Truing Our Wheel: Confronting Systemic Racism on Yom Kippur

15 Sep

Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre, September 15, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah and Good Yontif.

This morning, I went into DC and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I have been longing to visit since it first opened and am grateful that I had this opportunity. 

This museum is part of the Smithsonian network of museums that line the Mall and tell the American story. There are a lot of great things about America that are celebrated in the museums and around the Mall. The African American Museum is a gift to our nation and the world in its mission to tell profound truths: that the United States was built and developed on a foundation of exploitation, oppression and systematic persecution of African Americans, AND, that despite it all African Americans are integral to and have made vital contributions to the life and culture of America and the realization of the American project of equality for all.

On the large wall that can be seen from all three floors of the main exhibit is a quotation attributed to the great journalist Ida B. Wells: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Over the last 18 months our nation has engaged in a long overdue reckoning with ugly truth of systemic racism in our country.  The disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on people of color coupled with the George Floyd murder  last year have not only outraged people of color but have awakened many white people—at last—to the gross injustices that Black and Brown people in America experience every day. 

The American Jewish community has begun to engage in this reckoning, and I believe in this new year of 5782 we need to lean into it even more decisively and bear witness to uncomfortable truths of our nation’s past and present. One reason is that Jews are not monolithically white. We have never been. We are a multi-racial people. The rainbow of Jewish skin tones is perhaps most obvious in Israel; however, it is increasingly so in America. A substantial percentage of our population, at least 10%, perhaps 20%, represents Jews of Color. Second, we Jews know too well the pain of antisemitism and the historic injustices that we have suffered for centuries. As privileged as we are today, we know that hatred of people of color is not too far removed from hatred of Jews, as we saw in Charlottesville four years ago.  Third, we are guided by our tradition to tell the truth. The purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine hard truths about ourselves, to confess our sins aloud and resolve to do better, particularly to ensure that we treat all human beings as created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. 

I’d like to share a personal story that helped me discover the truth of systemic racism in our society and my own personal complicity in it. A little over a decade ago, I was traveling and had occasion to rent a bicycle in the city I was visiting. I stopped at the bike store to pump air in my tires. I noticed there was a man using the pump on another bicycle. He was wearing a bright, crisp Polo shirt and neat slacks. He had short hair, a trimmed mustache and wore stylish wire-rim glasses. He happened to be African American. I went up to him and asked him if he worked for the store. What I implied was that I’d like him to pump up my tires too. I’ll never forget the pained look on his face. He answered my question with a firm, “No.”  He didn’t work there. However, it was instantly clear that our interaction was not about a simple point of information—whether or not he worked for the store. We didn’t exchange anything else in words, but his expression spoke volumes. If this man were white, I likely would have assumed that he was another customer just filling his tires and going on with his day, which in fact was the case. I would have quietly waited my turn. However, he was black, and my mind played a trick on me in which I did not see him as a customer like me. I instinctively saw him as a member of a subservient class by virtue of his skin color, and I made a hurtful micro-aggression. 

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from a public high school that was majority Black. I consider myself to be kind and considerate to all people. I do not seek to cause harm to anyone. Yet, I’m still a product of a racist system that made me not fully see the man at the bike shop, and I have anguished about that ever since.

Over the years, I have come to recognize not only my failure to see the full humanity in people with darker skin than I have, I have begun to realize the extent to which, in an environment of systemic racism, I have benefited from “White Privilege.” For me, “White Privilege” is when society grants me unearned and undeserved status simply because I have white skin. Here’s a recent example: I work as a chaplain in health care. At a hospice staff meeting, a new colleague came up to me and said, “Hello, Doctor.” The real doctor was sitting right next to me, and she happened to be a Black woman. I felt embarrassed. Due to my white skin—and male gender—I was given credentials that I had not earned and assumed to have knowledge I do not have. It’s easy to brush off this incident, but upon reflection, I suspect that in this country personal advancement based on race is more common than we wish to admit. 

Back to that bike shop, it occurred to me that when your bicycle tire is not rolling smoothly, you take it in to the bike shop for a process called “truing” the wheel. Each spoke is carefully adjusted back to its original place and tension, and once the entire wheel is trued, the ride is so much better. We need to “true our wheel” as a nation, so to speak, in order for our great country to reach its fullest potential.

The Talmud has a beautiful teaching about the difference between the word Emet, truth, and Sheker, lie. Why are the letters of the word sheker adjacent to one another in the alphabet, while the letters of emet are distant from one another? That is because while falsehood is easily found, truth is found only with great difficulty. And why do the letters that comprise the word sheker all stand on one foot, and the letters that comprise the word emet stand on bases that are wide like bricks? Because the truth stands eternal and falsehood does not stand eternal. (Shabbat 104a)

In our nation’s history, every time there is a serious national conversation on hard truths related to racial equality and justice, there is, inevitably, a backlash, from forces invested in the lie of white supremacy. That is happening now with respect to school curricula in various states around the country. 

