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“B’chol dor va’dor chayav adam lirot atzmu k’ilu hu yatza mi’mitzrayim,” from generation to generation, each person is required to imagine that they themselves went forth from Egypt.
- Mishnah Pesachim 10:5
When we received the opportunity of a Better Together* grant, designed to bring Jewish high school students and senior citizens together at Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains, NJ, we decided to address a request from our post-Confirmation students to engage in issues that challenge them in the real world.
We set out to build meaningful learning about civil rights by inviting seniors from our congregation who had been involved in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. The goal was for our teens to learn from our seniors about how they had seen the world change and what they had done to help change it. We then invited a parallel cohort of African-American teens and seniors to enter the dialogue. Our group meets monthly, and outside of our discussions about history, we share ideas that look to the future, including defining “a movement” and how one is formed. Participants share stories about successful and unsuccessful attempts to make change and explore life experiences that both separate and bridge generations, backgrounds, and religions.
But, what motivates an American Jew to care about racism? In some ways, the question itself is presumptuous; a black American has no choice but to deal with issues of discrimination, every day. Racism is inherent in our society, and it is only the privilege of passing as “white” that allows one to imagine they are ignoring race. Yet, for white-passing Jews, the question may still lay there – Why get involved?
The simple and obvious answer, that is found in Jewish text, has the potential to be a minefield. What is said in most synagogue religious school classrooms, that we “remember how we were once slaves in Egypt,” is not as easy to say to a person whose national racial identity is identified with actually having been in slavery – not three millennia ago, but barely a century and a half. We often think that the thing the Jewish narrative has in common with the African-American narrative is the centrality of slavery. But, what we came to realize in our discussions is that after 400 years of slavery, the Jews left the place of degradation. The Israelites set out across the desert to enter into a divine covenant and found a promised land. Yet, African-Americans still live in metaphoric Egypt, in the land of slavery. The national covenant had to be remade (and remade again, and again) to specifically enumerate equal rights for blacks, as well. The United States, the promised land or “land of the free” in the African-American story, has also been the land of captivity and transport.
When the subject came up, as the rabbi at Temple Sholom, I delicately explained the central role of the Exodus narrative and how so many commandments are justified because we remember that we were slaves in Egypt. There was a moment of soul-baring. Was the myth true? Did the identification of African-American slaves with the redemption of the Exodus story truly serve as a bond – across millennia and between mythical Biblical Israelites and actual Jews and African-Americans in the 21st century? After all, the memory of African-American slavery has reached a similar point to the memory of the Holocaust, where both have begun to transition in our modern history. My generation heard the story from survivors of the ghettos. The next generation will only hear the horror from second-hand witnesses. There are Americans alive today who have heard about slavery from those who survived it, but those survivors now only live on in memory.
What we found is that the tie is there, but with caveats. In this conversation about civil rights and race issues today, slavery is less a metaphor and more of a lived experience, not just because of the shorter distance in time, but because of the real consequences of black slavery that still exist in our society. In contrast, the anti-Semitism of today is not fueled by a reaction to the ten plagues.
Yet, there is the beginning of a bridge in the willingness to hear another’s experience as if it might have been one’s own. We are commanded, in each generation, to tell the story as if we, ourselves, were slaves in Egypt. While there is still slavery, while there is still oppression, it is all too easy to find first-hand accounts. The goal, however, is not to re-live the slavery. The goal is to work to share the redemption and to march together in our mixed multitudes toward that shared dream of a Promised Land.
*The Better Together Program is generously supported by a prominent national foundation and brings together Jewish teens and seniors for learning, sharing, and relationship building in synagogues, day schools and senior centers. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with our congregations to bring this programming to local communities.