Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon by Jessica Shen-Wachter
As a Chinese American Jew, for as long as I can remember I have been passionate about social justice. I remember meeting with my principal as a fifth grader because I refused to be weighed as part of the statewide fitness test for I believed then, as I do now, that body size has nothing to do with health, and so the information was irrelevant to what they were looking for. I also have distinct memories of reporting my PE teacher to the principal for sexism when he divided the class into boys and girls: something I now know to be exclusionary to nonbinary individuals, people who don’t identify as female or male, but not exactly sexist, and calling him racist when we played a game involving knocking the candles off of a menorah; yes, this was disrespectful but I again missed the mark in coining the action “racist”. Obviously my perceived activism at that time needed a bit of work. As I was 10, I’m willing to forgive myself for these missteps.
Fast forward to eighth grade and one of my moms had just informed me that you cannot, in fact, be racist to white people. I was enraged that she would even suggest something so ignorant and racist. We argued about this for the next few days. Spoiler alert: I was wrong, reverse racism isn’t real. What I didn’t understand was that racism is a systemic issue; something that exists on a bigger scale than just between individuals. Racism is a form of oppression. This country was founded on white supremacy which gives white people inherent power and privilege over people of color.
Although it may not always feel like this, people of color don’t have the societal, economic or political power to be racist. It’s similar to an employee attempting to fire their boss rather than the other way around. The employee has neither the power to fire their boss nor their fellow coworkers. Through these discussions though, I began to learn about systemic oppression and the systems of power that exist in our country and our world. More than anything, this has shaped my worldview.
Fast forward again to late march of this year. It was late on a school night and I saw people talking about an Instagram account made by students that had extremely racist images directly targeting girls of color, primarily black girls in my school, along with the girls high school basketball coach. The creators had photoshopped pictures of the girls’ faces onto the bodies of slaves and some had even photoshopped and drawn nooses around their necks. A lot of my peers were in shock from finding out that people at our school, our school, held some of these beliefs and ideologies.
I was horrified but I can’t say that I was surprised. I started talking to some of my black classmates and friends and they weren’t shocked either. Unfortunately black students face racism on many levels from microaggressions to being unfairly placed into lower level classes. Black students make up the smallest percentage of people of color at my school, and we’ve recently learned that that already small percentage has been shrinking steadily as more black families are opting to leave the community.
The instagram incident hit my community hard and most people were focused on caring for the students victimized by the account or making sure the aggressors faced repercussions for their actions. The day after we found out about the account I talked to my family about everything that was going on and we all felt it was important to do something. We agreed that we wanted to create a space where people could reflect on the recent events, discuss how they were feeling, and see if there was something we could do.
The following Sunday, we brought a small group of people together who were mostly Asian along with a small number of African Americans and Jews of color along with other folks. A sentiment that many of my fellow students and I expressed was our disappointment in the school’s decision to return to “business as usual”, meaning that instead of having a chance to discuss what had just happened they wanted us to resume our normal classes. I couldn’t imagine going to school the next day and focusing on modeling mitosis vs meiosis in my biology class. It is absolutely imperative that education is more than learning about math and science and English. It also has to be about the social and political conditions around us. As students, we knew that this could be an opportunity to do just that. We wanted to talk about the racial and gender dynamics that were happening in our school but the administrators were not prepared to help us.
An injury happened to many people in our community and we wanted to stand by those who were injured and work to repair some of the damage that was done by creating a space for people to talk about anti-black racism and sexism and their root causes as well as possible solutions.
We came together as a community over many meetings with a shared vision of attempting to suture the rupture created. We brainstormed a number of ideas and over the next few weeks, through an intensive period where we would meet several times a week, we created a comprehensive training about systemic oppression to deliver to our classmates. In addition to discussing anti-black racism we wanted to center the discussions around the voices of our black student leaders in the teach ins. One of the things we really wanted to focus on when designing the curriculum was the systemic nature of these racist and sexist attacks. We researched schools throughout the country that were experiencing similar acts of bigotry. What we discovered was that school districts across the country were facing escalating rates of racism, anti-semitism and sexism since the elections. If these were the kind of things happening in our school, in this bay area bubble, it was sobering to imagine what other students were facing in more conservative parts of the country. Because of this, it was so important to us that our classmates understood that this was far from an isolated incident involving random students. This was an example of systemic attacks on women of color. Because this was and continues to be an institutionalized issue we wanted to be able to implement this school wide.
People joined our group because of their own awareness that these issues needed to be addressed. There was a gap that needed to be filled, and the community had the means to fill it. Every time we met the group became larger. Before we knew it, we had a group of 30 students, teachers, parents, and community members.The group was ninety-five percent people of color.
