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After Pittsburgh, I Empathize More With Black Americans

On Shabbat morning October 27, I was visiting my former community of Boca Raton, Florida for Shabbat. I was running a Teen Shabbaton in the local Synagogue, and Congressman Deutch was the featured after-lunch speaker.

Minutes before, he had told me privately about the shooting in Pittsburgh, and I had asked him not to disturb my students’ Shabbat with the news. They’d find out soon enough.

As I listened to him talk about Israel, Iran, the upcoming elections and anti-Semitism, my mind wandered to concerns of our safety. Was this a lone man shooting? Was it possible that we were also a target? Were we sitting ducks and in immediate danger?

I knew that if we were in any danger, Congressman Deutch, who had been in touch with law enforcement, wouldn’t allow us to just sit there. Yet I was still scared. I was scared even though I, a man who prided himself on his rationality, knew I had no reason to be scared.

Earlier that same week, a man in Kentucky had attempted to enter a predominantly black church and killed two black people at a grocery store across the street when he was unable to enter the church.

As I struggled with my post-Pittsburgh feelings of fear as a Jew, I began to empathize more with the fear of irrational violence that the Black community has felt for generations.

I have often been perplexed by the African-American experience. Growing up as an American Jew in suburban New Jersey, in a town that had fewer than ten African American families, my interactions with black Americans were relegated to textbooks, shopping malls and sporting events.

Thankfully, my parents, schools and community never taught racist ideas and always taught me that all people were created in the image of God.

I remember our private Jewish middle school once took us to a filming of a television talk show for a joint Jewish-African American segment on relations between our two communities. It was one of the first times I spoke to an African American boy my age, and we compared our two communities.

We competed to see which of us were more discriminated against in America. He argued that his school had spent an entire week studying the Holocaust; I retorted that we spent an entire month dedicated to learning black history. Of course racist America had chosen February, the shortest month of the year, for black history month, he replied. I didn’t understand his point.

For decades, I couldn’t understand why a people who were freed from slavery over 100 years ago, who had legislation written specifically to protect their rights and programs like affirmative action that gave African Americans advantages over whites in college admissions, still complained about racism. I wasn’t racist, no one I knew was racist — why did African Americans still complain about racism?

When the Black Lives Matter movement started, I was really startled and upset. Institutional racism by the police? National discrimination through programs designed to disadvantage black Americans? Fear of white people? How could African Americans legitimately make these arguments?

There was no rationale that I could see for the average African American to be scared of the police, feel at a disadvantage or to be scared of white people.

But after Pittsburgh, I have begun to empathize more with the African American community. In the past two weeks, Jewish Americans have had just a taste of the fear that African Americans have suffered for centuries.

As I’ve contemplated my reaction to the shooting, I’ve come to realize that my fear was irrational. America is one of the safest places outside of Israel for Jews to pray. And yet, I’ve also come to realize that fear cannot be dismissed.

If we deal with fear in an unhealthy way, it festers and causes debilitating handicaps. Simply dismissing fear as irrational doesn’t solve the fear; it buries it temporarily and causes it to manifest itself in damaging ways. A society that dismisses fear can suffer drastic consequences. Entire segments of the population begin to deal destructively with buried fear. Society as a whole becomes crippled in fear and dysfunction. I don’t have the solution of how to address the fear, but a first step is to empathize with the fears of our neighbors.

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