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In honor of Black History Month

In recognition of Black History Month, I share with you an interesting article by R. Shmueli Boteach where he argues that historically Jews and Blacks shared several fundamental values, that created a bond between the two peoples. That is followed by a totally different topic – Returning to shul after Covid. R. Shlomo Katz of Cong. Shirat David in Efrat asks himself and all of us to think about - Before I return to Shul, to what extent has my consciousness grown?

The legacy of Jewish crusade against racial injustice
By R' Shmuley Boteach

On Thursday night, the World Values Network will be hosting our annual gala, this year dedicated to black-Jewish friendship. The honorees include singing legend Dionne Warwick, TV superstars Steve Harvey and Dr. Oz, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and is co-hosted by America’s foremost African American philanthropist Robert Smith.

The gala is being attacked by people on the Left who say that Jews don’t care enough about racial injustice. It is being attacked by people on the Right who are saying that Black Lives Matter unfairly attacks Israel.

But black-Jewish relations is not something new to me. It’s something I’ve been passionate about my whole life.

By now, nearly everyone knows that I have been close friends with Senator Cory Booker for nearly a quarter of a century and that the Iran nuclear agreement harmed our relationship. It was only something as serious as the threat of genocide that could come between us, such was the love that always characterized our friendship.

My friendship with Cory, going back to when he served as my student president in Oxford in 1993, was distinguished by an effort on both our parts to rise above our respective identities and experience the other’s community. For Cory, that meant learning thousands of hours of Torah with me and visiting synagogues throughout the United States. For me it meant immersing myself in the history of the civil rights movement and speaking at African-American churches, culminating in my becoming the first white radio personality to serve as morning host on America’s legacy African-American radio station, WWRL 1600AM. Peter Noel, my co-host, became and remains a brother to me.

There are those who say that blacks and Jews never really had a deep and abiding kinship. Battling against the mutual enemy of prejudice and working toward the shared goals of equality and integration, they say, it was a relationship of convenience that was further augmented by the Jewish need to feel better about themselves in relation to other whites, and by blacks’ need for allies of any stripe in their struggle for civil rights.

I disagree. Black-Jewish brotherhood was built historically on a shared faith rather than shared oppression, a common destiny rather than a common history, shared values rather than shared interests, and a mutual commitment to social justice rather than being mutually alienated from the mainstream.

The central pillar of the black community has always been its faith. The civil rights movement, far from simply being a political response to injustice and oppression, was a religious movement, conceived in churches, led by ministers and marched to the sounds of old “Negro spirituals.”

The soldiers of the civil rights movement were fueled by faith and sustained by sacrifice. That is the secret of why they succeeded. Other liberation movements either succumbed to the battling egos of their leaders or simply replaced one form of oppression with another: the czar Nicholas with Lenin and Stalin, Batista with Fidel Castro, white-ruled Rhodesia with Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe.

But the leaders of the civil rights movement, being men of deep faith and spiritual conviction, put the interest of the people before their own lust for power. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth could easily have begrudged Martin Luther King Jr. his high profile, and King could have wanted more for himself than to die on a lonely balcony in a motel in Memphis. But since their objective was to lead God’s children into a promised land of equal rights and human dignity, they put the people before their egos and placed reconciliation with whites ahead of fratricidal civil war.

The same chains of slavery that bound Jews in ancient Egypt and blacks in the New World may have imprisoned their bodies but liberated their spirits. Those chains taught Jews and blacks, above all else, to rely on God for their salvation rather than on any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as sacrificial as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.

For most people, religion teaches them how to gain entry into the afterlife, how to avoid hell. For blacks and Jews, religion taught them to find hope and comfort in this life so that their earthly existence could transcend hell. Other religions kept the faithful oppressed by instructing them in the divine right of kings. But Jews and blacks taught that no man was born subject to another, for all men were princes.

Other people’s religion taught them to accept their suffering in this world because the comforts of paradise would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and blacks inspired them to challenge existing prejudice because man was not born to suffer. Man dare not await the paradise of Eden. His highest obligation is to create heaven on earth.

Almost a millennium ago the foremost Jewish scholar of the age, Maimonides, wrote that “the Jewish people are believers, the children of believers.” The same idea was given expression by Elie Wiesel, who said: “A Jew can love God. A Jew can hate God. But a Jew can never ignore God.” In modern times the only other nation that fits that criteria is the African-American community.

