A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.
This past Sunday morning, I had the honor of speaking at John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in DC. John Wesley AME Zion, an historic African American church known as the National Church of Zion Methodism. It was founded in 1849 and has been a vibrant spiritual center in northwest DC ever since. I was invited to speak about antisemitism, the recent acts of violence targeting the Jewish community, and what John Wesley members could do to help.
I shared the opening lines from this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. This text is central to the Jewish story and the Black story in this country and is a core text for many oppressed people. Cycles of fear and oppression, creating false information about a group of people as ways to dehumanize them and justify so many atrocities throughout history. The story of the Israelites enslavement resonates for Jewish people throughout history, especially in times of rising antisemitism. The political and socioeconomic atmosphere around the world has shifted and Jews are the first scapegoats when this happens.
The congregation responded with care and concern, because they knew that pain as well. After the service, a woman walked over to me and clasped my hands with a surprisingly tight grip. She looked in my eyes and said, “I am 94 years old. I’ve seen so much of this in my life and I can’t believe it is still happening. I hoped I’d see the end of this violence in my lifetime, but with the way things are going, I don’t think that will happen.” Her words were meant to empathize with the Jewish community but stretch far beyond one group of people.
It is not enough for our communities to hear of each other’s pain. We can and must be present for each other, but we also need to plan for the future. When Pharaoh decreed that all male Israelite babies be killed, the midwives saved the babies and ensured a future for the Israelites. They knew that without the next generation, there was no hope.
I am hopeful about the relationship between the Jewish community and the Black community because I also met the teens of John Wesley. I heard young men and women share their faith and demonstrate that the morals and ethics of a holy community are important parts of their lives. I thought about the Jewish teens who participate in JCRC’s Student to Student program and their impassioned words about their faith, how they combat antisemitism, and their dedication to sharing Judaism with others. Maybe, if these teens can meet and talk and learn about each other and understand the similarities in their experiences, the seeds of change can begin to take root. As the congregation at John Wesley loudly proclaimed, “Amen!”