By Billy Planer
In the days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I was contacted by synagogues and Jewish organizations to speak to them about what programming they could do as a response. They call because, in a non-COVID world, I lead Civil Rights journeys and run a summer program that takes teens on a journey across America intentionally seeking uncomfortable conversations.
On that Sunday afternoon, two days after my home city of Atlanta, and many others, saw protesting and rioting in their streets, I felt the need to spend time at the Martin Luther King Center, and I sat down by the tombs of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King.
A Black man named Jack came and sat down near me. Because we are in the South, we acknowledged each other and then sat in silence for a bit.
“Watching the news make you want to spend time here?” Jack asked.
I nodded in agreement.
“You ok?” he then asked.
“No. I am not. You?”
“No. I am mad, sad, and scared.”
We sat in silence for a bit.
Jack then asked, “do you think we will get better?”
“I don’t know,” I responded.
“Do you think this country can come together. Black and white?”
“I don’t know, but why not?” I answered. “Why does it have to be that we have to be separated? Why can’t it be just as acceptable that we realize we are connected?”
“It just doesn’t seem to be getting better.”
“If it doesn’t seem like it is getting better, how do we keep going?” he asked.
I looked around for a bit then said, “I guess because we know where we are isn’t working. I saw a sign at one of the marches that said ‘we haven’t come this far only to go this far.'”
Jack then said he was so scared for his kids and nephews/nieces, and we just stared at each other.
“I am so sorry,” was the only thing I could think to say.
“You didn’t do this. You didn’t do anything to me.”
“I’m sorry that we don’t know if it gets better and that this is the America that younger people are growing up in.”
After a few moments in silence, Jack said, “Maybe this is how it starts to get better.”
“I really hope so.” I said, “I think it may be the only way.”
We both got up to leave, and I told Jack that it was really good to meet and talk with him.
“This is the best I have felt since this all began,” Jack said, and then because we are in the South, he asked if I would pray with him, which I did. We stood there with our heads bowed, and he stated some prayers of hope. He looked up and said, “peace be with you, brother,” and I wished him the same and walked away.
Even though I felt such sadness and heaviness, I also felt clarity and connectedness. While we, in the Jewish communal professional world, have never met a problem we didn’t feel we could program a solution to, I came to a realization. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches that we are not to desist from the work, we also don’t need to feel the pressure of creating a program in the typical fashion of a beginning, middle, and end with action items to do. These are different times, and perhaps we need to view the current times and issues with new programming eyes. Eyes that accept the herculean task we have in front of us to honestly confront and dismantle systemic racism and create a new culture of equality. This work cannot, and will not, be done with one program, a series of programs, or events where we have comfortable conversations or endings that send us happily home feeling good about the situation. As Rabbi Tarfon says, we may not know how this ends or ever finish this work. I would suggest that we got to where we are today by having safe and comfortable programming. Perhaps, these times call for us to break it down into a simpler game plan. As Desmond Tutu has said, “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I suggest that we begin to move to a better world by just engaging in very human, very intentional and very heartfelt conversations with people who don’t look, pray, think, speak, love, or vote like us.
When I got home, I posted my conversation on social media, and the response was tremendous. People commented that they needed to read something like this and wanted to have these experiences. I responded by asking them to re-read the conversation I had with Jack. There was nothing planned, no script that we followed except the one from the heart and nothing that solved anything. It was authentic and real, and that was how we connected across many lines that society has set to divide us. All that we need to do is to go out and make ourselves open and vulnerable to having these honest interactions.
I am not a religious person, but my afternoon conversation with Jack was one of the holiest moments I have felt. It made me think this was a step in the right direction on a path I can’t quite see where to take the next step. I don’t know where it goes, how to measure this, or what success looks like but, for right now, let’s go and do. In the end, unlike Moses, who chose not to talk to the rock, it will be one conversation at a time that will bring us to the Promised Land.
Billy Planer, Founder and Director of Etgar 36 has been working in Jewish experiential education for 35 years. During this pandemic, Etgar 36 has had to pivot, offering virtual discussions about Black/Jewish relations and engaging in uncomfortable conversations. They are also offering socially distanced outdoor Civil Rights journeys to the American South.