When do you think the Rabbi’s daughter learned what Tikkun Olam meant? 15 years old? 10 years old? Maybe even at 5? If I had to answer that question before our trip in November, I would have said that I was so young I don’t even remember learning it. Repairing the world was talked to about so often in our house and in the synagogues I grew up in that it felt like an inherent value. A core principle. One I’ve tried to live up to through my career and community service.
But something changed on our journey through Alabama and Georgia, as we talked in the footsteps of the men and women who faced systemic racism, humiliation and physical brutality. As we learned about the heroes who fought for justice through non-violent protests. Who were willing to and often did lose their lives in an attempt to repair the world.
What I realized is that you cannot fully understand what tikkun olam is unless you fully understand the brokenness that is left to repair.
We live in a world fractured by a once and still held incomprehensible belief that people are inherently unequal. That people with darker colored skin are inferior, and that because they are inferior, they don’t deserve freedom. That they are property to be owned, traded, exploited and abused. Slavery left a wound on our country so deep that it has yet to heal because slavery is not a thing of the past. Slavery continues to this day every time a person of color loses out on a job opportunity, is sent to prison, and is even killed for the color of their skin. Mass incarceration. Economic inequities from generations of discrimination. The killing of black men and women by the people we entrust to protect us. All of us.
In order not to overwhelm us by the magnitude of suffering around us – Tikkun Olam tells us that we do not have to repair the world alone. But we must do something.
I know that not everyone here is able to take the physical journey that we did. I wish there were words or stories we could tell that would truly capture what it’s like to stand in a greyhound bus station that used to be segregated, to stand on the corner where Rosa Parks refused to stand up on her historic bus ride, to offer a prayer in front of the church where 4 little girls with their whole lives in front of them were killed. There are no words that replace the empty feeling in your stomach as you imagine how scary it was to wake up every day never knowing when it would be your last.
Martin Luther King Jr was so sure he would not survive the battle for civil rights that he gave his own eulogy. In it, he said “I want you to able to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say in that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. Say that I was a drum major for righteous.”
We may not be in Alabama but there is work to do right here in our local communities. We can make a difference in so many lives. There are men and women of color in jail right now on minor violations that they are disproportionally arrested for who lose their children and jobs because they can’t pay bail as low as $100. By giving to the Bail Project, we can literally free them. For government workers of color currently out of work – the impacts are often felt even stronger because the lack of financial security. We can bring food to our local food pantry to ensure they make it until their next paycheck. Even in our Jewish community, our brothers and sisters of color feel like outsiders. We can and must do more to make them feel welcome and equal.
Today, I ask myself and all of us – when we die. What will our friends, families and communities say we were a drum major for?