by Rabbi Evan Schultz, February 2018, Shevat-Adar 5778
Sitting in a circle of eight B’nai Israel congregants, holding marked up copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, listening to one another as we share our reactions to the book. We are in the second of four sessions on race in America, in partnership with CONECT, Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut. The congregants in the chapel on this cold night have committed to watching two films and reading two books on the subject of race and racism in the United States. The purpose of these sessions is to both educate ourselves, to see our country through the eyes of African-Americans, and to speak about our own experiences of race and racism in America.
Coates’ book is a chilling and powerful read (if you haven’t read it yet I’d encourage you to pause here and read it). It can be easy to ignore the realities and inequalities in our country on a daily basis – we may gloss over statistics in the news, or blind ourselves to some of the horrific videos posted across social media. It is difficult, however, when you read Coates’ book, to ignore a father’s brutally honest and loving testimony to his young son. Who does not look at their children and want them to have the best life possible, to believe that they can become something in this world? Coates, however, breaks the myths of the American Dream, of the ideas that the world can be changed by one person alone. He shares with him painful, personal stories of loss, of racism while walking down the street on the Upper West Side, of his own experiences that have caused him to look upon our country with sadness, anger, a little hope, but mostly bleak eyes.
I found our small group discussion of the book both honest and surprising. Co-chair, Emily Lehrman, reflected on how congregants have brought such a diversity of life experiences and stories to these discussions. The experience the night of the book discussion was a reminder to that we can’t pre-judge people; we can never know by looking at someone, no matter what the color of their skin, who they are and where they have been.
Co-chair, Jeff Schwartz, said this about the discussions so far, “generally, the film and book series has shown peoples’ commitment at B’nai Israel to social justice. The turnout for the first film was more than double what we had anticipated. More people gathered on a busy, cold, weekday evening to talk about Ta-Nehisi Coate’s book, written so poignantly to his son. Congregants shared how troubled they are with racism in America and how important it is for us to talk about it. Readers reacted emotionally to Coates’s book, Between the World and Me…The film and book series challenges us to examine institutionalized racism and where we see it every day.”
I encourage you to join us for our second film and book. On Saturday, February 4th, from 4:00-6:00p.m. we’ll watch the Netflix documentary “13th,” followed by a short discussion and Havdalah. In March we will read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.