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Welcoming Pastor Mike McBride, Speaking on Reparations and Teshuvah, on Erev Rosh Hashana

Rabbi Dev Noily, with Hazzan Shulamit Wise Fairman

We feel very honored to be welcoming Pastor Mike McBride as our guest teacher for Erev Rosh Hashana. Pastor Mike is an Oakland-based national leader in the movement for racial justice. It’s unusual for us to have a guest from outside our community offering a drash / teaching during High Holy Days, and I’m excited to share here why it feels so important to take this step this year. The image of a havdallah candle comes to mind, with many individual wicks all intertwined to build a single, powerful flame. 


Wick  א / Alef: Living in an Unprecedented Moment

The Spiritual Leadership team wanted to have a guest darshan (teacher) because we believe so deeply that we need to come together across communities in order to resist our country’s (and our world’s) move toward authoritarianism. We need to show up for other vulnerable groups, and we need to build relationships that are strong and resilient. High Holy Days are really the only time we gather as a community. And because our gathering is so important, so special, so unlike any other time of year, it feels like a very powerful move to offer one of our four main teaching slots to a guest from outside our community, whose own community is on the front lines in a way that most in our community are not (yet). These are extraordinary times, and that’s why we feel called to shake up our usual practice. By practicing shaking up our usual practice, we are also preparing ourselves for what may be coming.

Over the past few years, I’ve been moved to see Rev. William J. Barber II visiting synagogues as a guest teacher on High Holy Days. I read about his visits to IKAR in Los Angeles in 2017, and to the East Side Synagogue in New York last year. It was exciting to me because Rev. Barber is such a force for love and justice, and it felt incredibly powerful to see him in a synagogue teaching Torah. It felt like a mighty river of spiritual leadership had sent out a tributary to these Jewish communities, embracing us as part of a larger spiritual movement toward shared liberation. As the Kehilla Spiritual Leadership team began our preparation for the High Holy Days, we thought about leaders in the East Bay community who embody a similar kind of moral courage, and commitment to connection across spiritual communities. Pastor Mike McBride rushed to mind.

Wick ב / Bet: Teshuvah

The Spiritual Leadership team decided some months ago that our theme for these High Holy Days would be Teshuvah (re)turning/repair, Tefillah reflection/prayer , and Tzedakah acts of righteousness: Tools for Our Time.  These three practices are at the heart of High Holy Days every year. We felt this was a year to drink deeply from the well of our ancestral wisdom, and to lean into the strength of our traditions, as they have sustained our people in trying times for centuries.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook taught that “every evil practice leads to sickness and sufferings. And the human being–whether as an individual or in the aggregate–suffers terribly from this.”[efn_note]Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Lights of Teshuvah, translated by Yaacov David Shulman Dot Letter Word Press, 2017, p. 7.[/efn_note] To ease this suffering, and to return to a state of joy and wholeness, we practice teshuvah. Rav Kook describes it this way:

We place our sin before our face and we regret it and are anguished that we were caught in its snare. And our soul climbs upward until we are freed from the enslavement to sin, and we feel within ourselves the holy freedom, which is so very pleasant to our weary souls. And we grow progressively healed, and the radiances of the light of the sun of kindness, a supernal kindness, send their rays to us.[efn_note]Ibid, p. 13, adapted for gender inclusivity.[/efn_note]

As the U.S. moves deeper into what Joanna Macy called The Great Turning/The Great Unravelling, we’re seeing more and more clearly the impact of the festering moral and spiritual wounds at the core of this country: the genocide of Indigenous people and the atrocities of chattel slavery. Part of the teshuvah we need to do collectively is teshuvah for these foundational injustices. Whether or not we, or our direct ancestors took part in these atrocities, most of us with European heritage have benefitted from them. Teshuvah is part of the great healing that is needed to overcome our national denial of these injustices and our repression of the awareness of their ongoing consequences. 

Part of our communal teshuvah is also reflected in Kehilla’s Belonging and Allyship: Racial Justice Initiative. Now entering its third year, the project addresses the ongoing impacts of white supremacy at Kehilla. Its goals are to build Kehilla as a place where Jews of Color increasingly experience belonging, and are able to bring their full selves to the community, where white people do the work they need to do to end white supremacy, and where we build our capacity to be allies and accomplices with People of Color-led organizations and movements.

