"We need to also stop dehumanizing young men who are in gangs."
Rabbi Andrea London is a nationally recognized Jewish leader who has served at Evanston’s Beth Emet The Free Synagogue synagogue since 2000 and was named the congregation’s Senior Rabbi in 2010. Social justice activism is an integral part of Rabbi London’s rabbinate.
In 2014, Rabbi London was selected by the Jewish Daily Forward as one of 28 of America's Most Inspiring Rabbis of 2014. The letter nominating her, written by a congregant, recounted how a recording of Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at Beth Emet in 1958, prompted Rabbi London to invite members from Evanston's Second Baptist Church to co-host Shabbat dinner and discuss race relations in the Evanston community. The evening of courageous conversation attracted several hundred people to services and a dinner which spurred interfaith, race-related book and play discussions; concerts; and a 2013 bus trip to civil rights sites in the South with 38 high-school students from both congregations.
Rabbi London strives to teach and encourage individuals and communities through contemplative, social, and spiritually based actions. She is committed to continuing the work of racial justice.
Rabbi London holds a degree in applied mathematics from Brown University and worked as a management consultant before becoming a rabbi. She is married to Danny London and has two children, Yonah and Liora.
Nina Kavin, a member of Beth Emet, recently spoke with Rabbi London in her office.
DE: How can Evanston's Jewish community and white residents help to reduce violence?
AL: When a young black man is gunned down in our community, it’s easy for many white people to say, ‘Oh, it’s gang related,’ which is a way to protect ourselves by dismissing the humanity of the individual who fired the shot and the person who got shot. It allows us to feel safe. But we need to stop being dismissive. We need to also stop dehumanizing young men who are in gangs.
We need to acknowledge that the death of a black person is the death of a human being. It’s not less than, not deserved, not even if it was a gang situation. If whites were dying in the same way, we wouldn’t stand for it. When people lose hope in life, they become passive. If they can’t be part of the system, they find other ways to make money to get what they need. Gangs are a powerful lure for the powerless.
Many of us like to take a lot more credit for what we, as white people, do for our families, our children. We think we love our kids more, give our kids more, support them more. We pat ourselves on the back. But we have to realize what is working against families who don’t, or can’t, do these things for their children. They can’t find jobs, or they’re working two jobs and still can’t afford their mortgage. Teen boys often make poor decisions. It’s simply a part of brain development. But many of the mistakes our boys make, the same mistakes that many African American boys make, don’t determine the rest of their lives. White kids are generally given more of the benefit of the doubt and second chances.
DE: How has racism played into violence?
AL: So much of our work is to understand how race functions and has functioned within our community, to educate ourselves. One of the things I have heard from leaders in the black community is that African Americans get tired of having to explain racism to white people. That we need to do our own work first.
We need to understand the many root causes of the problems in the African American community. Jews weren’t always considered white, nor were Irish people or Italians. For a long time in this country, ethnic groups were recognized as separate, but over time they became white. The GI Bill that was introduced after World War II aided this transition to various ethnic groups becoming white. It was the biggest affirmative action plan in our country and it was for white veterans. It provided veterans with all kinds of benefits like low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business, cash payments of tuition and so on. It allowed many white families, and ethnic families with white skin, to enter the middle class. But it wasn’t available to the vast majority of African Americans. Combine this with red lining in housing and the black community was left out of the move to the middle class that the GI bill facilitated for white families.
DE: What can we, as Jews, as whites, do to change the situation?
AL: We need to work to create change in our society. We need to be intentional and to
say that we’re actually going to make a change. To call out racism. To recognize our role and our privilege. White people don’t like to hear that a system needs changing. It’s uncomfortable. We may think it will change outcomes for our children, that resources will be taken away from our children. But a rising tide raises all the boats.
The fact is, if we want to dismantle racism, white people have to do it. If whites created the power structure, we have the power to dismantle it. When I talk to people who claim they don’t harbor racist attitudes, I remind them that we still have a system in our country that holds back the black community. We need to educate ourselves about how racism still functions today. Racism is not just about attitudes, but about a power structure. So while we need to denounce racist comments or a racist events, we need to do more than that.
