Rabbi Conover’s Yom Kippur Sermon – Make Them Hear You

Every year, when I get up here to speak, I know exactly what you’re thinking about right at this moment– your break-fast.  Am I right?  We started off strong earlier in the dayNow, let’s be honest, we drifted a bit during the Torah reading– who can blame us, really?  But then we came back strong, as we listened to the Consul General. Yet, now that you’re sitting– and we’ve had some quiet moments, who can blame your stomach for growling, who can blame your mind for drifting? I’ve done it before…


But as long as we’re already at our break-fast, we might as well get to the best part of it– the break-fast conversation.  And this evening, I hope you’ll be talking about racial justice. I’ll even provide some discussion prompts to get you started.  These same prompts inspired me many months ago when I had the opportunity to hear Bryan Stevenson (a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative to provide legal counsel for the most vulnerable in our prison system.)  When he spoke at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Consultation on Conscience, he gave advice to people to take on the difficult issue of racial injustices in this country. For our purposes today, for your break-fast conversation, and for our work ahead, I am changing the order and subject lines of the advice ever-so-slightly.  Here’s what I suggest we do based on Mr. Stevenson’s advice:


1. Hear stories that change us


2. Get proximate—get closer to this issue


3. Choose to do uncomfortable things


4. Protect hopefulness.


Last summer, my husband Damien and I took our two sons Eli and Ben 6 and 4 years old at the time  to the 50s themed McDonald’s downtown for a shake.  On the way there, a small group of black teenagers who had come from a rally, had their signs reading Hands Up! Don’t shoot! tucked under their arms as they walked toward a bus stop.


Eli asked, “Where are they coming from?”


“A rally,” Damien answered.


“For what?” Ben chimed in.


“To make sure that everyone—no matter the color of their skin—has equal rights in our country,” I explained.


Eli, whose school Chicago Jewish Day School, has a big unit about Martin Luther King Jr. asked:  “Didn’t Martin Luther King Jr. already do that?”


Damien answered: “He did a lot of good and helped to achieve a lot of rights, but things still aren’t completely fair.  It’s up to each generation and each of us to keep adding to his life’s work…”


And so began a very, very long conversation.


Our entire country has engaged in a very long conversation about racial justice and has begun to seriously engage in the issues of the lack of racial justice in our nation.  When I say racial justice, I mean:


the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. [1]

Racial justice is a proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts and outcomes for all.[2]


This past year, many of us have heard stories dealing with racial injustice that have stopped us in our tracks and broken our hearts open.  They have compelled us to talk about these stories with friends, co-workers, and family.  Some of us have been surprised at the different reactions evoked by the very same story from people whom we respect—and we have even surprised ourselves by our own mixed reaction to some of these stories.


Ira Glass from This American Life called attention to this when he invited Lisa Mahone to share her story on his radio program.  Her story stopped me in my tracks.[3]  Last September, Lisa received a call from County Hospital in Chicago that her mother was in the final stages of dying.  Almost without thinking, Lisa quickly packed her two children in the back seat, her friend Jamal in the front (all of them African American) and took off for the hospital.  In her haste, Lisa failed to put on her seat belt and she was pulled over for this failure.  Lisa, a former correctional officer herself, has a high degree of respect for police officers and treats them that way.  Yet, that day, she was immediately uncomfortable with the behavior of the police officer who pulled her over.  Let me reiterate the people in the car—a mom, a male her age, and two children in the back.  A car that looks exactly like my morning commute every day with Damien beside me and our two sons in the back.


As I said before, Lisa was immediately uncomfortable with the behavior of the officer.  Instead of going back to his car and running her license and registration through the system, the police officer simply pocketed them.  To her, his movements seemed erratic and he didn’t sustain eye contact.  Then, he asked for Jamal’s id– which didn’t make sense because Jamal was wearing his seatbelt.   As Jamal looked for it, the other officer arrived. The first officer asked them to roll down the window, but they didn’t feel safe. Lisa asked one of her sons in the back of the car to begin recording this on his phone.   We began to hear the recording.  I could feel my heart beating wildly as I listened.


They asked Jamal to get out of the car but Jamal instead asked them to contact a supervisor, a white shirt– someone with whom he could reason. One of the officers indicated that the bars on his uniform essentially made him a supervisor.   Lisa was scared, so she did what any one of us might do, what I would do, she called 911 to ask for help. Over and over, Lisa pleaded with the dispatcher, she was scared– the officers were not acting like police officers.  Instead of coming to her aid as Lisa had expected, instead of calling for another officer and alerting the department to the situation, the 911 operator simply told Lisa to trust the officers who were there and do what they said.    My heart filled with rage.

Next, there was the sound of glass shattering and screams.  The officers reached through the window they smashed, opened the door, grabbed Jamal out of the car and tasered him.


Then all that could be heard was a slow, steady sob from one of the children in the back seat.


My heart broke.
My heart broke…because I heard the pain and fear in this little boy’s cry and knew that this incident would forever imprint him and distort his belief about whether he could trust the people he expected to keep him safe.


