My Prayer for Ferguson

Kim Weimer/Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times

Kim Weimer/Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times

Help us to lie down, Dear Lord our God, in peace, and let us rise again, to life…

This summer, I heard that a young black man had been killed by a police officer. The sad thing is that I tuned the story out. I was too caught up in whatever I was doing to notice that another unarmed black man had been killed by a police officer. I kept seeing the name Ferguson flash across my Twitter feed and my Facebook page, and I assumed that the name of the individual who was killed was Ferguson. Then I noticed that the individual’s name was Michael Brown and the shooting happened in a place that I know too well. It happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

Spread over us the shelter of Your peace…

From the ages of five through twelve I lived on the border of Berkeley and Ferguson. I spent a lot of time in Ferguson hanging with my friends Jill and Stacey. I remember swimming in January-Wabash park, bike riding adventures where the plan was to get lost and struggle to find our way home,  and spending my allowance on arcade games. I moved away when I was twelve and I was devastated–I loved my life and I loved my friends.  At the age of seventeen I moved back to the area and reconnected with my friends but it wasn’t the same.

and inspire us with Your good counsel…

Sadly, until recently I hadn’t given much thought to that part of my life. When I learned what happened to Michael Brown and where the shooting took place all of those memories of my childhood came flooding back. I immediately started reading as much information as I could find on what happened. A frightening feeling came over me and I realized that Michael Brown could easily have been the son of someone I went to school with. I reached out to friends and I talked with my parents.

and save us for the sake of Your name…

The recent events in Ferguson have brought a lot of attention to the issues of race in our society. Every single person of color in my life, including me, has had a moment of either being followed around in a store because of the perception that we might shoplift, or a moment of someone being afraid of us on the street or in an elevator. Once, when I walked into a sauna, and a white woman with a terrified look on her face yelled for me to get out because she assumed I was a black man. We live in a culture where we are bombarded by images that depict black men as threats. We live in a society that has become more segregated, not necessarily because of laws, but because of class and choices.  It’s an indescribable feeling to see a place I loved as a child, and hated to leave, on the national news with scenes that invoke in me images of Bull Connor’s attempt to control massive amounts of young black protesters with attack dogs and fire hoses. But today, instead of dogs, it’s tear gas and weapons used for war.

and shield us in the wings of Your protection,  

I live in two worlds. I am Jewish and I am black, and I am calling out to the Jewish community to please take notice of these past events, not just the events in Ferguson but the number of black men and people of color in our society who are stopped by police, arrested by police and even killed by police. Many in the Jewish community believe that these issues do not concern us, but they do. American Jews are now more racially diverse than ever. Every Shabbat many of us sit next to a Jews of color in our synagogues. Many of us have children of color, many of us have people of color in our families and many of us are black. We as a Jewish community can no longer say these issues do not concern us.

Guard our going out and our coming in, for life and peace, now and forever

As American Jews we know the history of injustice. We cannot sit by and let injustice happen because we know that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are commanded to not harden our hearts or shut our hand against our brothers or sisters who are in need.  These men who have died are part of us; they are our brothers. The people protesting in the streets of Ferguson are our brothers and sisters. They are part of us and part of our community. We must speak out to stop racial profiling and we must rid ourselves of the myth that what happens in Ferguson or on the streets of our own cities, doesn’t affect us.

Blessed are You Compassionate One, who spreads your canopy of peace over all Your people Israel, over Jerusalem and over the entire world.

Thank you T’ruah for letting me use my voice. Also, T’ruah responds to the Michael Brown grand jury verdict

Thank you Bucks County Courier Times for the Photo

My Story: My Jewish Path and Rabbinic Path

How Am I Jewish?

Upon meeting me Jews of Ashkenazi descent like to ask me a myriad of  questions, from how are you Jewish, to when did you convert, to don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school? These questions never happen in a context of wanting to know me, they are about the questioner’s own curiosity and trying to see how I fit into Judaism as if by answering these questions it will tell them everything they need to know about me.  When people ask me these questions, I never know how to respond, sometimes I will respond “I’m just Jewish,” but often want to respond with something comical.  I might even remind them that Jews have always been a multi-racial-cultural people. And I try to use my energy to educate other Jews about what it means to be Jewish in today’s society, but sometimes it is really exhausting.

