(Photo/Union for Reform Judaism)
(Photo/Union for Reform Judaism)

Why we at Sha’ar Zahav support reparations for slavery

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In several Torah recountings of our Exodus from Egyptian slavery, we read that when the slaves are set free, they do not go away empty-handed. While these verses are open to different interpretations, the Israelites left Egypt with compensation for their servitude. More recently, many Holocaust survivors received reparations from Germany.

In the United States, the history of racial discrimination is long and entrenched. My own learning has been eye-opening and personally challenging, as many of us, myself included, have come to terms with the reality of our country’s history and development. As Rabbi Sharon Brous, the senior rabbi of the IKAR congregation in Los Angeles, wrote in the L.A. Times, the structure of our country was “built on the foundation of a stolen beam.”

At Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, our board and clergy are proud to have signed a resolution, drafted and circulated by the San Francisco Black & Jewish Unity Coalition, in support of the mission and overall efforts of the California State Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. This task force is scheduled to present proposals to the state Legislature by July 2023.

In the meantime, the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee will present proposals to the city’s Board of Supervisors on March 14. A draft, prepared by staff at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, is available at tinyurl.com/SFreparations-draft.

These separate efforts by the state and city aim to repair injustices wrought upon the Black communities — for the sake of justice, and to improve all of our lives by bringing justice to all.

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From the beginning, our country employed racist policies and practices in ways that relied on Black labor, while the resulting wealth accrued only to whites. Over the generations, the original wealth disparity between Black and white communities has only multiplied.

Many of us in the Jewish community have reaped the benefits of white privilege, just as the Egyptians reaped the benefits of Jewish slave labor. The median net worth (the difference between a family’s gross assets and its liabilities) of Black households in the United States was $24,100 in 2019, compared with $188,200 for white households, according to the most recent Federal Reserve Board Survey of Consumer Finances. 

Not all Jews have the benefit of generational wealth, and certainly Jews have suffered, lost opportunities and otherwise, from antisemitism that continues today.

Yet many of us, myself included, benefited from advantages our parents and grandparents received because they were white. White Jews had opportunities Black Americans never had, such as housing loans that enabled first-home purchases and allowed wealth to expand exponentially over generations.

Despite being introduced for the first time in 1989, one year after the U.S. agreed to pay reparations and apologize to Japanese Americans for their incarceration during World War II, the federal bill for reparations to Blacks is stalled in Congress.

We must now act to repair the injustices that have led to this wealth gap between Black and white Americans.

The California and San Francisco reparations bodies are presenting proposals to make up for monies and opportunities stolen from African Americans through systemic injustices. The recommendations include banking and debt forgiveness programs, loan assistance and housing stabilization programs, education programs including new investment into Black-majority public schools, and much more.

Some of the “much more” includes cash payments. Based on sound research and study, these figures come from calculating wages lost due to legal barriers to home ownership and jobs, or due to inadequate health care or education opportunities. The calculations then consider what that lost wealth would have become had it compounded as an equal part of the California and San Francisco economies over the past decades.

These numbers can sound high, but they represent the true loss to Black families due to systemic racism.

The question of how to provide reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and other systemic discrimination must be faced, discussed and somehow answered.

As Jews concerned with tikkun olam, repair of the world, we must engage.

These two committees — California and San Francisco — are providing a way to do so. How and how fast these efforts move forward depends now on political will to further examine the specifics of implementation.

Now is the time for Jewish communities of California and San Francisco to support reparations to African Americans, and in doing so to support a legacy of justice l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation, into the future. We can do this by advocating for reparations efforts, led by the Black community through these two commissioned bodies.

We need to educate ourselves — to examine our learned implicit biases, and to examine current reparative efforts. We must educate ourselves within and beyond our congregations, to build understanding so that we can support these efforts from a place of knowledge. It is incumbent upon us to open our eyes and our ears, and to use our voices to share what we learn with our fellow congregants and community members, and with our elected officials.

Without reparation, we cannot hope to achieve justice for all. Reparations are for all of our sakes. They are not a gift. They are a payment of a debt long deferred.

To sign the resolution or join the cause, contact Sha’ar Zahav president Deborah Levy at [email protected] or Ann Rubin of the S.F. Black & Jewish Unity Coalition at [email protected]. Eric McDonnell, chair of the S.F. African American Reparations Advisory Committee, will speak at Sha’ar Zahav on April 14. Shabbat services will be followed by a Q&A. All are welcome.

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy is the president of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.