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Racial Justice Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, January 15, 2016

This weekend the country will be marking a day of Remembrance for the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, hero of the Civil Rights movement. This holiday, first signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and finally celebrated in all 50 states in the year 2000, is in itself a testimony to how much has changed in this country, since Rev King was assassinated in Memphis in April of 1968.

I would guess that many of you have seen dramatic changes during your life time. My mother in law who was born in Baltimore used to tell us stories of the segregated schools and segregated water fountains of her childhood and teenage years. I remember when we moved to Cincinnati in 1969 that the swimming pool in our neighborhood had only just been racially integrated.

What do you remember? What was one change that you have witnesses?

We have certainly seen a lot of progress- but I wonder if there weren’t some years when we became too complacent and put racial issues on the back burner. It seems to me that once we had this day dedicated to Dr King, we began to feel like the hard work of racial justice had been completed.

Events of the past two years, especially relating to the deaths which triggered Black Lives Matter movement, are a reminder that this is not the case. Over the past several years we have become more aware of how racially biased are the outcomes of our criminal justice system, especially in terms of the incarceration of people of color and particularly black men. One in three black men will be imprisoned in his lifetime versus one in 17 white men, and black women are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women.

Authors like Michelle Alexander of The New Jim Crow, have pointed out that this imbalance in incarceration spreads its tentacles over other aspects of life as well. Having a conviction, even just being arrested, leads to difficulties in finding employment. It makes a person ineligible for many social services including help with housing, and deprives a significant part of the African American community of the right to vote.

We have also seen the results of implicit bias in policing- what sometimes used to jokingly be called “Driving While Black or Brown”. This fall we saw racism against African Americans. Latinos, Asians and Jews, exposed in the emails and tweets of our county jail employees, but even just considering  those who do not consider themselves prejudiced, we know that implicit bias can result in decisions made in pressured split second decisions that lead to the deaths of young black men.

Further we have seen the operation of the “pipeline to prison”. I had the occasion as part of a team of clergy to monitor juvenile arrests by police on a weekend evening. What we found was that young men picked up on the west side of town, in Los Gatos, Saratoga, Cupertino, ended up released to their fathers, while those on the east side of town were brought to Juvenile Hall and booked.  That difference begins a cycle which can derail a young person’s life. In our community young men with a drug conviction have the benefit of legal advice, and can have that record expunged, so that they go on to medical school or other professions and live a full life- but what if you don’t have those resources? There are benefits and privileges we take for granted, but which don’t exist for many in our society.

The Jewish Reform movement of which I am a part has taken on Criminal Justice Reform as a priority for our social justice work this year.  In particular we are supporting The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) and will be having a national call in day on Tuesday January 19th. I have flyers with more information about this on the Oneg table.

This bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, put more emphasis into rehabilitation and anti-recidivism programs, and limit solitary confinement and life without parole for juveniles.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), while not a solution for all the problems in our broken criminal justice system, would make a real, meaningful impact on the mass incarceration of people of color. 

Often on Martin Luther King day we tell the powerful stories of how the Jewish community partnered with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to bring about real change.  We remember Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who gave the speech at the March in Washington just before Dr. King’s I Have A Dream Speech. He said:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not '.the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

We remember Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel and that iconic picture of him marching  with Dr .King in Selma, saying “my feet are praying.”

In commemorating a partnership forged over a half century ago, we must also make that partnership meaningful in our work today. Speaking out against the challenge of racial injustice in our own day, we rise to that legacy.


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