.  We here in California know all too well how the California public Education system from University to pre-K has been destroyed and tarnished what was once one of the best education systems in the country. The Journey for Justice called for a safe and equal access to education for all students.

And my participation and the leadership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and our Religious Action Center was built upon history. But our participation in this Journey for Justice is fueled by the recognition that the work isn’t over—in fact it seems that there has been increasing evidence that our country-has moved backwards in its advance toward equality for African Americans.

August 2013, Sentencing Project report on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, submitted to the United Nations, “…one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime”. The discrepancies in sentencing are overwhelming and another effect of the  racism in our midst.

In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson describes the incredible odds against African Americans in the criminal Justice systems.  He was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, located in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system

I met Bryan this April at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. He spoke to us passionately about the deep biases inherent in the criminal justice system-of the inconsistencies in setting bail, and sentencing, and particularly in death penalty cases for African Americans-and brought the proof with him.

He shared this story about just one aspect of the racial problems in the criminal justice system:

A defense lawyer who also happens to be African American arrives early for trial dressed in a suit and sits waiting at the defense counsel’s table. The judge and prosecutor walk out talking casually. Catching sight of the lawyer, the judge orders him to leave the courtroom because defendants are not permitted inside before their lawyers arrive.

What does the lawyer do? He introduces himself as the lawyer for the defense.

What does the judge do? …Laughs nervously. The prosecutor?… Laughs nervously? And the lawyer? …Wills himself to laugh nervously because he is unwilling to risk prejudicing the judge against his client.

Where in the country do you think this happened?…not in the South but in the Midwest. When?…not in the 1950s but today.

That defense attorney was Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson not only confronts these presumptions in his professional life, but he and other African Americans endure implicit racism on a personal level as well.

The Great 17th Century Sage :  Ya’akov Emden (Germany, 1697-1776) She’elat Ya’betz wrote:

A Jew who has power/authority (adam chashuv) has the obligation to rescue the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor by all means available to him, whether by direct action or through political effort, regardless of whether the oppressed is Jewish.

And so when I marched in Selma and more than 200 Reform rabbis marched on America’s Journey for justice to help right a grievous wrong. As part a process of teshuvah for my complacency.  For our complacency.

Reform Rabbis and our Religious Action Center are committed to doing something and with your help we will not any longer sit idly by the blood of our neighbors. Mauled by the beasts of racism. We can be champions of teshuvah and healing and hope.

So tonight on this Kol Nidre, on this holy night.  I am asking you to do two things to make a difference.  First, on your way out there are post cards from our Religious Action Center.  They have the historic photograph of Dr. King and Rabbis Heschel and Eisendrath walking together at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, where I journeyed this summer.  Take one. And sign it and join with 1000’s of other Reform Jews this High Holy Days who will urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act so that access to the ballot box especially in places with deep racism, poll taxes, and are using other tactics to deny African Americans or other people of color, the ability to vote if they are citizens.

Secondly right here in our own state—the Assembly and Senate just passed bill number 953. Let us together as part of Reform CA-call our Governor so that he will sign AB 953.

African Americans and Latinos are disproportionally more likely to be detained, arrested, charged with a crime, imprisoned, and killed by police than whites. The Talmud teaches us that God created mankind from one human being so that no person can say, “My ancestor is greater than yours.” We are taught in Pirkei Avote that “your friend’s dignity should be as dear to you as your own.” Jewish tradition compels us to speak out against biased policing. AB 953 will enhance transparency and accountability, mend trust in law enforcement, and improve public safety. As part of our teshuvah this season I am asking you to  contact Gov. Brown and urge him to sign AB 953.

Your call or email to Gov. Brown makes you part of a strong Reform Jewish force for racial justice in California. You will have a direct impact on the lives of our neighbors and people of color.

The journey for Justice is long.  What began in Selma on a hot summer day, blistering in 106 degree temperatures, you can continue.  Continue it for our country. Continue it because we cannot continue to stand by the blood of our neighbors and family members.  Continue to make teshuvah for the ways we have turned a blind eye.  And we can’t look away any longer.

Not from Eric Garner who ended up dead because he sold a few illegal cigarettes or Trayvon Martin who was walking home from the 7/11.

