To Our Omaha Jewish Community,
“The best I have to offer is just a request. Something for you to consider, intangible as it might be. And that would be this: Would you consider helping to carry the load? Not the weight of Ruby’s individual experience. I’m talking about the heaping, stinking, massive load that is the race line in America. In Omaha. In the Jewish community.”
On April 2, Ellen delivered what we at Temple Israel believe to be one of the most important sermons we have heard in our 150-year history. If you have not yet heard it, we invite you to read it in its entirety in this edition of the Jewish Press. Since that day, we have asked our Temple family, and our Jewish Omaha family, to listen and to sit with the devastatingly painful and uncomfortable truths that Ellen’s sermon raises. We know that this is not an easy request – to sit with the discomfort that we have failed not only one of our young people, but that we have failed to live up to the values that we as a Jewish community stand for, is utterly devastating. And yet, it is what is demanded of us in this moment if we hope to turn our collective failure into communal accountability.
Theologian Jakob Petuchowski taught that our responsibility as Jews is to “listen for the commandment.” When you hear the commandment from God, he says, it is unmistakable – and once you’ve heard it, it becomes your obligation to fulfill it. We, each and every one of us, have unmistakably heard the divine commandment in Ellen Platt’s words – and there is no un-hearing it, no avoiding it. It is now our obligation to answer the call and fulfill the divine command addressed to our entire community. And the command is this: “Help carry the load.” Help to carry “the heaping, stinking, massive load that is the race line in America.” Now that we have heard the command, we can do no less.
What happened on the Israel trip was a symptom of a much larger and far deeper illness that is embedded in the fabric of American society – and the Jewish community is not immune to it. In response to Ellen’s prophetic call, we aim to bring the Omaha Jewish Community together in order to confront the scourge of racism in our community. It will take all of us to do this work. It is incumbent upon every community member and institution to actively participate if we are to listen to the divine command. The call to “carry the load” is addressed to all of us, not just those who were on the Israel trip. The desire to point fingers and cast blame on others, though understandable, is a form of avoidance. The time has come for all of us to take responsibility.
The true measure of accountability will be in how we, and our communal institutions, are willing to sit with the discomfort, take ownership of our failures, and commit to action. What are we willing to do to dismantle racism in our own community?
Last week, Alan Potash, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Omaha, wrote a letter to our community where he reminded us that “The incident is in the past, but the opportunity to learn is in front of us – in the present and the future. As a community, we need to take that opportunity seriously.” We wholeheartedly agree and look forward to partnering with Alan and JFO President Mike Siegel in prioritizing this work. And yet, this cannot be the work of one, or even two, institutions alone. The entire community bears responsibility and the only way we can hope to address the root causes of racism is by banding together – all of us, all of our institutions – as one unified community.
We are encouraged by the response from our colleagues and fellow Jewish communal institutions for their commitment to discussing a unified approach for accountability and action, starting with the Federation’s Rabbis and Presidents meeting on May 5. The Rabbis and Presidents Meeting brings together the clergy and presidents of our synagogues and the Jewish Federation of Omaha to discuss and partner on important work within the greater Jewish Community, and is an ideal venue for this conversation and this work to begin.
We know that this meeting will be but a starting point. But our work must begin together, with each of us willing to commit ourselves and our institutions to the pursuit of dismantling racism in all of its forms. We invite all of our partners in the Jewish community to come together in this sacred and urgent task.
The work will not be easy. But we have heard the divine commandment, and we will listen.
Rabbi Brian Stoller
Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin
Cantor Joanna Alexander