Everyone used their various strengths and pieces of expertise to help us realize this vision. While one of my moms worked closely with another parent to help us develop the curriculum, other adults provided us with food in our meetings. People volunteered their homes as meeting places, and students reached out to their teachers and friends to gain support for this endeavor.
With excitement and some trepidation we were ready to meet with our district’s administration to present our plan. Initially, we were met with a lot of resistance and attempts to stall our efforts. Our administration was worried that discussing race would result in lawsuits from the families of the accused students so they wanted to see and review every word of our curriculum and made us promise that we would not deviate from the script. While this seemed like overkill at the time the school district is facing 7 lawsuits from the families of the aggressors at this moment. That said, they made us jump over many hurdles.
We had to present it to the principal, the vice principals, the counselors and even the vice superintendent. We also had to pilot the curriculum with thirty teachers.
But our perseverance paid off. In the end we won over the support of our administration and we were granted permission to go into the history and english classes of all four grades. Something that I was acutely aware of throughout the whole process though was that the administration would normally not let us go into classes and lead facilitated discussions about systemic oppression. It took an extreme experience like this, with the whole community watching, for them to prioritize creating space to talk about these critical issues.
We began our presentations within the last month of school and didn’t have enough time to reach every single student, our original goal. But in the end we were able to reach more than 800 students and offer them a place to learn and heal. We received a lot of positive feedback, most of which centered around students expressing that we were bridging a gap that had been missing: a space to talk about not only how racist and sexist experiences affect them, but an explanation for the reason why these incidents occur, and a way to identify potential solutions for them. Somehow, over the course of several weeks, we were able to harness a lot of the raw emotion that we were feeling at that time and turn it into something good, something constructive.
It’s been a few months since all of this happened and I want to share a few lessons that I learned from the process.
The first lesson is that you don’t have to do it alone. This seems really simple, but a lot of time things seem really impossible because you are looking at it from the scope of only yourself. But often, there are many other people around you that share the same beliefs and ideals and are also wanting the same change. I learned that if you come together, build a shared vision, and work together, it becomes much more manageable. I was also able to find other students who cared about social justice as much as I did and now they have become close friends.
Second: Making change is possible, even when there are so many attacks on our communities. It’s important not to lose hope and fall into despair. If we do nothing, then the opposition will most certainly win. There were many things happening at our school that were harmful at the time. I chose to focus on the instagram account because that was causing the most injury and harm in the community and it was important for us to address. Find something that speaks to your interests and passion and focus on that. When we act, things change.
Third, If you want to make change, you need to make the time in your life. It was the end of the year so all of the students in the group were taking AP tests and finals. In addition, in order for us to present to the rest of the school, we had to miss our own classes. Doing this meant that I had to accept the tradeoff of not having as much time to prepare for my exams, in addition to having to make up the classwork in all of the classes that I missed while I was presenting. We have to make time to make change and not operate under the assumption that our schedules will necessarily remain the same.
Last year, although we aimed to educate our school on many forms of marginalization by explaining the structure of institutionalized oppression, we focused primarily on anti-black racism and sexism. This year, we are continuing our efforts and have chosen to delve deeper into the topic of systemic sexism. We’ve been able to use the group that was created last year as a catalyst for creating ongoing change, something we didn’t predict when we first started. So one of the lessons I learned is that even in choosing a specific issue to focus on, there can always be ways of connecting your efforts of resistance in the present to other issues you may come across in the future.
One thing that is apparent during these times is how these attacks are connected. We see our opposition connecting various forms of oppression– antisemitism, racism, sexism, and transphobia, for instance. Just look at our president. To combat this it’s important for our side to also see how these issues intersect with each other.
So what does it mean to be jewish during these tumultuous times? Sometimes we are directly affected but many times we may not be. Take myself for example. I am able-bodied, cisgender, I have class privilege and I was born here.
What is my role when I witness attacks on people with disabilities, trans and nonbinary individuals, poor people and immigrants? In many of these instances I can use the privilege I possess in ways that the targeted people cannot. In a way we were using the privilege we had in that situation to practice tikkun olam.
Throughout my many years of Hebrew school, my teachers and rabbis have always stressed how important it is to take a stand in this world. As you all know, Kehilla has a social justice related theme every year during the High Holy Days. For Jewish people, social justice is a value embedded in our very core. I believe that this has a lot to do with the ongoing persecution that we have faced. Because of the trauma we have endured, we have collectively made it our mission to rid as much of the inequity as possible from this world.
The theme of this year’s high holy days is facing our times with spiritual audacity. Rabbi Heschel, in his essays about moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, wrote “Who is a Jew? A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done by other people.”
With this in mind, I encourage us to accept Kehilla’s invitation to face these times with spiritual audacity by coming together under a shared vision of justice for all people, by using the privilege we have to take action and make change, by refusing to be silenced and intimidated, and to carry on our jewish tradition of tikkun olam.
Thank you and shana tova.