Blog  Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By Jeremy Cronig, NFTY President 2015-2016

kutz-obama-225x300What a period of big gains, and also big losses in the past two weeks. We see confederate flags going down the flagpole, being replaced by flags of rainbow colors. That moment, that moment of togetherness while doing what is right, was so powerful.

On Friday, June 26, the URJ Kutz Camp all gathered in the lobby of the main building. 250 people strong, we watched as President Obama gave a statement after the supreme court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges.

We went into shabbat, an experience that emphasizes community, feeling stronger than we’ve ever felt at the Kutz camp before. Tears, hugs, joy. “We won” is what someone said on CNN as

But then… something incredibly striking happened. The Kutz Camp watched President Obama speak and all went back to their different parts of camp. Nearly the instant when we dispersed, CNN changed their coverage. They turned to the funeral of Climenta Pinkney, the pastor killed in the shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston. President Obama flew directly from his speech on the gay marriage decision to deliver the eulogy.

The juxtaposition of these moments is the epitome of the fight against hate and racism in our society. Two steps forward, one step back. Gay marriage legalized in America, 9 more black people killed in the south. Two steps forward, one step back.

Because of this, because of these moments. our work is not done. our work is never done. This energy, and this power that our generation has, now needs to shift focus. shift focus to our brothers and sisters in the African American community.

On the evening of June 17, a gunman went into the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, with only hate on his mind. He shot and killed 9 people, one more survived their wounds. This occurred during Wednesday evening bible study. People of love and compassion, gunned down while studying their religion. And this is not any church, this is one of the oldest and most famous black churches in the south.

Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal.

The history of the AME church is one of resilience in the face of oppression and hate. The church was started by Morris Brown, a freed shoemaker who decided segregation did not fit within a religion that preached love and compassion. He decided to found the first black church in the south.

His partner was Denmark Vesey. Vesey was purchased at age 14 from the Virgin Islands and was brought to Charleston. Despite his enslavement, he earned enough money to buy lottery tickets. He actually won and bought his freedom. Still, the slave owner refused to sell him his wife and children.

Lost and distraught, Vesey looked to our book, our tradition. And some of the first teachings by the AME church were from the book of exodus. And I think of this as so powerful. Former slaves, freed black men and others possibly reading and studying the words of the mi chamocha to find hope. to find anything. As Vesey attracted over 3,000 people to his teachings, others in Charleston, so ingrained with hate at the time, charged that he was planning a slave uprising. In december of 1821, Vesey and dozens of others were arrested, tortured and eventually hanged. For practicing and preaching their religion.

They began to pray in secret. Planning underground gatherings much like Jews had for over a thousand years. Being oppressed for what the believed in, for their identity. As the north pieced the country together after the civil war, Vesey’s son began to rebuild his father’s dream as well. The AME church was rebuilt, adopting a new name: Emanuel AME. Emanuel, the name of my place of worship back in Cleveland, is a hebrew word meaning “God is with us”. The church was a center within the civil rights movement and continued to be influential through the modern day. This all came to a halt on June 17th.

The story of the Emanuel AME Church, is the story of the Jewish people. And the story, the sad sad story, of blacks in this country, is the story of the Jewish people as well. We tell the history of our oppression: the holocaust, the diaspora, being enslaved in Egypt. We tell this history, because it displays our fortitude as a people. It also works to connect us to each other and our ancestors. Saying “Never again”.

But I ask today, are we doing this, looking out for others just like us. Are we looking at our society, not in our suburbs, our camps, our youth groups, but looking at our society for what it is: broken. Our histories go hand in hand, so why are we not hand in hand today? Because of more pigmentation in others’ skin. There is a group of people that needs our help and we cannot stand idly by.

We have to stop pretending that racism is over in America. Stop pretending that African Americans are not constantly oppressed by society. I can not believe that in my lifetime, that in 2015, President Barack Obama, had to invoke another great leader, Dr. Martin Luther King in a eulogy to talk about another attack on blacks in a place of worship. 52 years after the bombing that left four little girls dead at the 16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

This occurs because we pretend that each victory in civil rights, means that the fight is over. But the fight is never over.

We as NFTY need to remember, that we play a part in this fight. We must reach across racial bounds to make change in our society. Engage in a dialogue about race. Dont be afraid of the topic. Reach out to African American leaders in your community and make a connection. Show that we as a movement will not sweep this issue under the rug any longer.

On June 26th, my sister stood on the steps of the supreme court with her girlfriend. For the first time knowing that her country granted her equal protection under the law.

And on June 26th, Climenta Pinkney, a man who devoted his life to god, prayer and serving others was laid to rest in Charleston.

Two steps forward, one step back.

We will continue to fight this fight. Because we know, we must. We have seen one of the most incredible moments of our lifetime. But it did not come without work. It did not come without hardship. If we do this, and fight this fight, one day participants at the Kutz Camp will get to share in a moment that was as powerful as what we experienced on June 26th.


Interested in hearing more from NFTY teens on this topic? Check out our blog post, NFTY Celebrates Marriage Equality.