I often never get to tell my story in a way that feels safe. I am often made to feel like I am expected to rattle off a simple yes or no answer as if anyone’s Jewish story is that simple. All Jewish stories are complex, and personal.  I’ve decided to tell my story here, a friend suggested that I use this link as a business card, and the next time someone asks I can just refer them here 😀

My Jewish Story

In my Junior year of college I joined the military and I spent most of my twenties in the United States Army as a Military Police Investigator working on cases of child abuse and domestic violence. While in the military I finished my bachelor’s degree, and graduated with honors from St. Leo University. It was at St. Leo University where my first real interest in Judaism arose. I took a class on the Old Testament, taught by Francis Githieya, Ph.D. I needed a humanities credit and Githieya’s class fulfilled that requirement, so I begrudgingly registered. I still remember to this day the first words Dr. Githieya said. He stated, in his very Kenyan accent, “You must read the textbook, and if you do not read the textbook you will fail my class.” Githieya went on to say that we should not come to class regurgitating words that our preacher told us, and if we did we would fail. He explained that this was a scholarly course and we would be studying the five books of Moses.” I remember thinking that I liked this guy, and that I could get an A out of this class, because I was not a Christian and would be free from any biases. I did exactly as Githieya describe and did get an A out of the class. The class provided my first real introduction to the Torah, and I was fascinated by the stories and the rich history of the text. The class also changed my view of religion.

My father was raised in a small black church in Blevins, Arkansas, and my mother never mentioned anything about attending a church or any other religious space when she was a kid. I grew up with very little knowledge of Christianity, I knew very little outside of the Jesus narrative. I was not raised in a religious household and had no formal religious education. My family did not go to church but we would on occasion when invited by neighbors. There were times when we would go more often than other times and then we would stop. Around the age of 12 or 13 I think we started going more often. My parents were having a hard time and I think that my mother saw this as a way to ensure that she retained custody. My mother knew that if they divorced that I would probably go and live with my dad, which would not have been a good thing because my dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict, who cheated on my mother whenever possible. And they had a very volatile relationship. I believe that my mother believed that she had to do whatever she had to do to get custody of my brother and I. At one point she hired a social worker and also she found a minister, who I did not like very much. His name was Rev. Stuart and I saw him as a creepy little man who spouted out homophobic rants, and sexist rants during his sermons. I found it strange as a 13 year old that we went to his church; I always saw my mother as a feminist and could not believe that we had to sit and listen to this guy. She would tell me that she would take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff.

As I got older I learned from my mother that the earliest relative in her family did not come to America as a slave. She told me that he immigrated to this country from Ethiopia and he was a Jew. She later told me that he married a non-Jew and the religion was not passed down. I also vaguely remember her saying that no one believed he was a Jew. This story for my mother and her sisters was a pretty powerful story because it meant to her, that her earliest ancestor was not a slave. We did not eat pork or shellfish and, looking back on it, I’m not really sure why. I asked my mother about this and she would tell me that pork was bad for us. I wonder sometimes: If my mother’s oldest known ancestor had immigrated to this country and found it more hospitable to black people and welcoming to Jews of color, would my story have been different?

After the military, I became a personal trainer and ran my own personal training business. My life also became incredibly Jewish; I had Jewish clients, Jewish friends and a Jewish girlfriend, Laura (name changed). Dating Laura, also introduced me to her family. Laura’s sister, Maggie, Maggie’s husband and their kids always met for Shabbat dinner and always invited me. I loved the rituals and loved watching this very modern family slow down as everyone sat down for a meal. I even loved how this family opened themselves and their home to include me week after week, something that has stayed with me even to this day as I struggle to understand what it means to have a Jewish family and a Jewish home.

