If Not Now, When?

Reposted from the blog, The Jew and The 5 Carats, written by RG member and leader Margot Seigle.
Transcript from speech at Hazon’s If Not Now Benefit April 1st, 2014 at the Brooklyn Green Building.
ifnotnowBefore I begin, I want to express some gratitude to my community.
To James for being such a crucial part of my growth over the few years, and for standing along side me on the path to this point. To the Resource Generation community for consistently challenging me while loving me right where I’m at.
To my GOLES family for taking me in and teaching me most everything I know about organizing and struggle.
To the Freedman community for giving me space to explore myself, be my full loud self, with loving care and kindness and an unyielding commitment to craft nights, singing whenever and wherever, and pre shabbos mikvahs.
To my radical jew chèvre for being the foundation on which I stand.
To my parents instilling in me a relentless pursuit of justice. To my brother Joel for joining me in our commitment to growing an interdependent and loving relationship.
To my ancestors – my grandma Lora who, realizing that having wealth no longer meant safety, paved the way to survival for her family by fleeing Germany on her own in 1946, at the age of 17.
To my great grandpa, who, valuing the importance of holding on to Jewish tradition and community, started the synagogue of my childhood where my parents met.
To my grandpa Harold and later my father and uncle Harry for working their asses off to build a safety net for our family.
To my grandpa Herb who taught me the value of gardening and building community.
To my grandma Cyril who taught me a deep sense of generosity, the importance of family, and to speak slowly.  Hopefully I will not let her down tonight.
To those who paved the way, who have fought, prayed and died for me to be here, my deepest gratitude.
Over the past year and a half, Isabella Freedman and the Adamah program have had a profound impact on my life, so it is with great honor that I stand before you today.  I want to share a little story with you that I think gets to the core of how this community has shifted, or as we say at Hazon, transformed, my ability to answer the question, “if not now, when”.
Last month I traveled to New Mexico to visit my long time friend and comrade Joaquin.  I arrive just after dinner and join him and an intergenerational mix of members of his chicano community around the kitchen table.  All eyes are on Helga, an elder of the community, as she explains the importance of feminine energy within their tradition.  I notice myself adjusting to try and fit in, attempting to hide the fact that yet again, I’m the akward gringa in the room.  Not having a culture I felt proud to share while also wanting desperately to hide my privilege, blending in had seemed an effective method of immersing myself in various close knit latino communities throughout the western hemisphere over the last decade.  But this time feels different.  I take a deep breath, as I am now decently practiced in after months of morning breathing practices I learned through Adamah, and instead of disappearing, try to stay with my own experience.
I stay mostly quiet, but remain present in the banter around the kitchen table. Soon, instruments appear and Helga and her husband Jose, lead the group in a series of conchero songs.  Built on the back of an armadillo shell, the concha pronounces a beautiful full sound, which, along with their voices, is entirely mesmerizing.  As I watch and listen, I am reminded of the Friday prior when those of us remaining from shabbat dinner sang around the table, known as a tish in Jewish tradition, in Chestnut, known as brown house in Freedman tradition.
Over the following days, they continue to share stories and traditions, and little by little, so do I.  As part of a grupo, they come together based on the Aztec calendar to practice agricultural ceremonies called danzas.  Jose Luis, a 28-year-old farmer and organizer in the community explains their commitment to the practice after gaining an understanding of its spiritual importance. “We’re echoing the vibrations of our ancestors,” he tells me.  I think back to a day over a year ago when I sat down with a dear friend at Isabella Freedman to ask her why she studies Torah.  “It is my right that has been taken from me,” she said, “and it is also my obligation to carry down the traditions that have been held by my ancestors for so long.”
Thanks to deep immersion in to Jewish practices at Freedman, I am now coming from a place I feel proud of, somewhere that grounds me in my own indigenous traditions.  Finally, I don’t have to pretend to blend in.  Instead, I can bring my full self: my culture, my stories, my history, and my struggle.   And the more I bring me, the more I see similarities between us, between our cultures, and the closer and more connected I feel.
This closeness also magnifies the pain of the ways we are also very different: that while I am in great health thanks to time for self care and access to health care, Jose is going in for cancer surgery the following day and struggling to cover the costs; that while I have abundant access to organic food, they are unable to afford good quality produce after a bug destroyed much of their crop last month; that while Joaquin and I are both from the Chicago area with a history of migration not far behind us, my family, like many Ashkenazi Jewish families, has assimilated and little by little risen on the economic ladder, while his family, like many latino families, struggling with migration status and facing the impacts of institutional racism, remains in a state of poverty. By reasons completely out of both of our control, I have access to abundance of resources and he is in five figure debt.
As I plant corn three kernels at a time as per tradition with Jose Luis in my final hour in town, I am struck with a powerful sense of safety and belonging.  And I know in that moment that the future of my community, of Jews, is deeply interconnected with the future of Joaquin’s community, of chicanos, and of all communities whose people have been targeted, persecuted, and robbed of their culture.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?,” asks Hillel. This past year and a half I have really taken on this question.  I have connected to my roots, engaged in body based healing modalities, and taken time for study and reflection.  Hillel continues, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”  Since returning to Freedman this fall, I have began to integrate my growth with my organizing while staying grounded in my struggle and what drives me.
But I think the equally powerful interpretation of this ancient text is speaking to us as a Jewish community on a whole.  “If we are not for Jews, who will be for us?”  To me this says, we must fight to hold on to Jewish traditions, rituals, and agricultural practices.  We must resource each other as well as our organizations and institutions. We must create greater equality amongst us, and challenge ourselves to make sacrifices in order to make that possible.  We must remember that Jews are of all races and class background, and work to build inclusive communities that reflect this diversity. We must love each other with all our complexities.
“If we are only for Jews, than what are we?”  If we are not also aligning with other communities, then what – now who but what – are we?  To me, this means learning about the struggles of people of color and working class people in our communities and doing some deep listening to figure out ways we can support them.  This means investing in Joaquin’s community and oppressed communities across the globe to grow their own food and retain their traditions.  It means standing alongside undocumented folks because similar policies criminalizing our presence foreshadowed the precipitous road to genocide. Stopping police brutality in its tracks when we see it in the streets. Fighting for the dignity and just treatment of those who clean our homes and take care of our children.  For those of us who are in a position to give, giving to struggles led by communities most impacted by injustice such as the #Not1More Deportation Campaign, a collaboration of grassroots organizations led by undocumented communities.
We must act not from a place of guilt and fear but from a place deep inside our hearts that tells us that their struggles are our struggles, and theirs ours: that there is no other option but to leverage every resource we have towards building a more just world for everyone.  And we must do this not when the time feels right, not when we are good enough allies, not when we feel safe enough to start thinking about others, but now.
Because if not now, when?