Because of a friend I made that day in Selma—his name was Middle Passage.  I did a double take when I met him…not sure I had heard him correctly—but I did .  Rabbi Lustig and I  gave him a ride from the opening prayer ceremony at the Boyton house to the rally and the bridge. Middle Passage was a 68 year old African American veteran who rode a bus from his home in La Rae Colorado, 1300 miles to join the march.  His hair was long and in dreadlocks  with a touch of grey. He wore a big straw hat and had his sleeping bag with him and a smile on his face.  He told me he took the name Middle Passage because of slavery… (For those that don’t know The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of Africans were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade.)

He told me he was marching because his late younger brother, Reverend Dr. Larry C Menyweather-Woods, a Reformed Zion Union Apostolic church pastor and longtime NAACP member who fought for civil rights.

Each day of the journey—including the first day—Middle Passage was at the front of the marchers. He carried with him most days a huge American flag—that he wore with a special holster designed for flags like are worn by a military color guard.  Each day Middle Passage would call out from the front to those of us further back—pothole, be careful, uneven pavement—so that no one would fall or trip on the way.   Middle Passage in many ways was the heart and soul of the Journey.  He was friendly, accepting of everyone and kept all of us focused about the importance of the Journey for Justice.

Middle Passage died on mile 922 of the journey—Saturday before Rosh Hahshanah suffering a massive coronary. He inspires me still and this holy days I am saying Kaddish for him. I now work for racial equality in his name.  He touched all of us deeply in his love for our country and his effervescent energy that we can and must do more.  Middle Passage—you didn’t finish that Journey for Justice—but we will.

So too a young woman Keshia Thomas.  She did finish the actual march.  She marched every day the entire way. From that push-off in Selma to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Such an inspiration.  She often carried the Torah—and she befriended every rabbi who marched- because she felt the rabbis and the Jewish community were really there for her—unlike other religious groups—no other organized group of clergy marched…..

Keshia is a heroine in her own right. In June 1996 a branch of the Ku Klux Klan announced plans to hold a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Several people in the Ann Arbor area planned to hold a protest against the Ku Klux Klan’s presence on the day of the rally. Thomas was one of several people that attended and protested from an area that had been fenced and set aside for the protesters. The protest proceeded until one protester announced over a megaphone that there was “a Klansman in the crowd”.The unnamed man was a middle-aged white male wearing a t-shirt depicting the Confederate flag and an “SS tattoo”. The man began to run but was knocked down, kicked, and beaten with placards. Keshia, who was at that time 18 years old, shielded the man from the crowd and shouted for the attackers to stop. And they did.  

After the rally Keshia was praised for her actions.

She said she had protected the man because of her religious convictions and  because she “knew what it was like to be hurt … The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.” A few months after the June event, she said, “I was hanging out at a coffee house and I remember one of the locals coming up to me and saying thank you. I said for what…he said that that was his dad that I saved. That was powerful.”  Keshia wil be visiting Kol Ami Friday night Oct. 2 in our Sukkah.  I hope will join me in meet this true hero.

What is powerful is when we can be like Keshia and Middle Passage of blessed memory, marching forward, encouraging us all to be part of America’s Journey for Justice.  All two hundred rabbis who marched are speaking to our congregations this High Holy Days season to enlist each of you to be part of this journey for justice and racial equality in our country and around the world.  On this Kol Nidre eve-let us as a community- make teshuvah for the sins of bigotry our own and our nations. (music enters) On this Kol Nidre let us take some concrete actions-that will change the way our state and our country treat people of color. And in this coming year-let us work on personally ridding ourselves of the biases and prejudices that creep into our every day interactions without us being mindful of the them. And in this New Year-let us reach out and take steps to be part of renewed partnership between the Reform Jewish community and the African – American community working side by side for racial justice and equality, equal access to the ballot box, safe top notch public schools, transparent policing, and a true reformation of our criminal justice system.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.


P.S. These are some of the photos the flashed on the screen during the sermon. The next morning my synagogue Board of Trustees announced they had bought a memorial plaque for Middle Passage as a way to commemorate his life and a a step in the journey for justice.