While I was dating Laura, I met a man who would forever change my life, Rabbi Joshua Lesser. Today he is one of my closest friends and one of my strongest supporters. I cannot even begin to tell you the impact he has had on my life. Josh hired me to be his personal trainer. As we worked together toward his goals, our relationship grew and so did my curiosity. I started to ask Josh questions about Judaism, and he invited me several times to come to his synagogue. I wanted to, but I was scared — mostly out of fear that I would be treated differently because I was black. At Josh’s synagogue, Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH), that never happened, in fact it was quite the opposite.

The day I finally made it to CBH there was a potluck. Josh was on the bimah during the service, kids were running around and their parents were listening attentively. I was very fascinated by this, because the children were free to run around. Every church I had been to the children would have been forced to sit still in the pew as if somehow shackled. There was also a helper dog, Chance. Chance during the service was helping himself to all of the crumbs that were dropped by humans from the potluck. I watched with glee as the humans adjusted themselves in their pews so that Chance could get the crumbs. The children running around, the dog, all of this was happening during the service. Then there was this prayer called a Prayer for the End of Hiding, a prayer which begins “we as gay and lesbian Jews…” and the entire community was saying this prayer, even the straight folks. I fell in love with CBH then and knew that I had to be a part of the community.

For over a year I had started to think about conversion. Up until this time I had thought that I would move from Atlanta, I would find a different rabbi and start my conversion. One day it hit me that I should make Atlanta my home and I was not going to move. On Christmas Eve 2003 Josh and I had lunch and I proceeded to tell him that I wanted to be part of the CBH community and if that meant being Jewish then I wanted to be Jewish. I think I had a sense that I wanted full membership into the community and it was much clearer to me that being Jewish meant being part of the CBH community. I also told him that I wanted to work with him on conversion, but I did not want to do it if it meant messing up our friendship.

CBH became my spiritual home, and in 2004 and I officially entered into the Jewish covenant the day before my 34th birthday. Even though I went through a formal conversion, I don’t feel like I converted. I don’t even like the term “Jews by Choice.” I see the term as a fancy way of saying convert and another way to separate out people who are different in the Jewish community. Once someone is Jewish, then they are Jewish. Any attempt to make someone different in the Jewish community, I see that as against Jewish law. I instead feel like I got in touch with my Jewish roots and I am back where my family should have been all along.

So Why Rabbinical School?

One Friday night Josh gave a sermon about Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute for Sex Research in the 1920’s. Hirschfeld lived in pre-World War II Germany during the rise of Nazism. Josh related in his sermon that at this time in German history the Jewish community did not want to have anything to do with the gay community, and the gay community did not want to have anything to do with the Jewish community. Hirschfeld was both gay and Jewish. Josh proposed in his sermon a “what if.” What if Hirschfeld had used his identity as a gay Jew to be a bridge builder, and the Jewish community and the gay community worked together against the Nazis instead of working separately?

After hearing this sermon I recognized in myself that I had several separate isolated identities. I was gay over here, and Jewish over here and black over here. Looking back I guess I felt I would implode if my identities were all in the same place. After that sermon I made a conscious decision to unite all of my identities. In Atlanta, the Jews felt excluded from the black community, the black community was not connected with the Jewish community, the queer Jewish community felt excluded from the larger queer community. I felt that I could use my identities as a bridge builder.

Shortly after making this decision, Josh was invited to speak at the queer memorial service for Coretta Scott King. King was a wonderful friend to the LGBTQ community in Atlanta, and the community wanted to honor her. Josh could not attend and asked me to represent him. He knew that the audience for the service would be made up of mostly LGBT people of African descent. By doing this I would be making a very public statement that I was black, Jewish and a queer. After I read Josh’s words at the memorial service, a woman came up to me and she told me that she wanted to convert to Judaism. The two of us began a conversation that culminated a year or so later at her Bet Din. Josh told her that he had been very disappointed that he could not attend that memorial service, but looking back it may have been a blessing that he was not there because she may not have felt comfortable at that moment telling him that she wanted to convert. Maybe that day it was good that the face of Bet Haverim was another black queer woman.

I used to ask Josh, “what kind of Rabbi are you?” I had never seen a man espouse feminist values, a white man so connected to communities of color or anyone so devoted to helping others. I thought he was this unique individual who also happened to be a rabbi. One day I got the honor of attending the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Convention and soon realized there was this school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that trained rabbis that were like Josh, and I wanted to go to that school.

