It is with great sadness that I write this blog at a time when our country is experiencing deeply painful challenges beyond the pandemic, which are instilling fear in many, hatred in others, and undoubtedly, uncertainty and moral confusion for most of us. These profoundly challenging times demand our attention and response. And though I am just one small voice, I most humbly feel morally compelled, as a Jewish educator, an American, and a parent, to share my thoughts with whoever will read them. I fear my silence would otherwise make me complicit in the hatred overtaking our country. My voice and my actions are driven by my Jewish values and traditions and my belief in a “more perfect union.”
Our country is hurting, and is struggling for its soul. Racial divisions have turned deadly. The recent tragic killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police and former police officers, and the continued violence on the streets of America against peaceful protestors, force us to confront, yet again, the blatant racism that pervades our society.
I remember the race riots of 1967 and especially 1968. I remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and their assassinations. I remember the burning of our cities and the uprisings. I remember those voices crying out for justice and reform, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King. Sadly, we did not have the moral courage to solve these problems. Some incremental progress was made, but the systemic issues of racism and inequity were left unresolved, exploding once again in our day.
As a religious institution, and as decent people, we at Schechter Bergen are obligated to confront bigotry and racism in our country. We stand with the African-American community and all people of color. We will not be silent; we will look to our tradition and our core values, among them Tikkun Olam, in which we “inspire our students to pursue peace, compassion, freedom, and equality. We will empower our students to make a difference by doing acts of Tzedek (justice) and Gemilut Hasadim (loving kindness).” We will teach and practice empathy, beginning with one another and branching out. We will be respectful towards each other even when we disagree. And most of all, we will reassure our students and children and empower them.
The fight for the soul of America hinges upon how fellow citizens treat each other, including our leaders. And it begins with teaching our children these values and reinforcing them throughout their lives.
We can no longer ignore the racism and social inequalities that exist in our country. We cannot tolerate politicians from either party, who we entrust to lead with moral courage and empathy, to instead contribute to the divisiveness and hatred. We must speak up when the President of the United States, who has the most influential pulpit, gives license to hatred through incendiary words and tweets that lack empathy or awareness of his responsibility to heal and unite.
Please understand, this is not about being a Democrat or Republican; it is about being human, being American, and garnering the moral courage to stand up for justice and righteousness. At Schechter, we teach our children to critically analyze situations, to respectfully disagree, and to understand that politics is filled with nuance, and contradiction. Because there are divergent ideas and opinions, there is a place for the expression of legitimate political differences.
We have an educational and moral imperative to call out inappropriate behaviors and actions of people – especially those in positions of authority and leaders in any field . We must make clear to our children that power, wealth, skin color, or influence never give anyone the right to behave in ways that go against our values and ethics. We need to be direct, and we need to draw upon our Jewish and religious values as the basis for just, compassionate behavior.
I want to conclude by drawing a distinction between a contract and a covenant. These explosive times require us to examine this difference, and to understand it as a step in reclaiming higher moral ground. We need to understand the difference, and we must teach it to our children.
A contract is often framed by self-interest, and has legal implications; a covenant is a mutual understanding or pledge between people, often spiritual in nature. A social contract creates a state, and a social covenant creates a society. An example of a religious covenant is between God and the Jewish people. It is intended to be a reciprocal relationship of love, caring, and loyalty. Individuals can enter into covenants, as do two people in marriage. In rarer circumstances, countries can form covenants, such as the United States.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes and speaks brilliantly on this subject. As he points out, “Covenant societies are rare and they happen when a group of people decide they want to create a new kind of social order, to do which they pledge themselves, to a set of ideals. That’s what Abraham Lincoln meant in the Gettysburg address, when he spoke of ‘a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal;’ and that’s what (most) American presidents commit themselves to on their inauguration.”
Our Founding Fathers intentionally modeled our new country on a covenantal relationship to create a new social order. That is why the Constitution begins, “We the People..” and follows with, “in order to form a more perfect union.” This recognition, that humans are not perfect, does not absolve us from the hard work of improving society for each other until we realize the words we say in the Pledge of Allegiance every day. “With liberty and justice for all:” the values we hold are as inalienable and as dear as Americans. This grand experiment, though challenged, continues to this day.