Living in the crisis of COVID-19 offers new opportunities for connection and perhaps also new avenues to solidarity.
I would do almost anything to honor Mordechai Liebling, a friend and colleague I deeply admire. For many years, we were both board members of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and then its newer iteration, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He was the one who whispered to me during a fraught meeting, “You know you are going to become the next chair, don’t you?” I did become chair, but not before recruiting Rabbi Tirzah Firestone to be my co-chair, beginning a system of co-chair rotation that continues to this day.
Most important, for me, is the fact that Mordechai was my coach for the two years before my retirement from being the rabbi of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives, the community I founded and led for 25 years in Brooklyn, N.Y. Mordechai provided wisdom, questions, suggestions, and a gentle ear and shoulder through the many vicissitudes of those years.
I am delighted to honor and thank Rabbi Mordechai Liebling for all his gifts to me.
To do so, I choose to write about an issue that bears exploration in the current world of Jewish social-justice work and in the world in which we now find ourselves: The issue of crossing the lines that divide us or, more broadly, the issue of what real solidarity is in our America whose fissures and fractures have been laid bare to the detriment of all by the realities of the Trump administration and now, as I write, the COVID-19 virus. As Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker: “Crises take an X-ray of a city’s class structure.” Structures of class and race and gender and age are clear for us to see, grapple with and overturn. One way to begin is to insist that we not remain ever bound by the lines and walls that divide us, Jews from Jews, Americans from Americans, humans from humans.
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad. Listen, Jews, our God whose presence fills creation is one, and somehow we need to learn to get there, too.
Living in the crisis of COVID-19 offers new opportunities for connection and thus perhaps also for new avenues to solidarity. Yes, the government has been slow and obstructionist and harmful in its response. And yes, there has been an outpouring of generosity as people develop mutual aid systems in neighborhoods and towns, purchase food to send to frontline health workers, sing and clap appreciation from windows and rooftops, offer their skills and their art in so many ways that make it possible to imagine a new way of life emerging that may last beyond the current crisis. Maybe it will be clear that we need health care for all. Maybe it will be clear that we actually can do without overuse of our cars and our planes. Maybe it will be clear that hatred or dismissal of any group in our society is just plain wrong. I suggest that what will become clear is that we will need to develop deep relationships from the connections made in giving and receiving care, and that it is those relationships that form the building blocks of truly interdependent solidarity. We are seeing the front edge of a new way of crossing lines, of needing one another, of providing care regardless of who you are or who I am.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “CROSSING LINES THAT DIVIDE US”?
My ultimate aim, the aim of those I call “my people,” is “to build a movement full of heart and contradiction that will honor all bodies and minds and respect all work.”[fn]Rachel McCullough[/fn]
Questions still linger:
“What if someone says something that offends me deeply?” you ask.
“What if I am too old and slow and can’t keep up with you?” you ask.
“What if I can’t trust you?” you ask.
The crossing of lines means we have to join together even though we are offended because the larger need for solidarity means we can try to understand each other anew and not walk out of the room. The crossing of lines means we wait for the oldest and slowest, or let them take the lead. The crossing of lines means we walk together and learn to trust as we go. The path is neither straight nor smooth. But if we are to build the society we envision, we have to start walking, together. In this time of physical distance and social connection, when there is no room to walk out of, when there is no walking far, we must even more rely on each other and forgive one another the offenses of the past.
The Torah offers a picture of the building of community through creating the communal center we know as the mishkan, the place where God will dwell. Let’s remember that this takes place after slavery, after liberation, after Sinai, after the false start of the Golden Calf. Finally, through the opening created by that crisis, the people get to hear the plan and take it on as their own:
“And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was so moved came …
Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the LORD, came …
And everyone who … and everyone who …
And all the skilled women … And all the women who …
And the chieftains brought …
Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the LORD, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD.”[Exodus 35:21-29]
Everyone came. Even women! Chieftains brought just as did others. Did all these people get along all the time? Surely, not. But they had a vision — in this case, provided by the Holy One — and they embraced the vision, so they worked individually and together to make it happen. It is the Torah’s most democratic picture. How can we envision less?
CROSSING LINES THAT DIVIDE: A BEGINNING
CAMMERR: Children of Abraham, Martin, Malcolm, Ella, Rosa and Rose, is an unlikely multiracial and cross-faith gathering which is meeting every other month in 2020 and which grew out of the crossing of lines. In the fall of 2018, following retirement, I traveled and deliberately stayed away from national or New York or Jewish community news. When I returned, I was stunned to find that my old friend Linda Sarsour, for many years the executive director of Brooklyn’s Arab American Association, had become the demon of Jewish media because of some of her statements critical of Israel and her prominence as a leader of the Women’s March. Each issue of publications like The Forward or Tablet included two or more articles vehemently critical of her. By December of 2018, those articles were outnumbered by those even more critical of Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory for connections to blatantly antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
I reached out to Linda to ask “What is going on?” and “Are you all right?” and “What can I do for you?” She said, “I need a hug.” I said, “I can do that. Come over to my house, we will have lunch, and I can give you a hug.” So she did, and I did. This was not easy. I knew that many in my own community would look askance. But Linda herself had long crossed lines that made her uncomfortable, so I gulped and asked and hosted.