My heart broke…because this one, errant police officer (who, by the way, had three prior charges of using excessive force) was making it more difficult for other police officers to do their jobs well and safely.  I take this personally like so many of you who know and love our security detail here, many of whom are off-duty police officers.


And, my heart broke…because I think that things would have been different if Jamal, Lisa and her children were white.


Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Edward Conlon– author and former NYPD officer– spoke of one of the most effective training exercises he experienced at the police department.


The instructor would call up four cops, two black and two white, to the front of the class.  He’d have one of the black cops face the wall with his hands up and place the two white cops close behind him, on either side, pretending to point guns at him.



The instructor would then ask the class, ‘Whadda we got?’


Everyone knew the answer: an arrest or a stop.


Then the instructor would switch the positions, arranging two black cops behind one of the whites.  This time, white hands were raised in surrender, and black hands mimicked guns.


‘Now whadda we got?’


Everyone knew the answer to that one too, though not many wanted to say it, as uneasy laughter filled the room.  Cops of every color seemed to react the same way: The second scenario looked like a mugging.


It was a lesson in the ugliness of preconceptions, the peril of jumping to conclusions.[4]


In Chicago, as is the case in cities throughout America, this kind of perilous jump is exacerbated because of the lack of everyday, human interaction across race due to the lack of diversity in most of our neighborhoods.  Chicago as a whole is diverse, yet in homogenous pockets.  For most of us, Bryan Stevenson’s second piece of advice, to get proximate—to get close to this issue, is both difficult and awkward.   (By the way, I know that some of the Jews of color and  non-Jews of color in our congregation and their families might feel like raising their hands at this point and saying: Rabbi Conover, we have gotten pretty darn proximate with relationships across race!  To you, I say mazal tov.  And, still I know that many of us, if not all of us, have not gotten proximate enough to the issue of racial injustice as a whole.) And without proximity, statistics that cry out of racial inequality remain simply numbers on a page.  Like the fact that black students are more than four times as likely as white students … to attend schools where one out of every five teachers does not meet all state teaching requirements.[5]  Or that white families claim about six times the net worth of non-white families, a gap that has changed little over the past generation.[6]


Without proximity, we can turn from this problem and say it’s not our problem.  Without proximity, even well-meaning people, can get it wrong as Mr. Stevenson warns:


Proximity is important because without getting closer to the problem we are going to make the wrong judgments about what that problem truly is. We are going to make the wrong judgments about what the solutions are.


He puts a fine point on this through a tale of proximity in his book Just Mercy.  One day he was contacted by the grandmother of a 14 year-old boy named Charlie who was sitting on death row.  Would he take the case on appeal?   On the night that Charlie shot his mother’s boyfriend, her boyfriend had beaten his mother unconscious. The boy had witnessed his mother being terrorized by her boyfriend for years.   Because the boyfriend was an officer of the law and because the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for juveniles in a 1989 ruling, Charlie was sentenced to death.    Bryan took the case.  However, when he went to meet with the boy in a room in the prison, Charlie wouldn’t talk.  Bryan tried to reason with him, “Listen, if you don’t talk to me, I can’t help you.”  He repeated this five or six more times.  Nothing.  Then, he moved closer to this boy, and just leaned on him.  He got close enough to feel this boy’s beating heart.  Close enough for the boy to feel Bryan’s heart.  With that, the boy began to weep uncontrollably and slowly, between sobs he told Bryan stories that broke Bryan’s heart.  Stories not about that horrible night when he had taken the life of his mother’s boyfriend, but he told Bryan story after story of the sexual abuse he had endured night after night in the adult prison.


When we read statistics provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics—that youth under the age of 18 represented 21 percent of all substantiated victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005…And that African-American youth are 62% of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence[7]— we don’t have any context without proximity.  It is only by getting proximate and asking the right questions—questions that don’t come easily.  This is both awkward and difficult, but if we hope to see racial injustices uprooted in our lifetime, we must choose to do uncomfortable things.

As Jews, we are no strangers to choosing to do uncomfortable things from Moses going in front of the Pharaoh, to Clara Lemlich organizing thousands of shirtwaist workers at the opening of the 20th Century.  In the Eileh Ezkerah section of this afternoon’s service, traditionally a time to recall ancient martyrs, Mishkan Hanefesh recalls the lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—who  were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in more modern times as they tried to restore civil rights to African Americans living in the south.

And why have we, time and time again chosen to do uncomfortable things?  Because we are a people who protects hopefulness.   Hope has been the fuel of our people since our inception.  Our Torah is full of it: brains over brute, freedom over slavery, and in today’s portion– even Cain got a second chance.  In this morning’s haftarah, Isaiah first chastises the Israelites for their failure to get proximate and choose to do uncomfortable things like working to break the bonds of injustice, instead relying on absent rituals.  But then our prophet pivots.  He tells us that God will help us in the work of removing the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word.  Isaiah encourages us to protect our hopefulness:


v’nachacha Adonai tamid:

Adonai will guide you always,


slake your thirst in parched places,


give strength to your bones.


Uchmotza mayim asher lo yechazvu meimav.


You shall be like a well-watered garden, an unfailing spring.


As we turn toward the voices that cry out about injustice, we will be guided by God’s presence.


