BY RABBI BARRY COHEN
The weekend before July 4th, my kids and I visited the St. Johns neighborhood to see firsthand the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” spray-painted on Noth Edison Street. We joined a number of others who slowly walked down the street, taking our time to read the historical descriptions of institutional and systemic racism.
Before we moved here, I was not aware of Portland’s racist historical record: Black exclusion laws, redlining, banks’ refusal to grant bank loans to minorities, and even explicit violence against minorities.
I imagine every state has been tarnished by the ugly stain of racism, intolerance and bigotry. I am not trying to excuse how deeply racism is entrenched in our nation. I am only highlighting how the curtain has been drawn back for everyone to see how those in power have done all they can to exert control over minorities.
We are in the midst of a perfect storm that is challenging systemic racism and the police brutality that has been utilized to weaken and marginalize people of color, LGBTQ communities and other minorities. The elements of this perfect storm? The COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment, the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few, and the use of smartphones and security cameras that document police brutality in real time.
We in the Jewish community have choices of how to respond to this perfect storm. Some will try to ride it out until we can get back to normal. This option is absolutely unacceptable. Another choice is for us to strengthen our connections with organizations and communities of people of color and foster new connections. Across Portland, this has already begun. Another choice is to recognize our racial diversity. We are much more than Ashkenazic transplants from Russia and Europe. We have become a beautiful racial and cultural mishmash of Ashkenazic and Sephardic; Black, Asian, Hispanic and white.
Another way to respond to this perfect storm is through education. We must learn all we can about our past to create a nation where all are treated equally under the law. Let me highlight one example: I recently watched on Netflix the movie, “13th : from slave to criminal, with one amendment.” This film documents how the judicial system, from the end of Civil War, has targeted Blacks to keep them incarcerated, weak and divided. It also shows how police have been an instrument in this process.
Both the Republican and Democratic Parties have been complicit; in order to exert their power or gain access to power, they have created a “prison industrial complex” that has disproportionately targeted Blacks, primarily Black men.
Inevitably, this dreadful perfect storm will subside. I am confident that we will be able to rebuild, but we will have to rebuild in two ways. Internally, Jewish communal organizations will have to work collaboratively to maximize our limited talent and resources. Externally, we will have to strengthen current ties and foster new ties with organizations representing people of color, LGTBQ+ and other minorities.
We are only limited by our vision, courage and determination. I am grateful that the ongoing demonstrations against police brutality have instilled within me greater confidence and hope.
As the Community Chaplain for the Greater Portland Jewish community, Rabbi Barry Cohen serves as a resource for all Jews in our community. He can be reached at 503-892-7401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.