As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches has little to do with the injustice of segregation, to which I was thankfully never subject, and everything to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. While studying at yeshiva I related to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah as characters in a book. But through King, I related to them as living figures who embolden and animate the opponents of injustice. Like Moses, King never reached the promised land but found redemption in a life of service over adventure, righteousness over recognition.

Blacks and Jews have imparted to the world the idea of being free on the inside even if chained on the outside, the belief that light will always triumph over darkness, the need for humans to dedicate themselves toward the eradication of all suffering, and the centrality of God to the dignity of the human person. Both nations have taught the world that with liberty comes responsibility, with freedom obligations.

And it is a legacy that this coming Thursday night we will celebrate, however much we are attacked for it from the Left and the Right. 


Before I returnt to shul, to what extent has my consciousness grown?
R' Shlomo Katz

For Jews around the world, this past year has challenged our sense of community and collective prayer, leaving many struggling to understand why God locked us out of our own shuls. While the topic burned in our souls when the pandemic broke out almost a year ago, for better or worse, many of us have gotten used to the fact that, at least in Israel, almost no one prays in shul anymore.

While this reality affects each individual and congregation in a unique way, our community – Congregation Shirat David in Efrat — finds itself in a particularly interesting place, as we are in the midst of building a brand new shul. How ironic that we find ourselves homeless, as we watch the physical structure of our shul getting bigger and sturdier each and every day.

For many of us, it has been heartbreaking to daven outdoors, banishing the Holiest of Holies to parking lots, street corners, parks, and balconies. We miss the intimacy of a closed space and the awe-inspiring glory of entering a designated home for ritual and prayer. We long for protection from the elements and yearn for true belonging, gathering, and togetherness. For some, it may have been refreshing, in a confusing way. To daven alone — casually, comfortably, at our own pace — being the chazzan and shaliach tzibur for a unique congregation of one.

We all know that, even once the threat of Covid fades away, life will never return to exactly as it was before. Our work-life balance, awareness of our own fragility, and relationship to our social needs have all been rocked to the core. People cannot go through a period as intense as this past year and emerge unchanged. Naturally, our shuls and minyanim will change too. Although we all assume that things will be different, no one knows exactly what they will look like. We have been presented with the rare and beautiful opportunity to build our communities from scratch, with greater understanding and intention than ever before.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, God commands Moshe to tell Am Yisrael to bring terumot — contributions of materials that would be used to construct the mikdash.

“Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart desires, you shall take My offering.” (Exodus 25:2)

This sanctuary, a dwelling place for God on earth, will be made from gold, silver, and copper, wool of royal colors, linen, animal skins, wood, oil, spices, and precious gems. As the Children of Israel continue their journey through the desert, they will dismantle, carry, and rebuild this mikdash in each place they camp — an elaborate, transportable food truck for the soul.

What turns something into a true terumah? In our parsha, a terumah refers to an object that has been voluntarily designated as different, separated from the rest of the physical world for an elevated purpose. As we begin to dream about the return to shul, I can’t help but wonder what each and every one of us can contribute to the formation of these sacred spaces. How can we transform our very presence into a holy terumah?

Throughout the hardships of this past year, we have all had the opportunity to become greater and more elevated than we were before. As we have risen and fallen through the juggling act of everyday life, through the bizarre chagim and shabbatot alone, through the endless Zoom meetings, through the unpredictable opening and closing of our schools, homes, and hearts, perhaps we have become people with a higher state of awareness. 

As we have journeyed back and forth between loneliness, grief, and fear, stress, loss, and exhaustion, closeness, quiet, and intimacy, you and I have learned to appreciate the true meaning of family, friendship, and community, the real purpose of a Beit Knesset, a space for holy gathering. As someone blessed to live in Eretz Yisrael, I know that I have also developed an even greater level of appreciation for the privilege we have to be here. 

When we unlock the abandoned doors of our shuls, sweep away a year’s worth of dust, and fill the seats to maximum capacity, it will surely be a wonderful moment. But will it be a terumah? A terumah calls on each of us to bring a higher sense of consciousness to our holy spaces. A deeper understanding of whoever I thought I was and whatever I thought talking to God was all about. A greater ability to be in tune with how much love Hashem has for each and every one of us, and the whole world – despite it all. 

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

May we all dig deep and turn our shuls into sanctuaries built from real terumot, from elevated beings, intentions, and ideas. Perhaps then, Hashem may grace us with His presence in a way that elevates the entire world, like never before.