Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part 3.

This is the final part of the talk I gave, December 12th,  at the Jewish Community of Amherst in honor of Human Rights Shabbat.

The law (Civil Rights Act, 1965) restored the rights the 14th and 15th  Amendments had originally granted to the newly freed slaves. The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited literacy tests and required federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50 percent of the non-white population had not registered to vote. The law greatly increased black voting in Southern States. In Mississippi, participation went from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. The Voting Rights Act provided both the federal courts and the federal government a variety of resources to ensure that there would be no discrimination in voting access.

A 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder ruled section 4b of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. This section contained a formula to determine which states required federal preclearance before making changes to their voting laws. This ruling led many southern states that had previously required the preclearance to change their voting laws, making them more restrictive. Several states engaged in mass purging of voter rolls, increased identification requirements and reduced the number of polling places. In the last election cycle, we saw many pictures of mostly black and brown people waiting on long lines to vote. One observer has called long voting lines the new poll tax.

As many of you may know there are currently two runoff Senate races in Georgia. The primary and runoff system in that state is itself the product of racist desires to keep black s from voting as a bloc and therefore gaining electoral power.  From 1917 to 1963, George had a county unit system for primaries. This system privileged, in a similar way to the electoral college, rural areas where most black did not live.

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled this system unconstitutional. A Georgia Congressmen, Denmark Groover, a committed segregationist, stated that he supported the creation of runoff system for elections because it “would again provide protection which … was removed with the death of the county unit system.”

Groover believed the runoff would “prevent the Negro bloc vote from controlling the elections.” Georgia recently announced it was reducing the number of polling places for early voting for the election on Jan. 5. Georgia has never elected an African American Governor, lieutenant governor, senator, or Secretary of State. The first African American Attorney General was elected in 1998. Of course, if the Democrats win, a black man, and a Jew will both become Georgia Senators.  (I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke) Reverend Raphael Warnock would be the first African-American Democratic Senator from the South.

When I read the Joseph story, I wondered why it is in the Torah?  What purpose does his story serve? Joseph’s story gets us to Exodus and places the Israelites in Egypt where the legacy of his accomplishments has disappeared. The sense of fragility that the story conveys has greatly increased among American Jews in the past four years. Although, as an aggregate, wildly successful, American Jews have wondered if that success could be taken away. Could the rise of white nationalism lead to more anti-Semitism and an increase in hate crimes? The short answer is yes.

One of the goals of both the Tikkun Olam Committee and the Tzedek Initiative is to join learning and study with action. The action I am proposing in connection with Human Rights Shabbat is for the JCA to give its support to Fair Fight, one of Stacy Abrams’ voting rights organizations. According to their website, Fair Fight promotes “fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourages voter participation in elections, and educates voters about elections and their voting rights. Fair Fight brings awareness to the public on election reform, advocates for election reform at all levels, and engages in other voter education programs and communications.”

I recently made calls with Fair Fight. They strictly enforce their non-partisan status and neither of the candidates are mentioned in the call script. We can support them through donations and by helping in their efforts to expand voting access in Georgia and across the county.

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There are  six days left before the Jan 5th election in Georgia. if you have time, please try to make some calls to get out the vote.

Next week, I will provide a review of 2020. Happy New Year!

 

Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part2

This is the second part of the talk I gave on Dec. 12 for Human Rights Shabbat. Lunch and Learn is a weekly group at the synagogue where I lead discussions, based on texts, centered around relationships between African Americans and Jews. We focus on ways for us, as Jewish Americans, to become more actively  and consciously anti-Racist.

In Lunch and Learn, we often discuss the gradual process by which Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and their descendants became white. In the area of citizenship and voting, the process was more immediate. Once any immigrant naturalized, they could vote. Before 1920, this meant fathers and sons. After passage of the 19th Amendment naturalized female immigrants could vote, making them more fully citizens. An untold story of the suffragist fight for the franchise was the role of black women. Their involvement in expanding American freedom continues to this day. In 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, I believe black women saved our democracy.

Southern whites, in enacting Jim Crow, to replace slavery as a means of enforcing racial separation and hierarchy, used a variety of methods to prevent African Americans from voting. Southern legislators placed the poll tax at a high enough rate that it was effectively out of reach for all poor people, black and white. The rigidly hierarchical nature of post-Civil War Southern society meant most blacks and many poor whites did not own property which was another Jim Crow requirement for voting. Southern states also had literacy requirements which were difficult for poorly educated blacks and many poor whites to pass.  Again, naturalized Jews, living in mostly Northern urban areas faced none of these hurdles when going to vote.

Many of the current requirements in various states around voting which we probably take for granted and assume they have always existed include voter registration which often ends as early as a month before election day and identification requirements. Most of these were enacted in the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century by both white Jim Crow Southerners and white northern reformers to limit voting access for blacks, immigrants including Jews and Italians and poor whites.

In 1948, when the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Truman, a Democrat, proposed a suite of legislation that would have made a significant dent in the Jim Crow edifice. He advocated the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, an anti-lynching law, anti-poll tax legislation and the prohibition of discrimination in inter-state transportation facilities.

Today’s parsha ends with Joseph in jail. He has been falsely accused of attempting to sleep with his master’s wife. In the Jim Crow South black men were routinely accused of trespassing with white women and were frequently lynched for this supposed crime. Lynching was the underpinning of a system of ongoing and daily intimidation by whites of black people. This continuous intimidation served as another barrier to voting.