I think that creating a more equitable public education system in our country should be on the top of the agenda of what we, as a society, need to do to dismantle racism. It’s not acceptable that kids in wealthy communities have access to superior education than kids in poor neighborhoods. We also have to recognize the achievement gap between the races that exists regardless of socioeconomic level, and work to correct it. ETHS Superintendent, Eric Witherspoon, has done an amazing job diminishing the achievement gap at the high school and can offer solid statistics showing how much better black students are doing since the school began to examine equity in education. There’s concrete proof of change, even though we have a way to go. In District 65, Superintendent Paul Goren has his work cut out for him.
DE: How do you see your role in this issue a religious leader?
AL: Clergy people need to be part of relationship building. When neighbors know each other, there is less crime. We need to build relationships within our own communities, as well as across communities. We need to encourage neighborliness. I know that black clergy talk about this a lot. They ask, who will be a mentor? Because of the inequities in our criminal justice system, black men are over represented in jail. Clergy can bring communities together, and communities working together can be powerful forces for change. Religious communities are powerful forces for change because they motivate people spiritually and emotionally, not just intellectually. Those who are motivated to act in the world not just because they think something is a good idea, but because they feel that they’ve been called to act because of the teachings of their faith tradition are more likely to remain active for the long haul in working for justice and peace.
We also need to have courageous conversations about race. Until we pay attention to our thoughts, we don’t notice our unconscious biases. We need to make conscious the unconscious. How can we create an equal system when people are expecting the black kid to make trouble?
DE: Can you give me an example of how we can build relationships across communities?
AL: There are many opportunities, big and small. In 2013, Beth Emet partnered with Second Baptist Church and took 38 of our teens on a six-day “Sankofa” bus trip to visit civil rights sites in the South. This kind of trip is an example of how we can break down barriers. A program like that makes a big difference. It helped our teens become keenly aware of systemic racism. They’ll grow into adulthood being aware of it in our society. The interesting thing is that our teens are the ones who, in many ways, are educating their parents and the adults in our community. This is incredibly powerful and positive.
DE: How did the trip change the students?
AL: First, it got black teens and white teens, Jews and Christians, to really get to know
each other in a very intimate way and to have hard conversations about race..
After the Sankofa trip, I head stories from our teens about ways it had changed them. For example, back at school, one of the girls from Beth Emet was listening to her iPod in class through her earphones. Just before the bell rang, an African American boy pulled out his cell phone, and the teacher gave him a detention. The Beth Emet student called the teacher out and pointed out that she had been listening to music with no consequences. The teacher was flabbergasted, but she then punished both the students. The Sankofa trip helped our student become aware of how white kids are far more likely to get the benefit of the doubt and gave her the courage to do something about it.
Another example is that my daughter’s Sankofa partner told her how she is followed around in clothing stores. My daughter was shocked. She realized she has never been followed around in a store or even given that a second thought. Her level of awareness was raised.
The students have told me they notice that black kids get their IDs checked in the hallways at school much more often than white kids. So many of us are unaware of the subtle ways that white privilege works.
DE: What role can the police play in reducing violence in Evanston?
AL: As a member of the Evanston Clergy Association, I’m responsible for programming. In February, we met with members of the police force to talk about the best ways to police in our communities and to change the paradigm where whites feel protected by police and African Americans often feel afraid, or at least mistrustful, of them. Police officers should be judged by their departments on the relationships they make within a community rather than being recognized and rewarded for the number of arrests they make. There’s the idea that if you let one infraction go in a community, the community will go to hell in a handbasket—the broken window theory. But this has not proven not to be true. Jim Wallis, an Evangelical pastor who wrote a book called America’s Original sin, advocates for relationships between the police and the community, instead of arrests.
DE: Is there a tenet in Judaism to look to as we examine issues of racial justice, of violence in our community and how we can help makes changes?
AL: There are many ways Jewish traditions can guide us. One central tenet of Judaism is Teshuva, or the idea of returning, of being given second chances. During the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we spend an entire month focusing on the concept of forgiveness, redemption, and second chances, for ourselves and for others. We believe that change is possible and that we have the power to make changes.
In Evanston, we have to see that there have been changes. But should we stop the work? No. There is more to be done, but I have the faith that change is possible.