These steps for addressing racial injustice:

Hearing stories that change us;

getting proximate;

choosing to do uncomfortable things;

protecting hopefulness;

mirror exactly steps that each of us must take in any true act of teshuvah:


Listen for the things that call us to turn toward a painful truth—and then address them.

“Cry from the depth, says God—

Do not hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!”

Get proximate to the problem, and seek out its root cause.


Al Chet Shechatnu L’fanecha

by turning a deaf ear when our neighbors cry for help.

Al Chet Shechatnu L’fanecha

by being silent when our voices are needed.

Al Chet Shechatnu L’fanecha

by not honoring the identity of every person.

Al Chet Shechatnu L’fanecha

by holding prejudices of our own.

Al Chet Shechatnu L’fanecha

by not caring for all children as we care for our own children.

Adonai our God, we know that in a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.

We are responsible.

I am responsible.[8]


Choose to do uncomfortable things—

“Is not this the fast I desire—to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;

To help the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?”


And, we must protect hopefulness:

“Then shall your light burst forth like the dawn..

And then when you call, Adonai will answer,

And, when you cry, God will respond, ‘Hineini,’ ‘I am here.’”


As some of you know, I went to Columbia, South Carolina to be among the almost 200 rabbis who spent a day walking in America’s Journey for Justice with the NAACP, a 40-day march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC.   While it was inspiring to walk that day with marchers, I did not go down there to have an inspiring experience.  I went down there that day because I held onto the hope that I would continue this journey for justice with you, my Temple Sholom community when I returned.


This will be a year of listening to stories that changes us, both locally and nationally.  As a congregation, we will read Just Mercy, discuss it together in November, listen to the author Bryan Stevenson when he addresses us on January 8, and then break bread together with him and others in our community.


This will be a year of getting proximate to the issues and activists involved in racial justice locally.  During the year, we will attend and host actions with organizations including Worker Center for Racial Justice, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Ada S. McKinnely, and One Northside.  If you would like to get more involved with helping to organize these efforts, please get more proximate with me or one of our Sholom Justice chairs: Matty Major or Marla Gross.


While engaging in this work, we will have to choose to do uncomfortable things, yet let us protect our hopefulness that through these actions real change can and will happen, as Martin Luther King Jr. long ago encouraged: “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”


When I marched in South Carolina, it was during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month which precedes Rosh Hashanah and is marked by blowing the shofar each morning.  For the morning that I marched, I packed a shofar that Eli and Ben had picked out in Israel—somehow, in some way I wanted to bring them with me on this march.  Just before we began marching that morning , I blew the shofar.

With that blast, I committed myself to continuing this march beyond South Carolina and Washington, DC into our great yet broken city of Chicago.

With that blast, I had hope because I knew I would not march alone, that on this journey for justice in Chicago, I would march with many of you.

With that blast, I had faith that you would help me to show my own children a model of listening to voices that cry out for justice and responding to those cries.


Today, at the end of Nielah, with our ark open and our break-fasts close at hand—we will hear the shofar blast one more time…  A long tekiah gedolah…

As we do so, may we pledge to hear the stories of injustice in our country and our city that cry out like a shofar.

And may we have the wisdom with God’s guidance to listen and take action.

Ken y’hi ratzon—may this be God’s will and our own.  Amen.

SERMON ANTHEM (the song that followed the sermon)

Make Them Hear You (from Ragtime—Lyrics slightly changed)

Sung by Cornelius Johnson


Go out and tell our story.
Let it echo far and wide.
Make them hear you,
Make them hear you.

How justice was our battle
And how justice was denied.
Make them hear you,
Make them hear you.

And say to those who blame us
For the way we chose to fight
That sometimes there are battles
That are more than black or white…
And I could not put down my sword
When justice was my right.
Make them hear you.
Go out and tell our story
To your daughters and your sons.
Make them hear you,
Make them hear you.


And tell them, in our struggle,
We were not the only ones.
Make them hear you,
Make them hear you.
Your sword can be a sermon
Or the power of the pen.
Teach all God’s kin to raise their voices,
Then, brothers, sisters, then
Will justice be demanded
And achieved here in the end.
Make them hear you.
When they hear you,
God is near you,
my friends.



[1] As defined on the website: raceforward.org


[2] As defined on the website: uprootingracism.org

[3] To listen to this story and others from episode 547 of This American Life entitled, “Cops See It Differently, Part One” go to  http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/547/cops-see-it-differently-part-one


[4] Conlon, Edward. “The Racial Reality of Policing.”  The Wall  Street Journal 5-6 Sept. 2015.

[5] Rich, Motoko. “School Data Finds Pattern of Inequality Along Racial Lines.” The New York Times 21 March 2014.


[6] Data gathered from the 2013 Federal Reserve Board’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances cited at http://inequality.org/racial-inequality/.

[8] These are excerpts from a creative Al Chet on racial justice written by Rabbis Jessica Oleon Kirshner and Joel Simonds.  Their whole AlChet can be found at http://ccarnet.org/media/cms_page_media/2553/ROR%20HHD%20Resources-%20Al%20Chet.pdf