Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein’s Remarks from the MLK Celebration

Rabbi Ruhi Rubenstein offered the following remarks to the audience at the Shedd during the celebration honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday. The remarks are so powerful, everyone should read them!

“When Eric asked me to speak today, I admit that at first I was reluctant. One thing that the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us in the past year and a half is the importance of raising up and centralizing the voices and narratives of Black folks. I know there are folks here today who don’t need a white rabbi to tell them anything about the African American experience, or Doctor King’s vision.

At the same time, Eric pointed out to me that people of color are constantly putting their stories and their bodies on the line, are constantly expected to teach white folks about their experience. And we can be awfully slow learners, so it can be awfully frustrating. It is important for allies to take some of the burden of showing up and speaking out.

And I have the unique experience of standing here as a female rabbi. The history and experience of my people has parallels with the Black community in the United States. Both communities have found inspiration from the great narrative of liberation in the Book of Exodus. Both communities have forged living, vibrant counter-cultures in the face of oppression. Here in Oregon particularly, both communities have been targets of white supremacist hate speech and violence.

Yet, I know that there is a tendency, particularly in the Jewish community, to overstate the parallels. Sometimes light-skinned Jews assume that we are not white because of our history of oppression. Sometimes we assume that we do not have to work to be allies, because we understand enough about what it means to be a minority. We give ourselves a pass and ignore the privileges that come with our skin, and the responsibility to make this society a just and safe society for people of all colors.

I know that in my own family’s personal narrative, there is great pride that in 1964, my grandfather, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, responded to a call from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and traveled to St. Augustine, Florida to get arrested with 15 other rabbis, including local Rabbi Hanan Sills, in a dangerous integration action. We are very proud of that story.

And that’s fine. It’s fine to be inspired by the civil rights heroes of the past. But you know, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the fact that my grandfather was arrested for civil rights 51 years ago is not enough to make me an ally. That my family does not just get to coast on his actions. Not when there is work to be done.  Allyship is not a badge that we get to wear around like a fancy pin.

And there is work to be done! Say it with me, people:

When black youth are being taught, over and over again, that their lives are expendable because white people are afraid of them, there is work to be done. . . When legislation is formulated to send children from schools to prison, there is work to be done. . . when armed white terrorists receive more courtesy, curiosity and patience than non-violent black protesters, there is work to be done. . .

No one gets to keep an ally badge. We have to do our best each day. That work is is not just the work of showing up at a rally. There is a lot of good feeling in this room, and I appreciate that, because we are living in fearful times. As President Obama said in his State of the Union, “As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.” I think this is spot on, except that he said it in the future tense, and those voices are already growing ever louder.

What are we to do in the face of all the messages that incite us to fear and hate? Both the Jewish experience and the black experience offer the lesson: We must build strong communities. We must reach out across difference and join in the urgent work of building the beloved community that Doctor King envisioned. I know there are wonderful people here today who are doing this work every day of the year. The stage is full of them; this whole hall is full of them. If you feel overwhelmed by the pressure to accept the isolation, the fear, to despair of the hope that we could be a better society than what we are now, then I suggest that you start by reaching out to someone in this room. Look around at all of the amazing people in this room. Each of us can admit, “I don’t understand your full experience, and I may have been taught to fear you, but I would still like to know you.”

All over the country today, halls like this are filled with people who want to honor Doctor King’s vision. Some of them will only pay lip service, but many of them are out there, doing the work. Building community. Folks of color, speaking the truth firmly and having faith that we will catch up. White folks making an effort to rise against racism.

The Hebrew Bible teaches that each human is created in the image of God. It says that God created humanity in the plural, not one human. I pray for us that we build that beloved community and live up to our divine spark.”