Our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described racism as “a cancer of the soul.” At this watershed moment in history, the implication for our synagogue community is clear - we have a sacred obligation to cry out in the face of hatred. Maimonides challenged us: “It is a commandment from the Torah to speak out against the horrors that befall a community. And if we do not, the problem will only continue to multiply.” ( Mishna Torah Fasts 1:1-3 )

For too long, systemic racism has been a blemish on the canvas of our nation. For too long, Black people have grown up seeing the American dream pass them by. For too long, people of color in America have had to overcome societal hurdles that White people never face. We are challenged as a Jewish community and synagogue to state and act on our values to address racism, a systemic issue that diminishes us all.

Our Jewish Community and specifically Chizuk Amuno have a history of fighting for civil rights. Indeed, our beloved former Senior Rabbi Israel Goldman z”l , was a leader in the Baltimore community, fighting for school and neighborhood desegregation, to the point of getting arrested for his convictions. At the same time, we must also recognize the role we have played, as individuals and as a Jewish community, in perpetuating a system that is inherently unjust if we are ever to begin to address it. Black Lives Matter has become the representation of the current civil rights movement and we must continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are oppressed and those who haven’t had the advantages of the rest of our population. We cannot desist from this hard work at this inflection point in history. As Rabbi Hillel challenged us, “If not now, when?” (Rabbi Hillel, Mishna Avot 1:14).

Over the past few weeks, we have made our communal voice heard:

  • Please listen to Congregant Richard Hudes’s Summer Shul D’var Torah, “Do the Right Thing:”

  • Please read this letter signed by Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Schools and hundreds of Jewish organizations, synagogues and clergy from across the country supporting the idea that Black Lives Matter!

We cannot rest until we are a community that is committed to engage in conversation and learning on systemic racism. In order to make systemic improvement to our society, we need to consider our role in advocating for changes to policies and laws that create and sustain systemic racism. It is vital that we work with our best educators to develop curriculum for all our schools to address societal and individual racism. Finally, we need to look inward and review our own internal synagogue and school policies to ensure we are promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do. There are exciting and important things that we are already doing or planning to advance and promote these important goals:

  • Our Social Justice and Advocacy Group under the direction of Andy Miller and Abe Kronsberg, working with our clergy, are preparing a diverse guest speaker series around relevant themes including Jews of Color, Systemic Racism in America, Black Lives Matter and its institutional relationship with the Jewish community.

  • When we return to the building, our executive director Lee Sherman, experienced in diversity training, is preparing an institutional assessment with the goal of becoming a truly inclusive and welcoming staff and community.

  • This year for Tisha B’av, we will follow Eicha with a Zoom discussion around the theme of how we hold ourselves accountable for and address racism in America and in our own lives. Please read this article in preparation:

  • We are reaching out to city churches to try and understand their Baltimore life experience and how we might be of assistance to them, as they have done for us. We will never forget how members of the Black community showed up in solidarity, at our Shir Shabbat and Shabbat morning service after the shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue.

A Jewish community must embody our values. Heschel once said, “Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” In the near future as you drive by Chizuk Amuno you will see two banners: “Black Lives Matter” and “If Not Now, When?” These messages are part of how we stand with the Black community, and these symbolic messages now display our values to the entire community.

We are aware that this message may come with some controversy. We acknowledge that the Black Lives Matter movement has had members who have made antisemitic or anti-Israel statements. However, as other major Jewish leaders and organizations have stated, we cannot allow this unrepresentative litmus test be an excuse not to do the right thing, to prevent us from supporting what is clearly today’s civil rights movement. We cannot desist from supporting the Jewish ideal that every life is important. We cannot miss this moment in our history. Unfortunately, right now it needs to be said specifically that Black lives do matter, because Black lives have specifically been diminished. These banners are an important gesture of support, a literal stake in the ground representing our values. Further, we hope that the banners will inspire healthy communal discussion. We also invite any of you with questions to please reach out to us directly.

We know that our community stands for what is right and just. We know that we do this even when it is hard. Most importantly we know that we are the kind of community that truly wants to be a beacon of light. We look forward to growing and learning together in the weeks and months ahead.

Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg
Senior Rabbi, Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Schools

Stephen M. Pomerantz, M.D
President, Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Schools