During this time I had become a lay leader at CBH and I started to do more interfaith work. I enjoyed working with clergy but I soon began to realize two things: One, if I wanted to effect real change I needed to have the title rabbi. The other reason was I really wanted to bring more attention to the racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community which meant becoming more than just a lay leader, it meant becoming a rabbi.

In Case You Are Still Wondering…

I am Jewish today, and a rabbinical student because a friend reached out to me and invited me to his spiritual home. We need to do more of that. We need to reach out to people and if they are friends invite them to our synagogues, and shabbat meals not to proselytize but to share. I believe Judaism is wonderful why wouldn’t I want to share it with others?

For those who want to discuss Trayvon Martin without bringing up race:

(From my Facebook) The sad thing is that we cannot have a dialogue about this without bringing up race/racism. We live in a country where people are treated suspiciously for being Muslm, Arab, black, brown, and/or hispanic etc. That is the world we live in. We do not live in a post racial society. For those of us who have white privilege some of us want to divorce race from the conversation. For the rest of us (and allies) who do not have that privilege we are trying to say there is something wrong here. I want to live in a place “where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I want to get to a place where the first thing we utilize as a measurement is not someone’s external designation, but we look beyond that into the substance of a person and rid ourselves of those kinds of prejudices and biases we often bring to the decisions that we make.

The Future Jewish Community

I often find myself thinking about the kind of Jewish community I’d like to help build as a rabbi and or be a part of as a Rabbi.  I want to find ways to connect with Jews that do not feel welcomed in Jewish communities. This is also a personal issue for me because as a queer Jew of color, I often do not feel safe or welcomed in Jewish spaces for a lot of reasons, but one is that my identity as a Jew, who is also a person of color changes the conversation of what a Jew looks like.

We live in a world where the larger Jewish community still sees itself defined along racial and ethnic lines and those ethnic lines do not include Jews of color. They also do not include Jews who have converted and or chosen Judaism and sadly Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews and Jews from other Jewish communities also feel left out.  The larger Jewish community is connected to a narrative of an Eastern European past.  I find it hard to connect with other Jews when they see themselves so connected to this narrative. There is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s family background, but today that same narrative does not work in a Jewish community where many Jews do not share that same background.

 Today 20% of the Jewish community is racially and ethnically diverse. Many Jews have chosen Judaism, including many of the students at my rabbinical school. Slowly, more Jews of color are becoming leaders in the Jewish community, and there are more Jews of patrilineal descent. What does all this mean? I’m not sure. One thing I think of, is this means a growing Jewish population unburden by a collective tragedy. Does this have the potential to change the mindset of the Jewish community? I don’t know. I know for some in the Jewish community this means fear but for me and many others we are excited about the possibilities and we are excited for the Jewish people.

Transportation Racism

One hundred and sixteen years after the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, fifty-six years after the Supreme Court ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and forty-eight years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, government discrimination in transportation has not ended.  In this section we will look at racism in transportation policies showing that the policies are clearly not colorblind.  

All across the country, people of color and poor people do not have equal access to transportation.  Access to transportation, influences ones upper social mobility and allows people to achieve better social and economic opportunities.  Current transportation policies that favor roads over public transit, suburbs over cities create and enforce racial and economic inequality.  They help to further polarize communities on the basis of class and color, and municipalities need to stop transit racism and revisit their public transportation agendas.

As stated earlier the term racism refers to any policy practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.  Institutionalized racism is part of the culture and history of the United States, it’s in the water and engrained into our society Transportation racism is the creation of racist, separate and unequal public transportation systems

Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished the enslavement of Black people in the United States, Blacks have struggled to end discrimination on buses and trains.

