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Do Not Stand Idly by the Blood of Your Neighbor
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JOFA Blog

Do Not Stand Idly by the Blood of Your Neighbor

Reflections on my role as a white spiritual leader at the protests

I chose to go down to the White House and Saint John’s Church today. I had not planned to go to the protests – not because I do not support them, but because of two totally separate reasons: My desire to maintain social distancing, and because I am still trying to figure out what it means to get involved as a white person.

Last night, the President of the United States desecrated a church. He desecrated human life. And he desecrated God. As a spiritual leader I knew immediately that I must speak out against this.

That all changed when I woke up this morning to see what happened at St John’s. Last night, the President of the United States desecrated a church. He desecrated human life. And he desecrated God. As a spiritual leader I knew immediately that I must speak out against this. And so, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and I planned to go downtown to bear witness to this desecration, and offer our support for the church and the protesters.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience, and reflecting back on my initial hesitations:

1. Social distancing. First, nearly everyone I saw was wearing a mask. Multiple people are walking around offering folks hand sanitizer. You do not forget for one moment that you are in a pandemic, and I did not feel that it was being taken lightly. Second, I cannot tell you how good it felt to be surrounded by people. The last time I was with a group of people was on Purim, nearly 3 months ago. To be surrounded by so many bodies, and by so much energy, was electrifying. I say this not to excuse any violations of social distancing you may be seeing. Everyone should wear a mask at all times, and I am extremely concerned that so many people in so many cities are not. That is unequivocally wrong. At the same time, I am trying to extend compassion to everyone at this time. And in a time that is so tenuous, so uncertain, and so terrifying, I am not surprised to see a lot of people gathering together. Humans are social beings, and we have all been deprived of human contact.

People of color need to know that we are here, that we care, and that we see everything that is happening. But we also have to remember how to balance this presence with constant humility and awareness of the privilege that we carry.

2. Getting involved as a white person: there is so much to say, and so many people more qualified than me to say it. What I will offer is that presence and support is essential. The black community needs to know that we are here, that we care, and that we see everything that is happening. But we also have to remember how to balance this presence with constant humility and awareness of the privilege that we carry. I saw many things today – an entire neighborhood boarded up. Hundreds of people in masks. Police officers and members of the National Guard in full uniform, blocking traffic with tanks. But by far the most disturbing thing I saw was a young white man who walked up to the fence outside the White House and started taunting a police officer charged with protecting the White House for checking his phone. I saw another man do this to those officers as well. This behavior is abhorrent. Not just because it is mean and unproductive, but because it is an extreme example of white privilege. I doubt a person of color would feel comfortable walking up to an officer and committing the verbal equivalent of spitting in his face.

We need to remember – our role in this fight is to serve as allies, to serve as supporters, and to protest alongside those who are fighting for their freedom. We should be out there, showing up in every way. But we also need to conduct ourselves with the humility of knowing that at the end of the day, we are not the center of this fight.

We need to remember – our role in this fight is to serve as allies, to serve as supporters, and to protest alongside those who are fighting for their freedom. We should be out there, showing up in every way. But we also need to conduct ourselves with the humility of knowing that at the end of the day, we are not the center of this fight. And if we insert ourselves in the center, we do more damage than good.

Maharat Ruth Friedman is a member of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat, which is the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic (legal) authorities.  She serves as Maharat at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue® in Washington, DC.

Maharat Friedman’s responsibilities include overseeing the conversion program, supervising the operation of the community mikvah, directing adult education, providing pastoral counseling, teaching in the community, and more.

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