Inequalities! Inequalities?

June 5, 2020 in Rabbi Greg Harris

“What will you take with you to the other side of Covid?”  That was the prompt an interviewer asked me for an on-line magazine this week.  It is an important question.  After quarantine is over and social distancing restrictions ease, what will we have learned during this period? Additionally, at the time of the interview, social outcries and rage have brought bare layers of inequities with marches occurring across the country.  The vast majority of protests have been peaceful but looting and vandalism have occurred.  These destructive elements should not be discounted, nor should they be over-emphasized and used to avoid hard, complicated, and necessary discussions.

So let me begin to answer their question, “What will I take with me to the other side of Covid?”  I invite you to answer this question for yourself and email me.

V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha  Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18)

My circles have dramatically shrunk during this time.  The concept of neighbors has become very specific now.  These are the people I see on my frequent walks through my neighborhood.  These are the people who I smile at, as we are each circling the elementary school, while on our respective work calls.  My neighbors are the people I most frequently stand across the street from to catch up on how we are each handling these hard times.  I have become refocused on my neighbors and my neighborhood.

Loving my neighbors is one of the reasons I wear a mask when I am out, because I do not want to expose them to additional hazards.  ‘Loving my neighbor’ is one of the reasons I joined others for creative graduation celebrations, food shopping for the elderly and checking in on each other.  But I have also become more acutely aware that my neighbors generally look just like me.  We are of similar economic class, similar backgrounds, similar education, etc.  Professionally, for the most part, the clergy I encounter in Bethesda match my hue and perspective.

I have re-learned that loving my neighbor is not enough.  While it is natural to care for those who are closest to you by lineage or proximity, I must move beyond my cloistered neighborhood and continue to engage others.  Montgomery County is a majority minority county yet my neighborhood is far less diverse.  In a 2017 Bethesda Magazine article (June 27, 2017):

The country currently is about 61 percent white, 12 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic and 8 percent other races and ethnicities. By contrast, Montgomery County, which became majority minority around 2010, is currently 45 percent white, 18 percent black, 19 percent Hispanic and 18 percent other races and ethnicities.

My social circles are not nearly as diverse.  I hope that I have been reminded that ‘Loving my neighbors’ must be far more diverse and embracing than what has naturally occurred.  It requires intentional effort.

Anava Humility (Num 12:3)

Moses is described as the most humble person thus anava is an important personal characteristic.  During this time and in the face of mass unemployment and economic fragility, I have deepened my contentment and humility for my material circumstance.  My ‘wants’ vs ‘needs’ lists have been clarified.

But I have spoken with people this week who deny that inequities exist.  They say everyone has opportunities to attend school or get a job but do not recognize that the well appointed science labs of Bethesda schools do not exist in all parts of the county or region. On the other hand, others have been shouting in the streets about pervasive systemic inequities.

We have significant problems.  Solutions will be complex and difficult, but we can no longer give just lip service.  True changes will include policing and judicial reform, economic development, improved health care infrastructure, and education innovations. These are part of the commitments that will actually make America great again and not only a hollow political slogan.

I realize that even with good intentions, I do not fully understand the pain and injustices experienced by others.  I am not stopped in a store or on the street because of my pigmentation. No amount of clever social media posts, compassionate words, or allyship can replicate the impact of deeply listening to people afflicted by marginalization, narrowed opportunities, bias, and prejudice.  I need to listen to the experiences of people ostracized due to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, sexual preference, or other reasons.  Acknowledging that I don’t know is the beginning of understanding… and it begins with a sense of humility.

Ometz Lev Courageous Heart

It takes courage to confront bad habits and patterns we have created in our lives.  They have become comfortable for us even if they are not healthy.  Asking questions of ourselves is a courageous act: when do I stay silent and when do I speak up; who do I speak up for; who do I extend myself for; have I lived my core values or have they incrementally become muted by life’s busyness?

Moving forward, I will be more courageous in my words and actions.  I hope this brings me into deeper conversations which might be uncomfortable at times.  I will not avoid these conversations just because they may nudge me beyond my comfort zone though.  That is the place where listening, learning and, growing happens.

These are some of the values I will take with me to the other side of Covid.  There are inequities which I believe I can help rectify in small ways.  Cumulatively, our collective efforts will make real change.

In this vein, Rabbi Werbin, Hazzan Fradkin and I have partnered with other Bethesda houses of worship to stand united for racial justice.  We will gather this Sunday at 5pm with our interfaith partners at the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Huntington Parkway.  Join with Beth El, Bethesda United Methodist Church, St. Luke’s Episcopal, Saint Mark Presbyterian, Chevy Chase United Methodist, Bethesda Presbyterian, Chevy Chase Presbyterian, and Bradley Hills Presbyterian.

Participants are asked to wear masks and maintain at least 6 feet of distance during the vigil. People will spread up and down Old Georgetown Road.  Please bring signs for this peaceful vigil.

Together, we will face the inequities that exist.  I pray this renewed focus will stay long past Covid.