In 1892, a black man, (actually he was biracial), named Homer Plessy who could easily pass for white,

Homer Plessy

decided to challenge a Louisiana law that required separate train cars for Whites and Blacks.  Plessy intentionally boarded a car reserved for Whites and knew he would be arrested.  The case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.  In 1886 the U.S. Supreme court upheld Louisiana’s Separate Car Act that called for segregated seating in railroad cars.  The case better known as Plessy v Ferguson ushered in an era of separate but equal.  Transportation racism dates back to the concept of separate but equal which was set in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld segregated seating on railroad cars.  In 1953 Blacks in Baton Rouge Louisiana staged the first successful bus boycott against racial discrimination.  This was followed by the infamous and successful 1955 Montgomery Alabama bus Boycott when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.

The 1954 case Brown v. the Board of Education was also partly about transportation racism.  The famous civil rights case was a class action law suit.  One of the cases, Biggs v. Elliot was about getting a bus to transport kids to and from school.  The kids that went to the white schools in Calendon County, South Carolina, road the bus back and forth to school, the kids that went to the Black segregated school had to walk because the school board of Clarendon County refused to provide bus for the kids that went to the segregated schools.  The parents sued and this case became part of the famous Brown v. the Board of Education. 

Today, blacks are physically isolated from the means to upward mobility, in other words jobs.  Blacks tend to own fewer cars or no cars when compared to whites and transportation in most areas of the United States in inadequate.  Another part of transportation discrimination is the problem of Sprawl.

In their book, Sprawl City: Race Politics, and Planning in Atlanta the authors analyzes and critique the crisis resulting from urban sprawl in the Metropolitan area of Atlanta, Georgia.  The book puts sprawl related concerns as a core environmental justice and civil rights issue. The book focuses on how government housing, education, and transportation policies have aided and in some cases subsidized separate but unequal economic development and segregated neighborhoods.  The authors explain the causes and consequences of sprawl, and outlines policy recommendations and an action agenda for coping with sprawl-related problems, both in metropolitan Atlanta and around the country.

The authors define Sprawl as “random, unplanned growth characterized by inadequate accessibility to essential land uses such as housing, jobs and public services that include schools, parks, green space and public transportation.  Typically strip centers, low density residential housing, and other isolated, scattered developments leapfrog over the landscape without rhyme or reason.  Sprawl fueled growth pushes people further apart geographically, politically, economically, and socially.  The economic boom times that drive sprawl creates unequal opportunities. Developments in the suburbs often mean empty storefronts in the city’s core.  The government creates more roads that lead to the suburbs s but do not create public transit to the suburbs.  Without public transportation to the suburbs, new jobs, created by suburban business development are out of reach to city residents who do not have cars.  This creates the concentration of poverty in the city’s urban core.  Sprawl is not a necessary by-product of metropolitan growth and economic development. Growth can be planned and managed.  Sprawl drives up transportation cost.  Families are spending more money to drive further distances to work, school, etc.  There are more cars on the road which creates more pollution due to traffic congestion.  According to the CDC sprawl is a major health threat and during the 1996 Olympics games there was a 22.5% reduction traffic and a 42% reduction in Asthma related emergency room and hospital visits.

Transportation equity (TE) is where concerns extend to disparate outcomes in planning, maintenance, and infrastructure development.  Transportation is a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, equal opportunity, and ensuring equal access to education, employment, and other public services.  Transportation equity is about fairness, access, and opportunity to better transportation that will take people to where the jobs are located.  Transportation equity looks at the negative environmental costs of transportation and scrutinizes discrepancies in resource allocation and investment.  It also seeks to address unequal outcomes in planning, operation and maintenance and infrastructure development.   Transportation equity focuses on the distribution of benefits and enhancements among the various population groups, especially among low income and people of color communities.

There are three general types of transportation equity, Horizontal Equity focuses on fairness of cost and benefit allocation between individuals and groups who are considered comparable in wealth and ability.  Vertical Equity with Regard to Income and Social Class is concerned with allocation of cost between income and social classes.  Vertical Equity with Regard to Mobility Need and Ability focuses on how well an individual’s needs are met compared with others in their community.