Linda and I talked for hours. She described introducing Tamika Mallory to various groups of Jews so that they might learn why she embraced Louis Farrakhan, and she might learn why they were so concerned. “But,” said Linda, “I have not introduced Tamika to rabbis. Can you gather some rabbis to meet with her?” Yes, I said, I can do that.
So in early January 2019, less than two weeks before that year’s Women’s March, a dozen rabbis, all white, came to meet face to face with Linda and Tamika, along with some Black leaders they had invited.[fn]Many thanks to Rabbi Barat Ellman who joined me to plan and create this first and all subsequent meetings for which she so graciously and expertly takes the lead, and thank you to early facilitators Imani Chapman and Zahara Zahav.[/fn]
It was tough! Our carefully planned agenda was quickly overturned by one of the older Black leaders who challenged us to jump into our deepest fears. She began with her own defense of Tamika and of Minister Farrakhan who, she recalled, was a visitor to her own husband and to so many others in prison when no one else visited, who provided purpose and dignity to young Black men in housing projects where no other support was evident, whose organization fed and clothed and sheltered Black people in need of every kind of help.
We had to stop and pay attention then. Remembering this now, as I recognize the need we have now for mutual aid, I see that aid in the way Minister Farrakhan operated in his community. This is not justification for Farrakhan’s hateful views, but a realization that many people I know as dear fellow-activists hold deep gratitude to him for this work, and I cannot distance myself from them.
Back in the meeting, a rabbi took his place at the center of the circle and spoke of how family members had lived through the Holocaust, and expressed fear that their memory was tarnished when Minister Farrakhan spoke his virulent antisemitism. He wanted Tamika to apologize for her support of him and to denounce Farrakhan. His fear and anger, too, are real and need attention.
There was no easy resolution, no wished-for apologies, no denouncing, no peace. But then and at later meetings, we white rabbis listened, we learned, we spoke, we were heard, we cried, and we were silent.
What did we learn?
We learned about the early and current life experiences that led a person like Tamika to hold the opinions she held and embrace the leaders she admired. That did not necessarily change our inner responses, but it did make us understand better.
We learned from Linda about standing up for a friend or fellow traveler in distress. Linda was not connected to Minister Farrakhan, but she refused to denounce Tamika for her connections to him, or for her refusal to denounce him. How do we stand up for members of our communities when they get in trouble, even if we are no part of that trouble?
We learned that we had to look inward: How could we as white Jews ask a Black woman to denounce a hateful Black leader if we were not willing to disavow the hateful leaders of our own people who denigrate all Arabs or speak of Black people using harsh and degrading stereotypes? But was it also true for some of us that we were more forgiving of the “crime” of getting close to Louis Farrakhan than we might be of Jews who speak against antisemitism in what feel like divisive ways? Uncomfortable reflections indeed.
We learned that we could come back to the table: Even if we had heard words that made us cringe or take offense, we could decide to come back to the table if we believed that in solidarity there was a safe, thriving future for us all in the face of greater dangers, like those posed by white nationalists who tell us clearly that they want to rid the nation of Jews, Blacks, Muslims, LGBTQ folks and more.
So we have stayed at the table and added new members, balancing the original mix with more Muslim participants, more Black and Christian participants, and now a Hindu leader. We are now becoming the multiracial, cross-faith group we envision, and we have decided to keep meeting so we can build the deep relationships we need when a crisis arises. And now, here is that crisis!
Even before COVID-19, this group is unlike any interfaith group I have known. Too often, those groups stay on the surface, asking all members to be polite, to gloss over differences, to “make nice” in a way that can sometimes be helpful but that ultimately does not create real relationships. We are not polite. We dig in deep. We show anger, and mistrust, and fear, and we keep digging and loving and walking on together. In this COVID-19 moment, we try to read COVID-19 the way Rabbi Debra Orenstein [not a group member] recently did, as “Kavod-Ahi,” “Honor to my [brother], my fellow, my neighbor.”[fn]“Ahi” in Hebrew can read “19” in the way Hebrew letters are numbers, too. [/fn] We begin to learn a lesson that the New York Caring Majority has learned and acted on for many years, the lesson of care as the connective tissue, of deep relationship as the necessary foundation.
CROSSING LINES THAT DIVIDE US: OUR BEST TEACHERS
Come and learn about the ties that bind.
My uncle Bob was lucky to be attended for a short time late in his life by a kind, sensitive, open-hearted aide named Mohammed, hired by my cousin to help her father. What fate would have brought together a 91-year-old, nominally Jewish, white well-to-do Upper West Sider with a young, Black, poor, Bronx resident aide? To watch them together, as I got to do briefly, was magic.
