Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5778 by Latifa Berry Kropf

We humans are storytellers. When we don’t understand something we
make up a story about it like creation stories. To teach lessons we tell
stories like Aesop’s fables & stories in the Torah. To remember our family
histories we tell stories. These stories are often told from generation to
generation. It’s one of the ways we make sense and feel comfortable in the
world. Today I’m going to speak to a little about stories starting with my
own.
All 4 of my grandparents were immigrants from Russia or what is now
Ukraine. They all arrived in the early 1900’s escaping from the Czar and the
pogroms that were a regular part of Jewish life there.
My fathers parents knew each other in the old country and were
sweethearts. My father’s father Ephraim- later Fred was the son of a poor
shoychet/ritual slaughterer and my grandma Rifka-later Riva was the
daughter of a wealthier man. Ephraim wanted to emigrate and begin a new
life in America. Rifka wanted to go with him, but her father did not want
her to marry my grandfather and would not give her $ for passage. Rivka
being a strong willed determined 16 year old she went on a hunger strike
until after two weeks as the story goes her older brother gave in and gave
her the rubles she needed to get passage to the US.
My mother’s father Yisrael/Isadore met my mother’s mother Rifka/Rose
while running away from the Russian army to come to America. The
perhaps apocryphal story is that he saw her by a river washing her hair and
fell madly in love. They were married in short order. After 11 days as
husband and wife he continued his journey across Europe and the Atlantic
to the US. He fought for the US in WW1, and eventually opened a deli in
Wash DC. Nine years after he left her, my grandmother happened to read in
the personal section of the Forward a popular international yiddish lang
newspaper that my grandfather was looking for her. They reconnected and
she came to the US. My mother was raised in Wash DC.
My father who was raised in NY enlisted in WW2. After the war he was
apprenticing at The Bureau of engraving and printing in DC. and thru the
grace of the GI bill he was able to attend GWU where he met my mother..
They married and lived out the American dream, a house, a car, life in the
suburbs.
So, this is my story. I bet it is similar to many of your stories. Lets see. Who
here has a story about their family members coming to America for
freedom and opportunity? Whose family came here so long ago they don’t
know the story? Who came here as an immigrant themselves. Who like our
present day dreamers was brought here as a young child by their parents?
Who came here to be with their beloved?
All Americans have these stories except notably Native Americans- the first
peoples and African Americans who were brought here against their will as
slaves.
And we have stories about our country. About its miraculous beginnings,
the founding fathers, creating a new form of govt, We the people, etc.…
This summer I bought myself the CD of the musical Hamilton. the first
album I’ve bought since the Beatle’s white album. I played it in my car
whenever I couldn’t bear to listen to NPR anymore, which was often. I
found my heart moved by the revolutionary vision & passion, love and
tragedy in Hamilton’s life, I laughed at old King George and was inspired by
the audacity of this band of farmers and thinkers who took it upon
themselves to create their own country and a unique system of government
to boot. This is the story of our country through the eyes of a poor,
illegitimate, brilliant immigrant. He sings “In New York City you can be a
new man.”
In contract there’s West Side Story where the Puerto Rican cast sings
mockingly “Only in America-land of opportunity” Another American story.
Because of the way politics played out in November of last year and the
continuing fall out of that election the plot of our national story has taken a
sharp downward turn. Again to quote Hamilton all be it w/ a very different
meaning “the World Turned Upside Down.”
5777, the year that ended 10 days ago, was plagued with assaults in every
direction. Vulgarity, overt hate mongering, racism, sexism, anti-semitism,
anti-muslim, disregard for our environment, lies, deceit, &gross misuse of
power. The destructive qualities of this administration have allowed what
was once hidden below the surface of our American psyche to now raise up
and spew out. Our collective, national shadow is on full display. We saw it
first hand on August 11th and 12th. So now what to do as Charlottesvilians,
as Americans, as Jews?
Fortunately we have a chance to begin again with a fresh slate, 5778. To
write a new story. And this year we have our work cut out for us. Not only
do we have our own personal lives to renew, refresh, realign with our
highest goals but those of our city and country as well.
For me the first step is to not give up. I was fortunate enough to hear both
Rev Jesse Jackson Sr and Rev William Barber when they came to town last
month to support our city. Rev Jackson said something which helps me
daily. He said, “You don’t drown because the water is deep, you drown
when you stop kicking.”
Rev Barber spoke about the state of our country. He said, “The heart of our
democracy is on the line My friends, they tell me that when the heart is in
danger, somebody has to call an emergency code. And somebody with a
good heart will bring a defibrillator to work on the bad heart. We are being
called like our foremothers and forefathers to be the moral defibrillator of
our time. We must shock this nation with the power of love. We must
shock this nation with the power of mercy. We must shock this nation and
fight for justice for all. We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy, not
now, not ever!
We must keep kicking.
Recently, I have been learning other stories about our city, about our
country. Some are stories I should have known.
I had learned a white-washed story about the history of Africans in this
country. I am now learning more about the methodical cruelty of slavery.
How on top of being stolen from their homes Africans were packed onto the
the bottom of ships for 6-8 weeks with little food, shackled to each other
unable to move even to relieve themselves. At least 2 million men women
and children died in those hell hole crossing the Atlantic. When the ones
who survived arrived on our shores families were regularly split apart and