Cost and benefits associated with transportation developments are not randomly distributed.  The discriminatory effects of transportation projects can be included under three categories of inequity Procedural Inequity, Geographic Inequity and Social Inequity.  Procedural Inequity results when transportation decisions are not carried out in a uniform, fair and consistent manner with involvement of diverse public stake holders.  Geographic Inequity results from the geographic and special impacts of transportation decisions.  These impacts affect rural, urban, and central-city neighborhoods differently.  Such as physically being located on the wrong side of the tracks and receiving substandard services.  Social Inequality results when transportation benefits and burdens are not randomly distributed across population groups.

Access to transportation, whether public or private, influences ones upper social mobility and allows people to move into better social and economic opportunities.  The book Highway RobberyTransportation Racism & New Routes to Equity links the inequalities in transportation to larger economic, health, environmental justice, and quality of life issues.  The book shows that publicly funded segregation jeopardizes health and limits economic opportunities, and creates feelings of frustration and isolation.  The authors demonstrate how transportation policy and urban planning create and enforce racial and economic inequality.  Highway Robbery asserts these current policies will further polarize communities on the basis of class and color, and the authors in this anthology demand that cities and states revisit their public transportation policy agendas.

Changes in zoning have made it possible for suburbs to increase their share of office space, while the urban core of cities see their share declining.  Federal and state transportation funds favor roads and highways that lead to the suburbs and favor suburban commuters and auto owners over people who are dependent on public transit for their transportation needs.  Transportation users suffer rundown buses, long waits, longer rides, poor connections, service cuts, overcrowding, and daily exposure to some of the environmental pollutants from cars.  A few years ago I read an article that related that several members of congress felt that spending money on public transportation was a waste of time.  The belief was that government spends money on public transit, yet most Americans do not use it.  Thus, public transit is a waste of money.  This is not the entire picture of what happens with public transportation.

Far too much of our transportation dollars are spent on roads and highways at the expense of communities of color, the government encourages people to use their cars and not public transportation.  Federal tax dollars build and subsidize the roads, freeways and public transit systems.  The government builds highways to the suburbs and then subsidizes the construction of suburban homes.  In other words the government gives tax breaks to home owners who buy newer homes, basically paying people to move out to the suburbs, another term is middleclass welfare.  The transportation projects of building the roads out to the suburbs, have the unintended consequence of dividing, isolating and disrupting some communities while imposing inequitable economic, environmental, and health burdens on them.

Suburban communities benefit from the building of the roads and highways while the cities bear the burden and pay the cost in poor health and loss of jobs.  Many children who live in areas near an interstate suffer from asthma that is probably caused by pollutants that come from the exhaust of cars.

Moreover the federal government spends more money on highways than on public transit.  These new roads are built that lead to the suburbs without significant public transportation service, and thereby open up those areas for development and new jobs.  The result is people leave the city, move to the suburbs where the jobs are located, this takes jobs out of the cities core. Thus, highway spending shifts people and jobs to areas without public transit, thus gutting transit ridership.

Transportation is a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, equal opportunity, and ensuring equal access to education, employment, and other public services.  Transportation equity is about fairness, access, and opportunity to better transportation that will take people to where the jobs are located.  Transportation equity looks at the negative environmental costs of transportation and scrutinizes discrepancies in resource allocation and investment.  It also seeks to address unequal outcomes in planning, operation and maintenance and infrastructure development.   Transportation equity focuses on the distribution of benefits and enhancements among the various population groups, especially among low income and people of color communities.

In the city of Atlanta transportation policies are implicated in land-use patterns, unhealthy air, and suburban sprawl in metropolitan Atlanta.  Transportation and land-use plans contributed to social, economic, and racial inequities.  Race shaped the path of land-use planning and public transportation in metro Atlanta.  Racism has kept the Atlanta region economically and geographically divided.  Atlanta metropolitan area has a regional transit system in name only.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) serves just two counties, Fulton and DeKalb.  The original plan called for a five-county regional transit system.  In the 1960s, MARTA was hailed as the solution to the region’s growing traffic and pollution problems. Atlanta’s white economic and political elites, led by Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., pushed for a rapid-rail system that they felt would market Atlanta as a “cosmopolitan” New South city.  White suburbanites did not want public transit or blacks in their communities.  For whites in Atlanta MARTA has stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly through Atlanta.”