That is how I saw it in 2013, soon after my uncle’s death. Yet I have learned from organizers like Rachel McCullough that to see such a relationship as magic is to do a disservice to the deep, long, hard organizing needed to move from one amazing caregiving relationship to a cadre of caregivers and care receivers, to something like the New York Caring Majority, a movement of seniors, people with disabilities, family caregivers, domestic workers and home-care workers from all across the state.
What would it mean to move from the simple magic of one caring relationship to an open-eyed look at the city where you live? What would it mean to think of covenant in large ways and small? Writ large, we may call it the public good or civil society; a city, say, in which all are bound to one another in respect, mutual concern, and responsibility: What kind of city do you want to live in? What is not all right? What is all right? How do we join in bonds of care and solidarity across vast differences? What would you or I sacrifice to make it happen?
In 2015, the Caring Majority wrote “We need big, bold ideas that actually change the game for people, and that move us forward. Because these ideas create the space and possibility to imagine that we could together, as a country, make life better for everyone.”
When the coronavirus hit, they wrote in a poetic vision:
“Our lives have always been at risk
We know the society we all need.
We know it, because we have been dreaming it
We know it, because we have been fighting for it.
We know it, because we live in interdependence.
We know it, because we have been keeping each other alive.”
Their vision is even more needed now, when interdependence is crucial, and all lives are at risk. It raises for me the possibility of a new kind of covenant, a covenant of care, binding us one to the other.
In a truly covenantal society there would be communal care for children and old people and people with disabilities. Each individual household would not have to figure out alone how to manage. True Shalom Bayit — peace in the home — comes from ensuring dignity for all those who work and reside in our homes. But it cannot stop at our individual homes. We have to dream bigger, a la The Caring Majority. They believe, as Rachel McCullough, who is director of Organizing for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, has said during the COVID-19 pandemic, “We believe New Yorkers deserve Universal Family Care, and that our state needs a more sustainable and just caring economy. That caring economy, in turn, will help all New Yorkers who give and who receive care to live fuller and healthier lives.”
So the Caring Majority is organizing to defend Medicaid and provide aid and support between neighbors in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. They are also pushing for the long-term systemic changes for the caring economy all need in order to thrive and live with dignity.
Because they are caregivers and care receivers, employers and workers, they might pull apart in a time of crisis. They might retreat to familiar corners, rich or poor, disabled or not, young or old. But because they have built deep relationships through regular meetings, writing and learning, and advocating together,[fn]The Caring Majority meets every Sunday night, now virtually, to talk, check in on each other, read poetry, write their own stories, plan strategy, and revel in their rich and multifaceted relationships.[/fn] they insist on their connections and their solidarity. They do not leave behind people who are elderly or disabled or sick. They who are able-bodied or wealthy or young do not run ahead. They, I want to say we, join together, walking together into the future they will make happen.
McCullough says that “with an ambitious and feminist approach, the care sector can work to increase our society’s resilience in the face of both pandemic and climate change. Together, we can create good jobs and ensure dignity for all our loved ones. On the other side of COVID-19, our deepest hope is that we will create a world in which all of us have the care, resources, and freedom we need to live full and healthy lives.”
Remember, “We know it, because we have been keeping each other alive.”
A DIFFERENT VISION
I write just before Pesakh. As it comes into view, or looking at it after it passes, let’s remember the erev rav, the “mixed multitude” of people who joined our ancient Hebrew ancestors in leaving slavery, walking into and through the desert together. Who were they? And who today joins us, who do we join as we walk into an uncertain future?
Rachel McCullough teaches, “Ai-jen Poo, a leading organizer of domestic workers, often says: ‘In a movement for human dignity, there’s no such thing as an unlikely ally.’ … It’s a lesson that has served the domestic worker movement well as it’s grown across the country.”
The Caring Majority is very accustomed to crossing lines of difference and forging deep alliances between constituencies that have been systematically pitted against each other. It’s not always natural and it’s not always easy, but it’s foundational to our theory of change.”
They teach us all, and now suddenly, we are better able to learn. Somehow, in this COVID-19 moment, there’s more space for solidarity.
This pandemic is opening up space for many cruel forces, like white nationalism, to gain ground. But it’s also opening up a window for new kinds of connection: mutual aid networks, for instance, springing up in many New York neighborhoods, like Rachel’s or mine.
Mutual aid. The Caring Majority’s work is built on an idea whose time has come. We need each other. And care is the connective tissue.
“And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was so moved came …”
Sh’ma Yisrael, let us learn to know what it means to be Ehad.
Postscript: On May 3, 2020, I was honored to be able to attend the annual conference of Bend the Arc, where I was deeply moved to attend a session on organizing movements. Notably here I heard Sendolo Diaminah, co-director of Carolina Federation, who said three things that related to this essay:
1. Organizing is a tree, and deep ongoing relationships are the soil that enables the tree to grow.
2. The job of all of us is to fight for each of us.
3. We refuse to abandon anyone.