Wick ג / Gimel: Renewed Focus on Reparations

Reparations have been called for by Black leaders in the U.S. for more than fifty years.[efn_note][/efn_note] But the call has been powerfully renewed this year. On Juneteenth, the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings on Reparations for slavery for the first time since 2007. 

HR40, which was introduced in the House by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan every year that he served, and was introduced this year by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and co-sponsored by our own Rep. Barbara Lee, is a call

To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies…[efn_note][/efn_note]

Many Black-led organizations, including the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, have called for the passage of HR 40, and are pushing Reparations toward the top of the agenda for 2019-2020. 

The call for Reparations remarkably mirrors the traditional stages of Teshuvah:

    1. See the wrong / take responsibility
    2. Experience remorse / see clearly the harm done to others
    3. Make a public confession / have our misdeeds known
    4. Apologize to those we have harmed and ask for forgiveness
    5. Make restitution / repair the damage we’ve done, as much as possible
    6. Soul-reckoning / understand how we came to do the harm
    7. Ongoing non-repetition of similarly-rooted harm

We are better poised than ever to honor the striking connection between our focus on teshuvah, and this renewed call for Reparations.  

Wick ד / Dalet: Pastor Mike

I first met Pastor Mike McBride in the streets, at the “No Hate in Berkeley” demonstration in August of 2017. Rabbi David has been collaborating with him for years through PICO / Faith in Action, where Pastor Mike leads the LiveFree Campaign

The afternoon of the “No Hate” march I was on a panel with Pastor Mike, addressing racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism. Pastor Mike said things in a way that commanded my attention and shifted my thinking. Words that come to my mind are truth, strength, endurance, urgency and compassion. Someone in the mostly white audience asked him about nonviolence. Pastor Mike took a deep breath, and then spoke about the violence inflicted every day on Black and Brown bodies – by policing, by the school to prison pipeline, by guns, by incarceration, and by the constant threat of all of these. In an instant, he reframed the question of nonviolence, exposing the vast difference between considering violence from a philosophical or moral perspective, and considering violence from a personal, experiential perspective. 

I knew that Pastor Mike was someone I wanted to learn from, and build my connection to. I’ve had many occasions to look to his leadership since then. I’m eager for our community to know Pastor Mike better, and for Pastor Mike to get to know us.

Wick ה /Hey: Safety through Solidarity

For the past several years, Kehilla has focused on and deepened our commitment to safety through solidarity. We’ve watched powerful political forces both tacitly and blatantly encourage the further targeting of Black and Brown people, trans people, immigrants and others who are vulnerable. And since last Rosh Hashana, we’ve also experienced Pittsburg and Poway–tragic manifestations of rising white nationalism that openly targets Jewish people and communities. 

We have understood that our well-being as a Jewish community is bound up with the well-being of all people. Jewish history has taught us that the only way we can be protected is if others are willing to take risks on our behalf, and are willing to resist when the forces of hate and division fix their sights on us. This history underscores our obligation and our resolve to take risks on behalf of others, to resist the forces of hate and division, and to reach across communities in order to build strength and solidarity that are rooted in our shared humanity. As keeping our doors and our hearts open gets more challenging, it also becomes more important. 

Solidarity is more than the intention to support and stand with/behind our partners. Solidarity means building ties that are strong enough to withstand the forces that are working to pull us apart. And that, like in any strong relationship, takes time, curiosity, listening, respect, and a willingness to stay connected and trust each other through disagreements, misunderstandings and conflicts.

Each day now, antisemitism is being deployed to sow division in new ways – within Jewish communities, and between Jewish communities and other vulnerable communities. And at the same time, white Jews aren’t experiencing the kind of institutional, systemic violence, incarceration and disenfranchisement that People of Color face daily. In reaching across communities to build solid relationships we have twin purposes: 1) To listen to the voices and stories of frontline communities, so that we can better understand their experience and offer solidarity in ways that are most needed by those communities; and 2) To let ourselves be known as Jews and as a Jewish community to people who may have little or no experience with Jews.

The Intertwined Flame

All of these elements joined together this year, leading us to welcome Pastor Mike McBride as a teacher on Erev Rosh Hashanah. For some in our community this may feel perfectly natural and exciting. And for some it may feel jarring and challenging. We look forward to hearing more from you about your responses and thoughts. Our hope is that wherever you find yourself, this experience will be an expansive one, inviting all of us into deeper connection–with our Jewish spiritual practices and community, with this singularly uncertain moment, and with our extended family of East Bay partners in building justice, resisting the fear that is rising, and expanding our compassion for all.

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