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) attempted to level the playing field between Highway and transit investment.  This law changed existing patterns where the federal government covered about 90 percent of the cost for highway and about 75 percent of the cost for transit.  This caused the local governments to invest their funds in highway transportation because the federal share was bigger.  This law also allowed states to be flexible in their highway funds and move funds to transit and other alternatives.  ISTEA has since expired and was replaced with the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) that authorized federal funds to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure. TEA-21 expired 2003 and was replaced with TEA-3 to rejuvenate urban areas through transportation redevelopment, increased transit and sustainable alternatives to urban sprawl.  TEA-3 adhered to civil rights laws and affirmed the principles of environmental justice.

Race still matters in the United States and the deterioration of urban public transportation is totally do to racism and must be addressed.  Transit racism (TR) was responsible for the death of 17 year old Cynthia Wiggins of Buffalo, New York.  Wiggins was unable to secure a job in Buffalo but was able to find work in the mall. On her way to work Wiggins was crushed by a dump truck while crossing a seven lane highway because the number 6 bus, used by mostly inner city blacks was not allowed to stop at the suburban Walden Galleria Mall.  Members of the Wiggins family and members of the black community charged the Walden Galleria Mall with using the highway as a racial barrier to exclude some city residents.  The case was settled 10 days after it was filed with several million dollars left to Wiggin’s son.

Transportation racism is also responsible for a large part of the deaths that occurred during and after the Hurricane Katrina.  Forecasters predicted that Hurricane Katrina was going to be deadly, government officials knew that nearly 134,000 residents-most of them poor and black did not have transportation and would be stuck in New Orleans and would not be able to evacuate.  The government failed to provide transportation to evacuate people before the Hurricane and continued to fail in evacuating people after the hurricane.

Why Does the Torah Not Abolish Slavery?

In Parshah Mishpatim we transition in Exodus from a narrative, a story of a people, their enslavement, and their journey to freedom to

“now these are the laws that you Moses, shall set before them.”

Why do we care about this? The Israelites didn’t know how to act as a free people after all they had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. And needed guidance on how to behave as free people. Since the Israelites had left slavery it should not be surprising that the first set of laws mentioned in this parshah are laws about slavery. Exodus 21:2-6 says:

If you buy a Hebrew slave he is to serve you for seven years. But the seventh year, he shall go free.”

What is surprising to me is that the Torah does not abolish slavery. Instead it lists a serious of laws on protecting the slave. The legalized slavery of the Torah only comes to correct some of the pitfalls of slavery. Slavery did exist during this time as an institution, as long as it existed, the Torah gave us laws to protect slaves from abuse and mistreatment. It’s almost as if the Torah could not imagine a world without slavery. Why doesn’t the torah just abolish slavery? Jonathan Sacks says:

“The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: Time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia….So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of Gods relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, to abolish it of their own accord.

Slavery, has existed probably since the beginning of time. Before modern era, slavery was not based on race, it was based on debt, crime or war. In the case of war, when one group of people defeated the other group, they would often enslave the loser and often these were women.

When slavery came to the New World, there was such a demand for labor that slavery became a whole new animal. Slavery in the United States was not based on debt, war, or a crime, it was only based on biological traits, what we now call race. And slavery became inheritable. I mention this because slavery in this country was wrapped in religious conviction. Meaning that on one hand according to Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography the cruelest slave masters and overseers were devout Christians, usually folks that had some kind of a conversion experience or today we call them born again. Further reading of Douglass’ does not imply that he believed christians were evil. He makes a clear distinction between Christianity of America and the Christianity proper. These slave masters used text in the Torah, to justify slavery. On the other hand you have folks like the Quakers, Methodist and the early evangelicals, campaigning to end slavery. These devout christians were also driven by religious conviction, inspired albeit by the narrative of the Exodus story.

As an American, a woman, a Jew and a person of color I feel intimately connected to the history of slavery. Not only the slavery mentioned in this weeks Torah portion but the history of slavery in the United States and the slavery that continues today. These verses in the Torah reflect the time when the Israelites had crossed over the line and moved from slavery into freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people and never allowed to forget the experience of slavery.

