I sat down to write something for this season of reflection and back to school.
I thought it might be words of wisdom from navigating my teen’s first serious romance, or how I’m learning to advocate for my almost 8-year-old, who was recently diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. It could have been about how to manage the changes that come with menopause while raising kids, or exploring observing Shabbat to curb our screentime addictions.
But instead, I’m going to write about Jacob Blake.
Jacob, who bears the same biblical name as my youngest child, is a Black man who was shot in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin seven times, while getting into his own vehicle on August 23. His three young sons were inside the car and saw it all. One of them was celebrating a birthday. Jacob is miraculously alive but now paralyzed from the waist down.
Maybe you saw a post about this on social media, and found yourself feeling awful for a moment or two… and then scrolled on by.
I know what that is like, because for a very long time, that was me, too.
I would see story after story of Black men being killed by police officers. And I wondered: “What could I possibly do that would matter?” And I worried: “What if I try to speak out and I say the wrong thing?” So I did nothing.
Then one day, I came upon a Facebook Live from my friend, Jenjii. She had tears streaming down her face, asking her white friends to imagine what it would feel like to fear for the safety of our husbands, our sons, our brothers, every day when they walk out the door.
And in a moment, I could no longer do nothing, because I connected to the humanity of a fellow mother.
The first thing I did was call Jenjii. She was emotionally exhausted and cautious; it took her some time to call me back. But we began a conversation.
A few months later, I launched the Mother’s Quest Podcast so I could interview other mothers seeking meaning and impact while raising our children. Jenjii was among my first guests. In our conversation, we invited listeners to come along as she named the impact of systemic racism and highlighted the social structures that divide Black and white families: how we’re not interacting at one another’s dinner tables, playgrounds, or places of worship.
We also searched for ways to make a difference, and we decided to begin to bridge the gap by starting with our own families and our spiritual selves.
My family visited Jenjii’s church, where she and her husband are pastors, for Sunday services, joining them as they sang “Mary Did You Know?” the week before Christmas. My 13-year-old was so impacted by the experience that his reflections became part of his bar mitzvah speech. Jenjii, her husband, and two sons listened to that speech from the pews at our synagogue, and then joined our celebration where they linked arms with us and danced the hora for the first time.
These experiences helped me realize, in profound ways, that we are bound together by common ties that transcend our differences.
That was 2016, and since then, I’ve moved toward activism in ways I never would have imagined — speaking out during public comments after the deaths of Black men in my own communities, advocating for the passage of new police accountability laws in California, where I live, and raising money to support mothers and children impacted by police violence.
But more than anything, I’ve stayed in conversation. Over the years, the podcast became a place to center and amplify Black voices, to open my heart and mind to listening and learning, and to share these experiences with others.
As we approach the Jewish New Year, I realize that this entire journey has been one of teshuvah, or atonement — of opening my eyes to where I had gone astray and betrayed myself with my separation, silence, and inaction. I’ve tried to return to my humanity by getting more “proximate” to the pain of others, by taking responsibility for my own connection to a system of injustice, and by making reparations.
Though I am still imperfectly stumbling my way to meaningful solidarity, I have learned a few things. And I realized if I am to share anything with other white Jewish parents during the approaching Days of Awe, it should be those lessons, gifted to me because of the insight, generosity, and resilience of my Black guests.
Hold a growth mindset
From my conversation with diversity and inclusion specialist and human rights attorney Nicole Lee, I learned that if we are going to look at the systems of oppression that need to be dismantled, and if we are going to have courageous conversations about race — including with our children — we need to hold a growth mindset and not a fixed one.
A growth mindset is the belief that our abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work; a fixed mindset, by contrast, is the belief our capacities are innate. By keeping a growth mindset, we remember we are always learning, that we will make mistakes, but that we need to stay open. A fixed mindset will keep us silent, waiting for the perfect words or actions that will never come. From Nicole, I learned that we must tolerate discomfort as we grow in order to face the structural injustices in our country, and the ways we consciously or unconsciously uphold them.
Losing a loved one to police violence is an insult like none other
In my interview with Mothers Against Police Brutality co-founders Sara Mokuria with dedication by Collette Flanagan, I understood in a new way the pain of losing a family member to police violence. As I listened to Collette talk about losing her son, Clinton Allen, I connected to the realization that every Black man killed by police has a mother mourning the loss of her child. And in truly bearing witness to one mother’s pain — which Collette refers to as an “insult” — it is impossible not to also feel pain.
Sara, who observed her father being killed when she was young, explained the unique pain that comes from losing a loved one to a police officer, someone who is supposed to serve and protect. She also illuminated the second insult that comes after your loved one is gone (or recovering, like Blake) when your family is now put under a microscope by the media and judicial system.
Black mothers are closest to the solution — and we should invest in them
In talking with Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, I was forever changed by her strength. Not only did she get out of bed after her tragic loss, she turned her grief into fuel for advocacy. Known as one of the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement, Sybrina also learned to lean on family, faith, and community, and ultimately created a Circle of Mothers Healing Retreat to provide that to other mothers grieving the loss of their children to gun violence. In their coming together, they could go home restored in profound ways and enact change.
Black people need partners in order for change to come
Shortly after the death of George Floyd, I had a conversation with dedicated father and While Black Podcast host Darius Hicks. Talking with him, I understood that authentic partnership among non-Black people — people who have access to people and spaces that Darius does not — is essential for change to come. Hearing Darius’ plea to have his humanity acknowledged and not forgotten helped me understand that our partnership must be sustained. We must not awaken for a minute or two — rather, we need to build authentic relationships and an enduring commitment. We need to be part of a movement and not a moment.
If these lessons spark something within you, calling you toward greater learning and solidarity, I offer these opportunities to help move you forward:
1. Seek out opportunities to learn from Black people directly. Slow down and get informed before taking action.
2. Connect with Nicole Lee in her Inclusive Life Facebook community and join others in conscious and courageous conversation about diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism.
4. Get informed about police policies in your own community, follow the lead of Black activists there, and lend your help and voice where needed.
Teshuvah — examining where we have gone astray, seeking amends, and righting our actions — can be done at any time. But the High Holidays are a particularly powerful time for coming home to yourself, for embracing your fullest humanity, and for living out the Jewish values of equity and justice that have been the hallmark of our heritage. My return began the moment I opened myself to Jenjii’s words. Maybe yours begins now.
Header Image by CARME PARRAMON/Getty Images