by Michael Saxe-Taller, Executive Director
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
I remember the first time I sang this refrain from Ella’s Song, composed by Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock. I was 25 and was attending a staff training for New Bridges, an alliance-building camp for teens founded by pioneering anti-racism leader Ricky Sherover-Marcuse. I could feel the emotion and power in the voices of this diverse group of educators and I knew that they were expressing their commitment to sustain the fight for justice.
At the same time, something didn’t sit quite right with me. I had only recently returned from my first experience in Israel, where I had spent a year working, traveling, studying and most of all, soaking up Jewish life, culture, ritual and community. I had, for the first time, experienced the real meaning of Shabbat, the taking of a day off from the work of creation. I had returned to the States with a commitment to connect with Jewish community and observe Shabbos.
As I stood in the circle with my New Bridges colleagues, I thought to myself, “we who believe in freedom must rest.” Having grown up in Berkeley surrounded by social justice activists, I understood the passion and drive to make the world better. But the idea of fighting non-stop for justice seemed exhausting. Having a dedicated time to pause, to connect to others and to notice the goodness and beauty in our lives, seemed like a better recipe for nourishing us in this fight.
It is now some 25 years later and I have been thinking a lot about that song. I was recently talking to Aurora Levins Morales, a Kehilla member currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a long-time confidant of mine, about how things are going with my new job. I was describing for her the many important areas of Kehilla life that require my attention, and my desire and drive to address and fix them all immediately. She wisely reminded me that real change happens over a period of time and that for me to achieve my goals for growing and strengthening Kehilla, I must do it in a way that sustains me.
I was reminded of the lessons I have learned from my quarter century commitment to Shabbat as a day of rest and rejuvenation. I can’t do all of the things that need doing at Kehilla, and certainly can’t do them all at the same time. I will work more effectively if I take the time to pause and notice the beauty and goodness that is our community, and remember that though there is always more to do, enough has been done up to this moment.
I will use these reminders to guide me in my work at Kehilla, and I invite you to join me in both the hard work of building our community and in the resting and enjoying what we have already done.
Eva PetterssonMarch 29, 2015
Thank you Dear Michael! This is such a good advice and reminder from our leadership!
I feel happy and hopeful for Kehilla!
Dvora GordonMarch 29, 2015
Good reminder Michael and wise words from Aurora as well. It is especially good when our leadership both takes care in this way and reminds the rest of us to do the same.
Paul KivelMarch 30, 2015
I’m so glad you’re at Kehilla and also that you are writing a blog. This one didn’t sit right with me though so I decided to comment.
Part of the exploitation of African Americans in our society occurs by way of white people taking things that Black people do, produce, say, or create and appropriating them to our own uses. Black Lives Matter and Ferguson Action have recently pointed out how white people turning the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into “All Lives Matter” is an example of this kind of well meaning but disrespectful and intrusive white response. Sweet Honey’s song was explicitly about the devaluing and murder of young black men. To turn the opening lines into a meditation on rest/self care both undermines the urgency expressed in the song and needed in our society and is a white appropriation of the lyrics for a different use.
I look forward to further conversations on this topic.
Susan SandlerMarch 31, 2015
Michael and Paul,
I related so much to what each of you said. Paul, thank you for so clearly explaining the phenomenon of taking words and ideas from another group and context and commenting on them without noticing how we are not seeing the differences between who is speaking and why, and how we are hearing and why.
At the same time, I think it is a good thing that human beings can touch each other across positions of oppression and privilege and time and so many other things. This song and Ella Baker’s words stir up so much in me. I will own what I think and feel and the difference from what she meant, but her words do have implications for me. If I and my family and my community are not at risk of being lynched or murdered, should I live with less urgency than if I faced this risk? It is a privilege to be in the position of asking this question, and it’s a good question to ask. Should those of us with privilege allow ourselves rest or not. And how do we decide? I think about the words in this song all the time.