How Black History Month is Transforming my Jewish Identity

"If I Am Not For Myself Who Will Be For Me" by David Baruch Wolk; courtesy Fine Art America.
“If I Am Not For Myself Who Will Be For Me” by David Baruch Wolk; courtesy Fine Art America.

By David J. Steiner, Ed.D.

I was a director of education in both the Reform and Conservative movements. I entered the field upon completing my doctorate in education. I wrote a dissertation about peace education for Palestinians and Israelis, and it led me to the conclusion that you need to work in your own community to advance change and achieve peace.

For the past few years, I have stepped away from leadership in our schools. I still teach, but I have also become a student and practitioner of alternative conflict resolution. I mediate conflicts in a county court house twice a week and have been trained in restorative justice. However, the most transformative experience in this period has been to work at an Afro-centric charter school in Englewood, the neighborhood where Spike Lee’s movie Chiraq takes place. I was inspired to do this for three reasons. I feel charged by Hillel’s claim that “if I am only for myself, what am I?” I also went to learn about my own practice by comparison to others and by a call to civic duty to be engaged in the quality of life and equity for all people in my fair city.

Black History Month coincides with the beginning of the month of Adar. Entering this month is supposed to be a call to revel in joy, but for leaders in the community it is also a reminder that the most significant Jewish holiday is approaching. Every year during Adar, I start to explore how I want to focus my Passover seder. This year, the obvious direction is refugees, but there are two reasons why I will not be going in this direction. The more obvious is the fact that I am deeply engaged in the struggle of African Americans at this time in my life. The very personal reason is that I am not sure I feel very aligned with Jewish responses to refugees in light of the way Israel deported Sudanese families back to the country they fled. (Brief disclaimer: two of those children were my son’s buddies who we have since assured will get a safe and quality education in Kampala, Uganda.)

This year, as I prepare for Passover, I am looking at our story from the outside and comparing it to the African American experience. On Passover, many of us will tell the story of divine intervention that freed us from bondage in Egypt. Some of us will decidedly not give credit to divinity. I fall into this category and see Moses, who is almost completely left out of the traditional seder, as the hero in a similar fashion to Woody Guthrie’s Jesus, a carpenter/labor leader and teacher. Driving from Evanston to Englewood, I find it incredibly optimistic for African Americans to believe in any kind of deity when I see the contrast between my own neighborhood and theirs. Of course, they could say to themselves, “This has nothing to do with God. White people brought us to this country, enslaved us, wouldn’t emancipate us without a major fight and then oppressed and neglected us for the next 150 years.”

In the Jewish story, we are freed from slavery, take reparations from our oppressors, have a constitutional congress at Sinai, move back to our land and enjoy sovereignty – until we mess it up and lose the privilege of self-determination. The African American story is much different. They did not come to America like Joseph and his brothers. They were forcibly brought here in the vilest chapter of American history – the Middle Passage. When they arrived, they were not treated well like the first generation of Jews in Egypt. They were enslaved and only won their freedom because a white president decided that the federal government should have priority in setting the agenda of the country. The Civil War was not fought to free the slaves. Black freedom was only a consequence of that war.

Upon liberation, African Americans were never given reparations. Forty Acres and a mule was not ubiquitous and it hardly compares to the gold and silver our ancestors demanded and used to build a golden calf and a tabernacle in the desert.

In the Exodus from Egypt, our people took with them the bones of Joseph and the instruments Miriam and the women danced with upon successfully crossing the Sea of Reeds. While African Americans have not crossed the Atlantic Ocean and returned to their ancestral homeland, they have successfully built a beautiful, rich and meaningful culture in this country, despite the challenges they experience here. In Englewood, they do even more. They try to reach across the ocean and bring their ancestral culture back into their lives. The reason they have to do it this way is that they never left the place of their oppression. They never were privileged with a constitutional congress like we were at Sinai. They never were privileged with sovereignty, but they also didn’t mess it up.

One of the saddest lessons of working in Englewood this year, in the context of all the troubles in Israel, is that it has become increasingly tempting to determine that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Before the Persians conquered us, under the Hashmoneans and before the Romans occupied our land, we had opportunities to prove sovereignty can work, but we fought amongst ourselves, treated each other poorly and let power corrupt our national experiment. Now, two thousand years later, it looks like history is repeating itself. In Israel, where half of our people have come together to conduct themselves as a country among the comity of nations, we have become oppressors of our neighbors. We destroy our own democracy by making second class citizens of our Palestinian citizens. We teeter on the edge of fascism with restrictive laws that target variations of the “official” religion of the state, and we outlaw opposition with legislation, which limits resistance to the demagoguery of our leaders.

So this year, when I sit around the table with family and friends over matzah and charoset, I won’t be focused on refugees. I will direct attention to those who haven’t even been privileged to get away from the country of their oppression or exert their civil and human rights within it. I will look to the Nguzo Saba and principles of Ma’at and see what is missing and what could be improved upon. And most importantly, I will recommit myself to the first part of Hillel’s statement, “If I am not for myself, who am I,” and will recommit myself to the greatness of my people and the correction of our troubled ways.

David Steiner, Ed.D, is a mediator in Chicago and rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.