Minneapolis Up Close

This is the fourth week of the month. For Reflections Off the Bimah, the fourth week features thought leaders from throughout the Jewish world and beyond. These special posts give you the opportunity to consider important opinions you may not readily encounter. This week’s post comes from Tali Moscowitz, Beth El’s Assistant Education Director, who has been quarantining in her home town of Minneapolis since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown.

As a caucasian person, I’ve never thought  twice about being followed as I walked around a store. I’ve never worried about what might happen beyond getting a warning or a ticket if I accidentally drove too fast and got pulled over by a police officer. (Yes this did actually happen to me last summer and the officer who pulled me over was one of the police officers who works at Beth El). I don’t worry about being unfairly profiled because of the color of my skin. All of this is because of my white privilege.

White privilege is generally defined as a built in advantage that a white person holds because of the color of their skin. It is not something that is earned, but allows one to have greater access to power and resources. While the concept of white privilege has been around for decades the definition has evolved as the types of racism and bias have changed.

I grew up in a bubble filled with white privilege.  While I was unaware of it at the time, racial disparities, racism, and bias were just under the veneer of  Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minneapolis is home to several professional sports teams, Prince, z”l, and many Fortune 500 companies. However, it still has an easygoing Midwestern feel. When people learn I am from Minneapolis, they initially make fun of my accent and then quickly share that they hear the Minneapolis area is one of the nicest areas of the country to live.

I’ve begun to question how nice Minneapolis is over the last month. There is a long, closeted history of some of the worst racial inequalities and disparities in the nation in Minneapolis. Most people have been surprised to learn this.

I returned to Minnesota in late March for a family health emergency.  I have been working remotely from my childhood home. On the morning of May 26, I was up early  for my daily yoga practice and my dad came downstairs to say that the Minneapolis area was “…about to explode.”

My dad was right. The Minneapolis area proceeded to explode as news broke that a white police officer took his knee to an unarmed black man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. While one officer stood and watched, two other officers had their knees on this man’s back. The entire episode was caught on video by a teenager. This man was George Floyd, z”l, and he was murdered by those four officers on the evening of May 25.

The city and surrounding suburbs erupted the next day. People took to the streets to demand justice. Protests initially started peacefully but quickly turned dangerous. Fires burned down restaurants and stores that hold favorite childhood memories of mine. Helicopters could be heard overhead at all hours of the night. Sounds of protests wafted  over the fence in my parents’ backyard. The grocery store and shopping mall down the street from my parents’ home was closed and boarded up. Over the next days, there were times when  all the highways were completely shut down. We had curfews starting  at 8:00 pm every evening for over a week. Many areas in both Minneapolis/St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs, experienced a food and basic necessities shortage due to looting and fires.

If you are a black person, Minneapolis might not be the “nicest” place to live. Unfortunately, there has long been tension between the Black Community and the Minneapolis Police Department that has been hidden from the country for decades (but known to those who live here). According to the Minneapolis census, black people account for 19% of the city’s population but 60% of use of force victims by the Minneapolis Police Department just in the last decade (as noted in the city’s open data site). Extreme racial disparities in Minnesota extend beyond police misconduct. A USA Today article stated that Minnesota often ranks higher on high school graduation rates, standardized tests, and college readiness. However, in 2019, Minnesota ranked 50th in the United States for the disparity between graduation rates of caucasian students versus black students. According to the American Community Survey, the average black household in the Minneapolis area earns 44% of what a white household earns. That is the second largest disparity in the entire country next to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For a city and state that ranks as one of the most livable places in the United States, it has some of the biggest racial disparities according to this Washington Post article published on May 30, 2020.

The experience of being in Minnesota during this time has felt surreal. I’ve felt powerless. I’ve wanted to protest and show my support, but the safety of my family has been a priority. Instead I’ve started signing petitions, posted on social media, engaged in conversation, and read about racism, white privilege, the history of policing in the United States, and, most importantly, the daily life experiences of black people.

This last month has been insightful, uncomfortable, educational, and eye-opening. I’ve had thought provoking conversations with colleagues, friends, and family. I’ve listened. I’ve learned. I’ve spoken to my friends of various backgrounds and learned more about how much their lives are affected by white privilege on a daily basis. I’ve reached out to police officers to share that I am interested in learning more about their training and to continue to build positive relationships with them in the Beth El and Bethesda community. My hope is that the uncomfortable and emotional yet productive conversations I have had over the last month (and plan to continue well into the future) encourage people to lean into this moment , to speak up, to grow, and to vote. I can no longer stand idly by.

As a Jewish educator, I spend much of my time discussing and contemplating Jewish values with teenagers. B’tzelem Elohim, or the value that all humans are created in the image of God, is a concept that I don’t often speak about with teens. The murder of George Floyd (and other unarmed black people over the years) has provided me with the realization that not everyone in this country values black people as being created in the image of God; rather there is still a notion held by many that black people are of lesser value to society and are not worthy of the same dignity and respect given to people who are caucasian.  Moving forward, it will be my responsibility to share, discuss, and challenge this idea with teenagers at Beth El.

I love Minneapolis. Prince, also from my hometown, founded his band The Revolution here. Hopefully a revolutionary awakening has finally started here as well.

Posted by Tali Moscowitz

Tali Moscowitz is the Assistant Education Director at Congregation Beth El

3 comments

Rhea Troffkin

An enlightening article. I, too, have thought of myself as non racist, but in light of the happenings at the moment, I have done some long and hard thinking about the degradation and fears that the Black community has suffered. I am trying to make my voice heard, sign petitions and do what I can from the confines of my home.

Jews are not Caucasian. Judaism is not just a religion but also an ethnicity in every single country in the world other then the U.S. In the French language, there are 2 separate words for a Jew, distinguishing between religious Jews and secular Jews. If you were to do one of these tests to learn about your ancestry, i.e., thorough 23 and me, your genetic make up will come back either Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jew in some percentage, depending on how much your ancestors intermarried with non-Jews. I think it’s a grave mistake for Jews to self-identify as Caucasian because Caucasian denotes white and European and we are originally from the Middle East.

Alicia Shekter

Thank you for this thoughtful article. I’m considering attending the August 28 March on Washington (with mask and gloves) – is Beth El organizing a group? Voting is a given. Beyond Maryland, do we have anyone at Beth El who knows how to help turn red states blue, especially those with lots of electoral college votes? Your article also reminded me of Reverend Al Sharpton’s eulogy for George Floyd. One part that particularly touched me was when Rev. Sharpton used Genesis 2. (Aside: verse 7, JPS Tanakh: The Lord G-d formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being). Rev. Sharpton said this means that breath comes from G-d; that breath is sanctified and sacred; and that people don’t have the right to take G-d’s breath out of anyone – people cannot put breath in their body. I agree.

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