A perspective from Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg of Malkhut in Queens, NY.
My kids’ first protest was a Black Lives Matter march in Hartford, CT in 2014, after a string of police killings of unarmed Black men, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in New York City. At the time, my children were nine and seven years old respectively. Seeing my white kids walking alongside Black children, all holding their hands over their heads, chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” my waking up process began. At that moment I felt it in my body – I don’t have to fear the police violating or God forbid killing my children. But parents of Black children feel that fear every single day.
In that moment I felt myself waking up along with many fellow white people to what Black people have known for generations: the police, and the institutions of our country that are supposed to protect and serve all of us were not built to protect and serve Black people. Many white progressives like myself have been pretty darn late in realizing that systemic racism is everywhere and that white supremacy is in the DNA of the founding of this country. As a white spiritual leader, I’ve had to catch up fast.
Photo Credit; Gili Getz
I know now that if am not engaged in the work of becoming an anti-racist, then I am complicit in racism. I’ve also had to learn that the sense of urgency I’m feeling about doing this work is a facet of whiteness. This has got to be a life-long, sustained commitment to learning, listening, and taking action.
Since that day in Hartford six years ago, we’ve moved to Queens, NY, and I founded Malkhut, a progressive Jewish spiritual community. Back in January, I had just begun to learn best practices from other Jewish communities so that we could thoughtfully create space at Malkhut to do the work of becoming anti-racists as individuals and as a community. Then COVID hit, and every facet of our lives changed. I was immersed in taking care of my family (we all got sick – thank goodness it was mild, and we are all fine now), supporting my aging parents and in-laws, keeping our kids engaged in online schooling, and completely reimagining Malkhut. The anti-racism work fell away.
Then I woke up on Shavuot morning after a beautiful night of (remote) study with my Malkhut to a city that was crying out in anguish, in grief and rage. Black folks and allies were pouring into the streets protesting the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the continued violation and devaluation of Black lives. Armed with my positive COVID antibody test, I felt called to the streets.
I marched for what felt like three days straight until my body was wrecked. This was not sustainable. And more importantly, I felt that I had lost my focus. I had to ask myself all over again – what is my role here as a long-term white ally in the fight for racial justice? How can I be the most helpful given the roles that I inhabit?
During this time I was on a zoom call with a multi-faith, multi-racial group that I’m a part of. The facilitator, a Black leader and teacher, reminded us that for white people, anti-racism needs to be a mindfulness practice – a spiritual practice – of bringing our attention, and our communities’ attention back over and over again to the sanctity of Black lives. I saw how easy it was to get distracted by my own sense of guilt and urgency that I forgot about the work I really needed to do.
I finally remembered the process I had begun back in January, and now I’m starting over. I’m reaching out to colleagues, consultants and friends. It’s time to build a sustainable model of learning, listening, asking ourselves hard questions, and undoing racism. We’ve got to be in this for the long haul. This work of anti-racism has to become a life-long spiritual practice, for myself and for my Malkhut community.