Truman’s Civil Rights program went nowhere because southern senators and congressmen, overwhelmingly Democratic, vehemently opposed it. Progress towards dismantling Jim Crow would have to wait for almost 20 more years. One of the first cracks in Jim Crow disenfranchisement of African Americans came, in 1964 when the 24th Amendment, prohibiting poll taxes in federal election was ratified.

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, with Martin Luther King, Jr. by his side, signed the Voting Rights Act. This deeply significant piece of legislation was enacted after the longest filibuster in American history. People, marching from Selma to Montgomery endured great violence and sometime death to help secure passage of the Act. Demonstrations in other places, such as St. Augustine, Florida also convinced the nation that it was time to make the Jim Crow system of segregation illegal.

Next week, I will post the final  part of the D’Var. Happy Holidays!

Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part 1

This is the first of three parts of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Jewish Community of Amherst.

Shabbat Shalom,

Today is Human Rights Shabbat. Every year, Tru’ah, which used to be called Rabbis for Human Rights invites congregations to celebrate the 1948 UN signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year Tru’ah is focusing on Article 21 which states, unfortunately in patriarchal language, :

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

In 1948, when these very inspiring words were adopted, African Americans living in Jim Crow South did not have access to any of these rights.  In 1920, almost 2,000 blacks lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. Only 30 voted in the 1920 presidential election.

Today’s parsha begins the Joseph story. In preparing for this D’Var, I read the whole tale which spans four Shabbats. Looking at the arc of the story, it can be read as Joseph’s journey from Slave to Citizen. Co-incidentally, that is the title of a book by Frank Tannenbaum which Branch Rickey read when he was contemplating choosing Jackie Robinson to break the color line in professional baseball.

More broadly, Joseph’s life was also the story of a foreigner and his descendants achieving great success in a foreign land. This immigrant story, read on its own as a novella, is resonant with the success of Jews in America. Joseph was able to move from having been bought and sold to becoming the chief economic advisor to the Pharaoh. The number of Jews in President-elect Biden’s cabinet reminds us of Joseph’s success.

For Joseph, slavery was not a permanent status or mark. For African Americans, brought in chains to this land, beginning in 1619, slavery was a permanent condition. The Civil War ended this inhumane institution and the brief equalitarian period of Reconstruction brought constitutional amendments which enshrined citizenship for all people and voting rights for all men, black and white.

The 13th amendment abolished slavery and the 14th and 15th established birthright citizenship and granted black men the right to vote. The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870; at that time Federal troop still occupied wide swaths of the former Confederate States. Once federal troops were withdrawn, following the 1876 election, jurisdiction over voting returned to the individual states. By the late 19th century, most Southern blacks had effectively lost their voting rights. Since citizenship and voting, in a democracy, are inextricably linked, the disenfranchisement of blacks was complete.

Next week I will post the second of the three parts of this talk.

Coming Attractions

This Saturday, December 12th, I will be giving the D’Var Torah at my synagogue, the Jewish Community of Amherst. I am giving the talk in honor of Human Rights Shabbat.  December 10th is Human Rights Day. Every year, the United Nations commemorates the day in 1948 when the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The UN, in its description of Human Rights Day describes this years  observance as “an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human rights in re-building the world we want, the need for global solidarity as well as our interconnectedness and shared humanity.”

The town of Amherst, Massachusetts celebrates Human Rights Day every year. This year they will be having a socially distanced ceremony. You can read the proclamation here.

I encourage everyone to read  the full Declaration. My talk concerns Article 21 and voting rights. I will post, at least part of, the talk next week.

Stay tuned. Happy Hanukkah

 

Bills

I am writing this post while I am in the midst of trying to reconcile my checkbook and then pay my bills. I usually try to do the reconciliation when the statements arrive so I don’t have to do both tasks, which are very tedious, at the same time. This month, I didn’t manage to do that.

The fact that I even reconcile my checkbook makes me a bit of a dinosaur. If you google about check reconciling, you get mixed answers. Anecdotally, I know that young people, like my sons, don’t balance their checkbook. Most young people write only a few checks; they often don’t even carry money.

We don’t write that many checks but we do use our ATM card a lot.  ATM purchases and automatic withdrawals make up most of our bank statement. I probably still balance my checkbook every month because my mother taught me how to do it years ago and it is a habit.

Paying the bills is actually easy because I pay them online. What takes time is sorting through all the snail mail to weed out what I have to pay each month. Most of the mail is repeat requests for donations. I schedule my charitable giving throughout the year so I usually only donate to each organization once. That doesn’t stop them from sending me monthly or even more frequent reminders. It is such a waste of paper.

The other part of bill paying that takes time is recording the amounts in Quicken. Credit card bills often have several purchases which have to be coded into different categories. That can take a lot of time. I originally got Quicken to be able to track how much we were spending each month. I also use it to balance the checkbook; using it is another habit.

Reading what I have just written makes me realize that it might be time to examine these habits and see if I need to continue them. Surely there is an easier, less time consuming way to track my expenses.

I also realize that I am extremely fortunate that I have enough money to cover my needs and live comfortably. I know that this is a very difficult time for many people who are facing evictions and lack of employment. I so hope that Congress will pass an interim COVID relief package before President Biden is inaugurated in January.