The laws embedded in this week’s portion, and the ones that will follow stress, that we are to cherish freedom, abhor oppression and deal honestly and equitably with both those whom we love and those whom we hate. We are called upon to build a society that promotes individual responsibility and provides legal protections for all its members.


State of Black Gay America Summit 2010

This photo was taken in 2010 at the “State of Black Gay America Summit” in Atlanta Georgia and I am pretty sure that I was talking about food sustainability and my concerns about the health of not just the Black LGBT Community but the Health of the larger African-American population, the queer community and Jewish community and society as a whole and I see our food choices having a lot do with our health. I’ve been interested in food and nutrition for a long time. I was once a competitive power lifter, bodybuilder and I have been a personal trainer for a long time and quickly learned how important nutrition is on athletic performance. In 2009 I became a vegan. I became a vegan because I wanted to feel good and look good and the vegan diet made since to me. I have always believed in order to be healthy we should be eating a strong plant based diet (even though I wasn’t following that advice myself) this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be a vegan but we should be eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat.

Jewishly, I also think a lot about Genesis 1:29 and Genesis 9:2-5 and maybe one day will write something about the diet shift in the Torah (if you are not sure what that is, read both of the above versus and let me know your thoughts). I hadn’t thought much about food and Judaism until I became a vegan and soon recognized that being a vegan made it easier for me to keep a kosher kitchen and to keep kosher. I also feel much more connected to my food since I try to eat what I call as close to the ground with my food as possible (meaning I try not to eat a lot of processed food).

Here are some questions to ponder over: what does it say about us as a society, when we continue to put fast food chains in low income areas? Feeding people in urban areas; who are mostly brown and poor, high calorie food with very little nutritional value. As folks in urban areas we need to demand better food choices, make better food choices and fight to get good grocery stores in our neighborhoods and keep fast food chains out of our neighborhoods. What does it say about us a Jewish people that we are more concerned about a food item being kosher that we don’t think about whether or not the food is healthy? News flash, fruits and vegetables are kosher. Please let us think about this when passover comes around and we are running around trying to get Pesadik items (I can’t even call this stuff food) for passover instead of remembering that passover is a holiday about freedom, redemption and doing without certain foods.

These are just my ramblings for this Shabbat morning. Feel free to share your thoughts

Life Changes

Tonight is my last night as a non rabbinical student.  It’s really hard to say what I feel about this because I have wanted it for so long.  I also feel like I paid a heavy price for wanting to become a rabbi, and that price was the end of a partnership. This may come as a surprise to many of you, or maybe not, but rabbinical schools have a policy of not admitting candidates that have non Jewish partners.  The policy is unfair on so many levels but queer students and Jews of color have a different burden.

Ideally it would be great to have a Jewish partner, but when I think of some of the experiences I have had in Jewish spaces relating to race, having a Jewish partner seems unlikely.  I felt like my choices are meet a black  jew or choose not to date and not to partner.

Anyway it’s getting late and I don’t want to ramble on or continue on this soapbox. Just keep in mind that there are real people affected by these policies. Tomorrow, I start my new journey, and that is to fulfill my dream and become a rabbi someday and tomorrow the dream begins.

Genesis 1:29 and our Food

I have created a new title for myself, Food Activist.  I wish I could say that I coined the phrase, but I did not.  I heard it this morning on NPR and the title was used to refer to Michael Pollan.  With my ever growing interest in whole plant food and educating people about good wholesome unprocessed food.  It has had me thinking about the Torah (Bible) and what the Torah says about food.  Primarily in Genesis 1:29, where I believe that the initial intention was for us to be vegetarian:

“And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food.

Later permission was given for people to eat meat (Genesis 9:2-5).  Why? No one really knows, maybe it’s as simple as this: the world was flooded and destroyed and there was no more vegetation left and the only food sources would have been the animals on the ark and whatever food Noah and his family brought on the ark.

But I have an even larger question, what does it mean for us as a society that we have become so consumed with meat and cheap meat at that, that we do not care about the treatment of animals, the labors, or how food gets to our plate?

Please share any thoughts on this subject.