[The following is an edited version of Rabbi Gross-Schaefer’s new year’s sermon.]
Why is this Rosh Hashanah different from all the other High Holidays we have celebrated together over these past 21 years? Could it be that we are on Zoom? That our Cantor Elisha is in Los Angeles, our musical director and President Peter Melnick is in Montecito, Itzik, our Executive and Educational Director is in Noleta, and I’m standing in my living room?
Or, that we are in the midst of a dangerous global pandemic and are facing severe economic, political, and ecological challenges? Or, is it all of the above, along with the strange skies and reddish setting sun reminding us of the fires burning out of control in California, Oregon, and Washington? The pictures of the Bay Area and Oregon, drenched in red, certainly looked frightful. Even the strange colored sky last week over Santa Barbara evoked an ominous feeling.
It’s hard not to have a deep sense of dis-ease — that our lives are out of balance, and that whatever clear vision we had of our future is now unclear, to say the very least. It is as if the smokey skies that had obscured the stars at night and the sun during the day, were concealing our ability to have any sense of certainty and hopefulness about the future.
And yet, the Jewish tradition demands that on Rosh Hashanah we focus on what we can do better this next year, no matter how we might be feeling about the existing state of the world.
One of my favorite Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, posits in his essay Religion in a Free Society that there is one primary question, one ultimate question for the High Holidays,for Rosh Hashanah and for Yom Kippur.
For Heschel, the ultimate, most existential question for each of us tonight is: What does G-d require of us and how are we going to respond?
Just to remind you about Rabbi Heschel. A holocaust survivor who was active in the civil rights movements and marched with Martin Luther King over the Pettus bridge in Selma on March 21, 1965, Heschel is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.
When Heschel marched with King on that Saturday, he was asked by some of his more traditional Jewish colleagues how he could engage in a protest by marching with Dr. King on Shabbat. He famously responded, “I’m praying with my feet.” He later wrote that he felt commanded by Genesis 18:19 to follow G-d’s direction by doing what is just and right. For Heschel, the civil rights movement itself represented a kind of divine imperative, a personal call from God. As a result, he was willing to sacrifice his time, reputation and even put his life at risk because he believed that he was responding to what G-d needed him to do at that moment.
Heschel taught through his words and actions that to be treated differently, unfairly strips away one’s dignity and one’s rights. He was speaking of societal enslavement through the institution of racial segregation, suppression of voting rights, and the continued abuse, subjugation, and exclusion of African Americans.
Our Shul has played an important role, over the years, of bringing the local police together with African Americans, to seriously listen to and engage with each other. We’ve had representatives of the African American community speak at our High Holiday services over the years. And yes, our Shul’s been represented at various rallies dealing with racism.
And yet, how can we not hear in those words of Rabbi Heschel today a demand that we do more, that we consider the mass rallies after the murder of George Floyd and the larger systemic treatment of our black brothers and sisters. I believe that G-d is still calling us to be involved in today’s civil rights movement. This is about human rights, this is about economic rights, this is about access to health care, this is about access to education. This is a religious act of loving our neighbors.
I felt Rabbi Heschel touch my shoulder two weeks ago when I learned that a large hand-painted sign supporting Black Lives Matter outside the Crushcake’s bakery near the Arlington Theatre had been vandalized. Someone had scrolled across the sign three large letters in black ink: A L M , meaning: all lives matter.
The Jewish tradition does teaches that each and every life is of infinite and unique value. Nevertheless, it is the case today — and it has been for far too long — that some lives matter less than others. Because for far too long, and for far too many people in this country, Black lives have been accorded less value. And thus, we need to be engaged because Black Lives do Matter.
The poster at Crushcakes has been repainted erasing the signs of vandalism. And while the staff at the bakery was very appreciative of community members showing their support by purchasing cupcakes after the vandalism, there was no other planned response.
Perhaps there is a way to raise the issue of racism and build community support as an initial reply to the vandalism at Crush Cakes.
To help consider a possible reaction to the vandalism, I recalled a story which some of you know. Here is that story told in a Billings, Montana Newspaper Editorial from December, 1993. “On December 2, 1993, someone twisted by hate threw a brick through the window of the home of one of our neighbors: a Jewish family who chose to celebrate the holiday season by displaying a symbol of faith-a menorah-for all to see. Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. We urge all citizens to share in this message by displaying this menorah on a door or a window from now until Christmas. Let all the world know that the national hatred of a few cannot destroy what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so long to build.” —Editorial, Billings Gazette, Dec. 1993.
Can we respond to the incident at Crush Cakes in such a way to both demonstrates and strengthens our commitment to combat racism and, hopefully, fashion a tool to bring our Santa Barbara/Montecito/Goleta communities together in a way similar to what happened in Billings?
Here is the idea — what if businesses along upper and lower State Street, businesses on Coast Village Road and businesses on Calle Real had posters in their windows proclaiming that there is no room for racism and no room for hate in Santa Barbara?
The language would be designed to build bridges across our differences so those on the right, on the left, in the middle, would be willing to put up the same poster.
I’ve shared this idea with with Healing Justice, the Black Lives Matter organization here in Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Police, owners of Crushcakes, business people, a City Council person, and an editor at the Independent. So far, everyone likes the idea. Here is my current iteration for the language for such a poster.
On the top, in large bold letters it would read: Not In Our Town. This language was taken from Billings.
The next three lines, also in bold letters, but not quite as large as the heading would state:
There is no room for vandalism of political signage
There is no room for racism
There is no room for hate
The final line would read: In Santa Barbara there IS ROOM for respect, civility and dignity.
I believe that such a poster would garner significant public support across our divides. I believe I can get other clergy to share such a poster idea I’m calling the Not In Our Town Poster Project with their communities and ask their members to approach local businesses in their areas.
It is also important that we are in step with the larger Jewish Community. Just two weeks ago, a Jewish statement in support of Black Lives Matter appeared in a full-page New York Times ad. This ad was signed by more than 600 national and local Jewish groups and synagogues, including a major umbrella body and three of the four major Jewish religious movements. The list of signatories to the statement in the New York Times included several of the organizations that publicly criticized the initial 2016 BLM platform plank critiquing Israel.
The ad proclaimed, “We speak with one voice when we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter.” The statement continued, “The Black Lives Matter movement is the current day Civil Rights movement in this country, and it is our best chance at equity and justice.”
There is much important work that our Shul will need to engage with this next year and into the future. Dealing with systemic racism will not be solved by a poster. Yet, small powerful statements in the windows of business establishments and in our own homes will announce that we will be active participants in the work still to be done.
We can pray with our feet by going to our neighbors and businesses asking them to consider placing posters against racism and hate in their windows, from now until the end of the election. Will you join me?
We can be a holy vessel and approach those who have different political points of view and ask them to consider displaying these posters of unity in their windows to help bring our community together in a civil and respectful manner. Will you join me?
Yes, this Rosh Hashanah is different. We are still on Zoom, there is still the pandemic, we’re still worried about our economy, the fires, and the election.
But, if you feel that touch on your shoulder as I did from Rabbi Heschel, then just maybe you’ll find the time and the energy to join our Not In Our Town poster endeavor.
Because there is no room for vandalism of political signage,
There is no room for racism
There is no room for hate
In Santa Barbara, Montecito, and Goleta, there is room for respect, civility and dignity.
May this new year be one of safety and health for each of us. And may this new year be one where we ask, what does G-d need from me.
May this 5781 be a sweet and meaningful year for all of us.