In recent months, white opponents to racial justice have used powerful media outlets to denounce  “critical race theory” – a field of inquiry taught in law schools about the impact of racism baked into criminal justice and other powerful institutions. They have falsely distorted the phrase as a dog whistle to attack what they view as an “anti-white” conspiracy to brainwash schoolchildren

In response to this media-created rage, school boards, including in Loudoun County, have had heated public gatherings, and seven states have banned mentioning specified race-related topics in the classroom. Some 20 other states are considering it.

Arizona’s newly enacted ban, signed into law on July 9, is typical of those popping up around the country. It imposes penalties, from suspension of a state teaching license up to permanent revocation, for anyone caught teaching certain taboo concepts.

The banned list includes teaching material lest anyone should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of race or ethnicity.

In my state of Florida, the law reads: “Examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons. Instruction may not utilize material from the 1619 Project and may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. Instruction must include the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments.”

While it’s good that teaching the Holocaust is a normal part of American school curricula, it is unconscionable that the Florida law equates the mandate to teach the Holocaust with the mandate to NOT teach the history of systemic racism in America. It is unacceptable that a law singles out Jews as a “good minority” who deserve to have our story told in American schools, while the story of systemic racism against African Americans in America is denied.   

Recently the Brookings Institution published an analysis of the recent state laws by their Fellow Rashawn Ray and Researcher Alexandra Gibbons. They point out that proponents of these hateful laws are obsessed with a narrative that America is perfect and good and that any effort to say otherwise is unpatriotic and un-American. Moreover, the proponents are afraid that if we say prior generations of America were racist, then we are accusing them of being racist. 


In Jewish tradition, we do not whitewash our ancestors and their actions. In the Bible, the characters are not two-dimensional. All of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—are imperfect, and the Torah does not shy away from describing their screw-ups. Moses, great as he was, made grave mistakes at times. King David is called out by the prophet Natan for his sins. They are not whitewashed. Rather, their mistakes are described in detail. They are our heroes not in spite of their flaws but because of their human frailties. They suffer consequences because of their mistakes, and they change. We remember and honor our ancestors with the truth of their full humanity. America’s founding fathers may have have their faces carved in granite, but they were still flawed human beings. Reckoning with historic racial inequality does not make us weaker as a nation. It makes us stronger.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained in the Conservative Movement, is a renowned chaplain and justice activist. She was a guest on my podcast last year.  She acknowledges that the process of confronting hard truths of systemic racism in the past and present is not easy. Rabbi Eilberg said in our conversation: “Getting through the defensiveness, a sense of being blamed, is maybe one of the hardest things for people. So, we need to listen to one another. We need to take seriously what’s hard about this for us, especially good hearted white Jews who want to be on the right side of history and morality, and we have things to learn that are uncomfortable at first to explore.” 

On Yom Kippur, we employ time tested tools to “true our wheel” as individuals and as a community. We need to use these tools to do our part to “true” our nation. 

Among our most effective tools in our toolkit are the confessional prayers. When we stand together and say “Al Het,” we do so in the plural form—for the sins WE have sinned. Whatever our individual intentions, we are part of a broken system that requires all of us to acknowledge and work together to fix. 

I’d like to borrow from the words of Yavilah McCoy, a Jewish educator and African American who wrote a special version of  Al Chet, the prayer that we say throughout Yom Kippur while beating our chest.  Her prayer reads:

I am saying Al Chet:
For the sins we have committed through conscious and unconscious racial bias.

For the sins we have committed through, imutz ha-lev, hardening our hearts to the need for change.

For the sins of colluding with racism both openly and secretly. For the sins we have committed through uttering racist words.

For the sins we have committed through acts of racial micro-aggression…

For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness, and atonement.

When we say “Al Chet,” we are “truing our wheel” as a community. To do so individually is too hard, so we come together and support one another in the process. By doing this work in our broader American Jewish community, we can help “true the wheel” of our nation, in order for our democracy to reach its fullest potential. Reckoning with historic racial inequality does not make us weaker as a nation. It makes us stronger. When we fail to see the truth and look the other way, we live a life of sheker, a lie. 

Our wheel as a nation is out of alignment, and we are on a perilous ride. The greatest gift we can provide to our society is emet, truth. In this Congregation Beit Emet, this house of truth, I pray on this most holy day of Yom Kippur, that may we muster the courage to examine our inner truth as individuals and as a community so that we can true the wheel of our nation and world and remind everyone that we are all created in the image of God. May God grant us the strength to bring more love, justice, compassion and kindness into our world.  Amen.

One Response to “Truing Our Wheel: Confronting Systemic Racism on Yom Kippur”

  1. Shirley Gross - Beth Emeth September 21, 2021 at 4:54 pm #

    Rabbi Bernstein–I loved this sermon! I was so happy to hear these words about race, racism, systemic racism, critical race theory and white privilege from the bima. It was refreshing to be reminded about what we have and what others are still suffering in our midst. Kol ha kovod! Shana tova!

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