February 26, 2021
At Beth Emet we are committed to the Jewish value that all human beings are created in the image of God and deserving of dignity and respect. I’m proud that our Board of Trustees voted unanimously that we should act on that commitment by displaying a Black Lives Matter banner on the exterior of our building. Above the words “Black Lives Matter,” our sign reads, “B’tzelem Elohim—In the image of God.”
As of today, that signage is now hanging on our building and serves as a proud expression of our solidarity with the Black community and as a statement of our commitment to opposing racism and working to eradicate all systems of oppression in our society.
Jewish tradition emphasizes the critical importance of pursuing justice, which is summed up in the following words from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof”—Justice, justice shall you pursue, and also the necessity of raising our voices when our fellow human beings are in danger. In the Book of Esther, which we read last night on Purim, Mordechai exhorts Esther to speak up on behalf of the Jews, staying: “Perhaps you have come into the kingdom for such a crisis as this.” (Esther 4:14)
Beth Emet has been active for many years on issues of racial justice. After the killing of George Floyd last spring and the protests that followed, many institutions sought to raise the profile of state violence against Black people by displaying Black Lives Matters signs on their property. These signs became a widespread symbol of solidarity with the protesters and signaled to Black people across the country that a growing number of white people were also outraged at the devaluing of Black lives.
Yet there has also been a backlash against Black Lives Matter signage. Right here in Evanston, the Black Lives Matter sign at Northminster Presbyterian Church on Central Street was vandalized in December, with the word “Black” cut out of the sign. A week after the sign was repaired and additional signs were added, all of the signs were stolen from the church’s property.
Evanston Interfaith Clergy and Leaders met soon thereafter to discuss our response to these acts of hatred and vandalism. Under the guidance of Pastor Michael Nabors of Second Baptist Church, we decided that erecting Black Lives Matters signs outside as many Evanston religious institutions as possible would be a powerful act of solidarity and an expression of our values. The clergy also prepared a joint statement articulating our values and commitments. Beth Emet’s Board agreed that now was the time to amplify our Jewish voices on this issue.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach,
Some in our community may have reservations about expressing the sentiment “Black lives matter.” I’d like to address some of most common questions and concerns about this expression of solidarity with our fellow Americans.
In the early 2000s, our Board agreed that it would be willing to vote on public statements and actions proposed by Beth Emet members following a period of education and awareness-raising within the congregation.
We have been educating the Beth Emet community about issues of systemic racism for many years, and, in particular, since 2013 when Beth Emet and Second Baptist teens took a civil rights trip together, which included intensive education on the history of racism in our country and its role in our society. In preparation for, and subsequent to, that trip, Beth Emet has been educating not just our teens, but also adults in our congregation. In the next several weeks alone, we will offer several opportunities to learn more about racism in America. On February 28, we will hold a dialogue with members of Second Baptist Church about the movie “Between the World and Me” based on the book by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Click here to sign up), and on March 4, we will discuss the book, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (Click here to sign up). I hope you will avail yourself of these opportunities.
The phrase “Black lives matter” was first used by a Black community organizer in a Facebook post following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death in Florida of black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Both the use of #blacklivesmatter in social media and the influence of the broader Black Lives Matter movement accelerated greatly in August 2014 after the fatal shooting of another Black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
In 2016, a consortium of activists organized themselves as the Movement for Black Lives and issued a statement that laid out the history of the devaluing of the lives of people of color and how they believe our country should address this issue. In that statement, they claimed that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians, which troubled many in the Jewish community.
Last summer, the Movement for Black Lives republished its 2016 statement without the reference to genocide against the Palestinians.
Regardless, embracing the sentiment that “Black lives matter” is not an endorsement of a particular document or organization. Black Lives Matter is not a single organization, nor does the Movement for Black Lives have sole claim to it. Rather, declaring that Black lives matter is a way to recognize that the lives of Black people in our country have been continually devalued and subjected to institutional racism and brutality, and that the killing and harassment of Black people, the mass incarceration of people of color, and the economic distress suffered disproportionately by people of color are issues that must be addressed by us and not left to future generations.
Making this statement might not sit well with everyone in the community, but this doesn’t mean we should shy away from doing so if we believe this is morally the right thing to do. Our responsibility as a religious institution is to live out our values even if they are unpopular. Over the years, controversial issues have been brought to the Beth Emet Board, and the Board has given careful consideration to those issues and produced statements and taken public stands. Two during my tenure come to mind. During the second Iraq War, the Board issued a statement in opposition to the US invasion and a banner was subsequently placed on our lawn. In 2017, the Board reaffirmed the congregation’s 1987 commitment to being a sanctuary congregation in support of the rights of immigrants and refugees in our community.
Supporting justice for the Black community doesn’t negate our concern about rising anti-Semitism. Last year, we held a well-attended program at Beth Emet on anti-Semitism. The Evanston Police Department regularly drives by Beth Emet and officers in squad cars frequently park in our parking lot to ensure the safety of our building. I have met personally with Evanston’s police chief, Demitrous Cook, to discuss our concerns about anti-Semitism and the possibilities of violence and destruction of property.
Over the past several years, hate crimes directed at many minorities in our society have increased. When xenophobia increases, no marginalized group is immune. We have only to look at the Capitol Hill rioters to see some wearing clothing adorned with anti-Semitic statements and others with racist paraphernalia. Over the summer, in a series of conversations on whiteness at Beth Emet, we read an article by civil rights strategist Eric Ward about how anti-Semitism animates and undergirds racism.
We also know that people of color suffer disproportionately from discrimination, and the movement to address systemic race-based injustice was energized by demonstrations over the summer. We all stand to benefit from efforts to eradicate systems of oppression, whether those systems target Jews, Blacks or other minorities. Hatred of any group tends to beget hate of other marginalized groups. Standing in solidarity and working together is the most effective approach to creating a more just and compassionate society.
I will never forget how appreciative we were when so many members of the non-Jewish community stood up with us following the mass shooting at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh in 2018. Our sanctuary was filled to overflowing that evening, and the majority of those present were not Jewish. I believe that outpouring of support was a reflection of the fact we have always stood up with and for other communities in their times of need. Immediately following the shooting, my phone rang non-stop with messages of support and concern from leaders in the local Christian, Muslim, Black, Buddhist, Quaker and Ba’hai communities.
A friend who leads a prominent Chicago Muslim organization once put it to me this way: “Andrea, anti-Semitism is my concern; Islamophobia is yours.” He meant that when communities speak up for other targeted communities, people pay attention and real change can happen. I believe that our work on issues of racism not only benefits communities of color, but all of us. I am proud of our Board for its decision to display the Black Lives Matter sign on our property because it is emblematic of our values and of our belief that the best way to create the Beloved Community about which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke is to stand together against hate and bigotry and build a society based on love, equity, and justice for all.