Why Jews should Honor Black History Month: Sermon given on Feb. 5 by Student Rabbi Leslee Estrada

This week my friend sent me a video from back in 2014 which is being circulated around again as we enter February, which we all know is designated in the US as Black History Month. In honor of the Month’s celebration, Saturday Night Live cast members Jay Pharoah, Sasheer Zamata, and Kenan Thompson released a skit. Posing as students in a class, they sang a song that offered 28 reasons to hug a black guy today. Reason number one: they deserve a chance. Reasons two through 28: slavery. SNL’s skit was very funny and very powerful. And, in light of this week’s Torah and Haftarah portions about slavery (Exodus 21 and Jeremiah 34, respectively), in light of the fact that we’re just starting February, I was inspired to come up with a list as to why I, as a Jew, want to participate in Black History Month, and why I think all of us should. To keep my list a reasonable length, I came up with my top 5 reasons.

Number 5:  Jews participated in slavery in America.

In the mid-19th century, Rabbi David Einhorn stood at the pulpit of Har Sinai in Baltimore and gave a sermon to his congregation, many of whom were slave owners and slavery supporters. In this sermon our Reform forefather proclaimed that slavery should be abolished, and explained why it was immoral, and why as Jews we should stand against it. The sermon, as you can probably imagine, received a great deal of negative response: congregants walked out, congregants disagreed, congregants complained. But Rabbi Einhorn remained quiet all week, listening to the words of his congregants, until the next Shabbat arrived, when he once again stood at the pulpit. That week, he gave a stronger sermon as to why he identified as an abolitionist and why his congregation should as well. He began his sermon with these words: “It seems I was not clear last week.” And what happened? Congregants walked out, congregants disagreed, congregants complained. A week went by, and the next week, he stood at the pulpit for a third time and said “I apologize for my last two sermons. Apparently I have not been clear,” after which he gave one of the strongest Jewish sermons ever recorded against slavery.[1]

This anecdote shows us that some Jews were staunchly against slavery, while others were pro-slavery. The historical record shows that during the Civil War, Jews fought for both the North and the South. As many as 4 thousand Jews bore arms for the Confederacy, which would have protected the institution of slavery. The members of southern Jewry who owned slaves or otherwise benefited from the slave trade were able to because…

Number 4:  Ashkenazi Jews, who are genetically descended from a long line of other Ashkenazic Jews, look very white, and along with other light-skinned ethnic Jews and Jews by Choice, we benefit from white privilege in America.

Here's why I think so:

1. Jews look like every other American. I look like every other white American woman, and get treated as such when I'm out in public. That means everyone around me assumes from my looks that I am a member of that majority group. I don't feel the experience of racism. The prejudice that I’ve experienced first-hand has been sexism, but NOT racism.

2. While Jews face economic and social difficulties like everyone else does, many Ashkenazic Jews benefit greatly from the social status attained due to the fact that they look like all other white people. Here's one example: during the 1950s, Jews were part of the migration of (white) Americans into suburbia. Some settled together into Jewish neighborhoods, and many didn't, and all around they became integrated into the larger suburban establishment. They joined country clubs and rotary clubs; socialized at block parties and barbecues; sent their kids to the same schools and after-school activities as all the other kids. And those who couldn't participate in ANY of this? Blacks. Hispanics. Asians. Any other minority group who is regularly discriminated against because of their looks. I know that I personally have benefited greatly from the social and financial status I inherited from my parents, who in turn benefited from white privilege to be able to get a better education, get ahead in business, get better mortgages, etc.

I would never dream of discounting antisemitism or the continuous persecution that Jews have faced throughout history. But the antisemitism in America has largely consisted of prejudice against Judaism as a religion, not as a race. And I know that because of my skin, I benefit from the system that is rigged to benefit me every step of the way. While my skin tone is shared by the majority of Jews in America, we must remember that…

Number 3:  Many Jews aren’t white! 

Studies show that 20% of Jews in America are either non-Ashkenazi or non-white. More and more Jews from black, latino, and Asian descent are gaining visibility in the Jewish community. In the last decade, Hebrew Union College has ordained the first female Asian-American rabbi, Angela Buchdall of New York, and the first female African American rabbi, Alysa Stanton of Ohio. As rates of intermarriage and conversion rise, so too do we see more Jews of color in congregations. Other Jews of color became Jews through adoption. Rabbi Kelly Gludt adopted her son Romi as a baby from Asia, and he dazzled the congregation his mother served with his charming smile and zeal for our tradition, for his tradition. In American Judaism we even have several predominantly black congregations. Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago has 200 members. We must remember our fellows Jews of color, and recognize that…

Number 2:  Black History Month gives us the opportunity to celebrate the best of black history and culture. 

“All too often, only the most negative aspects of African American culture and communities get highlighted. We hear about the poverty rates, incarceration rates, and high school drop out rates. We are inundated with images of unruly athletes and raunchy reality TV stars as paradigms of success for Black people.” And we are daily subject to unfair stereotypes and assumptions from a culture that is, in some aspects, still learning to accept people of color among a white majority culture.

We should be careful not to talk about all Black people as in need our help or rescue. I listened to a sermon recently by an Orthodox rabbi who went off in this sermon about the absence of the black father. This rabbi completely othered the American black community, and any Jews of color among his congregation, as he painted a highly nuanced issue with a very broad brush that he had little business using in the first place. 

Black History Month provides the chance to focus on different aspects of the African American narrative. “We can applaud Madam C.J. Walker as the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S. We can let our eyes flit across the verses of poetry Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American poet and woman to publish a book. And we can groove to soulful jazz and somber blues music composed by the likes of Miles Davis and Robert Johnson. Black History Month [encourages] us to seek out and lift up the best in African American accomplishments.”

Number 1:  Black History Month gives us the opportunity to honor our history. 

Author Jemar Tisby writes, “It pains me to see people overlooking Black History Month because Black history –just like Hispanic, Asian, European, and Native history–belongs to all of us. Black and White, men and women, young and old.  The impact African Americans have made on this country is part of our collective consciousness. Contemplating Black history draws people of every race into the grand and diverse story of this nation.”[2] As Americans, as advocates for pluralism and multiculturalism, as Jews, we should take time this month of February to celebrate the history of our brethren. Jews are pros at celebrating history, right?

[1] https://islandrabbi.wordpress.com/2015/10/10/erev-shabbat-sermon-10-9-15-may-i-only-give-this-sermon-once/

[2] https://www.raanetwork.org/5-reasons-you-should-celebrate-black-history-month/