We are about to enter Shavuot, marking the Israelites’ gathering at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. At this point in the Israelites’ story, they have just undergone a seismic shift out of slavery, and their journey begins to intertwine revolution with revelation.
Just as the Israelites chose to take on a new covenant during a time of great upheaval and to work to shape themselves into a new society, we too have an opportunity in this moment of profound disruption for new insight, accountability, and systemic transformation. What has this moment opened your eyes to? And if you are starting to shift back into a version of your pre-Covid life, how will you hold onto those new understandings, keep from going back to a status quo that harms so many?
Upheaval Allows for New Clarity
The current pandemic has brought many of our society’s injustices out of the shadows and into the spotlight as we adjust to our new realities. The experience of isolation can lead us to understand more about the cruelties of our prison system and the inhumanity of solitary confinement; living with restricted access to the spaces we used to take for granted can shift the way we think about how inaccessible our spaces usually are for people with disabilities; listening to our overburdened healthcare professionals (like Avodah alumni nurse Mariel Boyarsky and medical student Tal Lee) can lead to safe-staffing ratios and sufficiently supplied ERs; we can see clearly how government policies like universal basic income and comprehensive health care access would transform the impact of this disease. And we can look carefully at our own personal choices and ask ourselves hard questions about our own privileges and responsibilities.
As my teacher and movement colleague, Yavilah McCoy, posed to us in her article “Dancing between Light and Shadow – Increasing Awareness of the Impact of Covid 19 Disparities on Jews of Color” last week:
“As a JOC leader experiencing the impacts of Covid-19, I find myself wondering how many of my White colleagues and neighbors are still paying the hourly workers, many of whom are people of color, that have regularly taken care of their children, homes and businesses? I wonder who is calculating all the dollars that they have not been able to spend on gas, transportation, coffees, haircuts, and pedicures while sheltering in place and who has made a commitment to gift this saved amount to essential workers of color and those on the margins who have become economically insecure during this crisis?”
These disruptions open up new cracks in our society’s facades and help us see more clearly into what lies beneath. While this pandemic may be unprecedented, none of the underlying causes of its impact are new. After Hurricane Sandy, I learned from a disaster historian that he and his colleagues don’t use the term “natural disaster,” because while the event in question may emerge from nature, the disastrous effects are disproportionately due to human-made systems.
The deep racial disparities, lack of healthcare and dearth of safe shelter and other essential resources all existed before this crisis, and they are now directly contributing to thousands of Covid-19 deaths. And as all of this is more vividly revealed to many people in this moment, the question to each is: what are you going to do about it?
Clarity Catalyzes Action
The question of what motivates us toward activism is key to the work we do at Avodah, where we engage the Jewish community in ongoing, long-term work for social justice. Of course, there are many people whose activism comes out of living these injustices daily, understanding them all too well and knowing that revolutionary change is direly necessary. For others, the revelations are part of the process, and that theory is built into our work at Avodah: new exposure to injustice can prompt new questions to be explored through deeper learning, ultimately leading to sustained and effective engagement in social justice. Those moments of exposure can come to us through a service experience, what we read or who we listen to, or as now through a change in our own or loved ones’ lives.
In Exodus 2:11, we read that, “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors.” That moment is the beginning of his involvement in ending the Israelite enslavement. It is implausible to think that he had never seen the Israelite slaves before; they were serving his meals, cleaning his home, building the walls and structures of his city. Likewise, we are already aware of many of the injustices around us. But at some point, we make a choice to truly bear witness and let that change us. To decide that it did not and does not have to be this way.
What have you looked more closely at in these past months? Has it been about what protections workers at companies like Amazon are being denied? Or about the impact of quarantine on those who are not safe in their homes? Or about the Let My People Go campaign to free people imprisoned pretrial at Rikers? These thousands of individuals are trapped in a place with dramatically increased risk of contracting Covid-19 simply because they can’t afford bail or their immigration bond. Once we have looked directly at these truths, how can we look away?
But we do not have many models for staying present to discomfort, to the pain of truly witnessing suffering. Distractions abound and it is often all too easy to let larger questions fade into the background.
And that is where the key element of this pathway towards activism emerges: we can’t walk it alone. The reason that all of Avodah’s core program models include deep community-building is exactly because we are infinitely more likely to keep going on the path towards sustainable justice work if we do so in relationship with others. We need collaborators and teachers to push our thinking, honest feedback to hold us accountable, partners to help us find the work that we can join together.
Allow Revelations to Repair and Revolutionize Our World
The Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus is Shemot, which means names. It comes from the book’s first sentence: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” This dramatic story of oppression, liberation and transformation into peoplehood begins simply with an accounting of (some of) who was there as it started.
I was reminded of this as I read about the heartbreaking and essential ritual taken on by activist Rafael Shimunov and others to spend 24 hours last week Naming the Lost, reciting the names of every person killed by this pandemic so far. It is a simple and stunning example of how we can stay present to the grief of this overwhelming moment, how we can honor the individual humanity of each loss even as we work towards wider solutions. And of course, that ritual depended on partners across time zones, taking the responsibility from each other along the way.
This week at Shavuot, we have another all-night ritual: we stay up learning. We honor this foundational creation story of Jewish law and peoplehood by delving deeply into our texts and all of the arguments, critiques and insights of the generations of scholars and visionaries that follow. The ritual is called tikkun, meaning repair. We owe it to each other and to the generations ahead to follow this example. It is on each of us: figure out what we have to learn from this tragedy, find our people to learn and act with, and help each other stay awake to do the ongoing work not only of repair but of revolutionary, revelatory change.
Sarra Alpert is the National Program Director at Avodah and an alumna of the Avodah Jewish Service Corps (2002-2003). She is on the faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Cornerstone Seminar and is a Schusterman Fellow. Previously, Sarra served two terms as a board member for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and taught in the NYU Expository Writing Program, Hebrew schools and summer camps.