they were placed on plantations with other Africans from different tribes
with whom they shared no common language or customs. As the slaves
eventually formed family units they were systematically broken up and
children and spouses were sold off once again depriving them of the human
need for family and connection. Just imagine this heart-breaking cruelty on
top of everything else- the forced labor, beatings, rape, murders, torture,
executions.
Then after the civil war and reconstruction there were Jim Crow laws which
we all learned about in school or if not we know about them now because of
their connection w/ our infamous Lee and Jackson statues.
I recently learned the story about the double V campaign. This was the
question in the African American communities about whether to enlist in
WW2 to fight for a country in which they were so mistreated. The hope was
that the Black soldiers would win a double victory. Victory again Germany
and Japan and victory against prejudice and discrimination at home.
Unfortunately that is not what happened.
“Although we regularly celebrate and honor people who risk their lives on
the battlefield,”this was not true of the black veterans. They were more
likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it. Since as soldiers
they were training in weapons, in organizations, in tactics:.and were worthy
of the reverence that America has for its former warriors; the return home
of black soldiers after war infuriated and terrified white America, setting
the stage for reactionary aggression-including lynchings.
So, I wondered what about the GI bill that had helped my family enter the
middle class, weren’t the African Americans who served in the armed forces
during WW2 helped by it too? and this is what I found.
While The G.I. Bill gave all veterans a chance to receive many benefits,
African Americans were not able to take advantage of these benefits due to
racist college admission policies. Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by
the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites.
There were of course quotas on Jews as well as Blacks in many prestigious
universities.
Then there was The FHA Federal Housing admin. (1934-68) The FHA was
celebrated for making homeownership accessible to white people by
guaranteeing their loans, the FHA explicitly refused to back loans to black
people.
So tragically, the effects of the GI bill broadened the economic divide
between whites and blacks in our country rather than narrowing it and we
are still seeing those effects magnified.
Knowing these stories of our country’s institutionalized racism and seeing
what we saw on August 11th & 12th, plus fearing the possibility of regressive
federal policies where do we go from here? How do we stay afloat, keep
from drowning? keep kicking?
The rabbis chose a haftorah for today Yom Kippur from Isaiah. The people
are fasting and want God’s attention. God answers that their fasting is of no
account when they continue to care about wealth and oppress their
workers. God says , “NO! This is not the kind of fast that I want.
The kind of fast that I desire is to
Unlock the shackles put on by wicked power!
Untie the ropes of the yoke!
Let the oppressed go free,
Share your bread with the hungry.
Bring the poor, the outcasts, to your house.
When you see them naked, clothe them;
Know that All people are your kin: do not ignore them.”
Elie Wiesel directs us to take a role. He says, “We must always take sides.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the
tormentor, never the tormented.”
One of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most often quoted lines is “Some
are guilty but all are responsible.”
We are not a country made up of racists, but a society that must come to
grips with how corrosive it is to be indifferent to the lives of those who are
regarded as other.
Rev Jesse Jackson said Charlottesville was the Selma of our time.
We saw, heard and felt the evil that exists in our society in all of its
ugliness. Besides the Nazi anti-semitic chants, and the torches and weapons
and angry words, and brutality there was also tragedy and death. Heather
Heyer lost her life on August 12th. Her mother, an example to us all has
taken the high road. She has set up a foundation in her daughter’s memory
which provides financial assistance to individuals passionate about positive
social change.
So here we are on Yom Kippur a day of atonement At One Meant. And
again I ask what now?
Along with the huge challenges we have in front of us we can also celebrate
the victories and build on those. Nationally there has been an explosion of
interest in the democratic process. That’s very good news for our
democracy. NOTE-Please remember there is a gubernatorial election &
local elections in November.
Locally there was an outpouring of support for CBI after the Nazis invaded
our town. They have received close to $ 60, ooo from over 800 donations
plus invaluable community support. Members of our local community are
creating forums to talk to each other and hear each others stories.
Hopefully these will turn into policy changes for the most needy and most
neglected in our town. People are considering their own unearned rights as
white people in this society and the effects they have on us & people of
color.
Charlottesville is the home to many refugees who need help as our
ancestors did maneuvering successfully in an alien society. Some people in
this room have made personal connections & commitments to refugee
families.
As our sages remind us, it’s not incumbent on us to finish the task, but
neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Healing our nation of
bigotry and injustice is not work that any of us can “complete,” just as
perfecting ourselves is not work that any of us can complete. But we’re still
called to do what we can to make ourselves more whole, and to make our
city and nation more whole, and to build a world of justice and love.
To once more quote Rev Barber- Love, justice, and truth are our only way
out. We need love for one another that is honest about how we got here;
love that is not afraid to speak truth to this nation; and love that wants
justice for all.
As we put on our flippers & keep kicking and writing new stories we can
with hope and partnership with each other sing along with the Hamilton
actors,”Look around, looks round-How lucky we are to be alive right now.”

Latifa B. Kropf

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