Thoughts on George Floyd and the Jewish Response to Racism

By Rabbi Ed Gelb and Rabbi Jill Levy

Ramah New England contains Jewish educational overnight and day camps committed to help raise the next generation of engaged and educated Jews. We are about caring for children and helping them become the best versions of themselves they can be. We strive to make the values and mitzvot of Judaism relevant to their everyday lives.

We are proud that at Ramah we have Jews of color and Black Jews in our community. We want to say in one voice that we love you, we see you and we are always available to hear what you have to say. You are part of our Ramah family.

Many of us are asking how can we talk to our children about what is happening today? How do we explain the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others? What does Judaism say about all of this?  We want to share our thoughts with you, which we hope will help spark further conversation in your homes.

Why should Jews stand up and speak out?

Here are some relevant Jewish texts:

“God created man in God’s image, in God’s image God created man, male and female, God created them.” (Gen. 1:27)

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18)

“Do not stand idly by while our neighbor’s blood is shed.” (Lev. 19:16).

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deut. 16:20)

For us, these four verses from the Torah provide a foundation for how we view each other and our responsibility to speak and act when these values are violated.

Judaism is founded on the idea that we are all created in God’s image. It doesn’t matter if we are male, female, black, white, rich, poor, native or foreign. We come from the same divine source, which means that every single person has value.

It is also not a coincidence that our founding myth is that we were a slave people that was redeemed. It is why we are told 36 times to “not oppress the stranger” because we have a responsibility to those with less power, money or influence.

Judaism is about standing up and taking action. It may be inconvenient, dangerous and/or scary to stand up when others are being attacked. We may fear that the wrath will be turned against us or our families. Judaism demands that we continue to find ways to take action and cannot stand idly by.

Our society is based on justice. The doubling of the word justice in Deuteronomy 16:20 is often commented upon. Words are precious in the Torah and the repetition must mean something. Justice needs to be pursued for rich and poor alike. Justice should be fair and honest. Justice should not protect the powerful nor unfairly punish them. Justice should be pursued, which means that we have to devote ourselves to it. It isn’t something we casually ask for only to drop later.

How do I talk to my children about this?

When I was a boy, my father explained to me that there are many good people in the world and some not so good. He told me that both good and bad people come in many shapes and sizes, many look like me and many do not, and many wear uniforms or have fancy titles. We need to teach our children that they don’t need to live in constant fear, but they need to know that just because someone wears a uniform or has a title does not mean that person is good. They need to observe how each person acts and draw conclusions from there.

The ADL has put out a good piece on how to talk your children about current events, information about what happened and a guided discussion. Here is the link.

We should also remember that we have a lot to teach but also a lot to learn. As we read in Taanit 7a:12, “from my students I have learned the most.”  There are numerous examples of teens today leading the charge on contemporary issues. We have a responsibility to nurture and listen to our future leaders.

The key points are to find out what young people know and expand on that. Find out what is on their mind and what they want to know. Ask open- ended questions and do not judge their answers. Listen carefully.  It is great to let kids take action. Think about age-appropriate action that they can do or you can do together. These activities can be done on a small scale.

We hope these ideas are helpful to you as we all do our part to live the values of our Jewish beliefs.