“That’s Just the Way Things Are Here” (Tzedek on our Island)

 

“That’s just the way things are here.”

I heard this phrase a lot last year, even before I moved down.  And then I heard it even more when I started to call the Governor, the senators, the congresswoman; when I visited the schools, visited the shelters, spoke to the clergy, spoke to the attorneys, and spoke to my congregants.  Our school buildings are dilapidated, with water coming down into buckets when it rains, and we have to fly in teachers from the Philippines, but at least the Governor has luxurious sheets on his bed.

“That’s just the way things are here.”

Over there is a group of houses, meant to be low-income housing for our residents, but due to corruption and bad management, it’s mostly unoccupied and falling apart.

“That’s just the way things are here.”

Isn’t our library beautiful? Of course it isn’t open on weekends, or after 5:00, and you should know that a number of those involved in its creation are in jail or on trial for corruption and fraud.

“That’s just the way things are here.”

There was another shooting down by the gas station this morning at 3am, gang-related, and a teenager was killed.

“That’s just the way things are here.”

Since becoming the Rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, I have encountered a number of roadblocks to progress. Some were roadblocks were due to construction, others to unfinished projects, and others to corruption. But the most frequent roadblock I’ve come across is that infuriating phrase, those seven little words: That’s just the way things are here. I must admit, it’s been a challenging phrase to get used to. Before moving to St. Thomas, I’d never really heard it used before, and certainly never so often.  To be fair, the phrase comes in many other forms, and you’ve all heard them: “Yeah, that’s not going to happen, not as long as so-in-so is in charge,” or “you’re thinking about this too logically, this is the Virgin Islands,” and, of course, my favorite, “that’s how it’s always been done.”

Here in St. Thomas, “That’s just the way things are here,” is a phrase that we’ve come to learn to say to ourselves when we open the Daily News and read about government money mismanagement, or when we encounter high prices and spoilage at the supermarket, or when we talk about our disproportionately high gun violence rate. Most tragically, it seems to me to have become the phrase we say aloud when someone well-meaningly stands up and says things need to change.

But what does this phrase really mean? The danger of a phrase becoming so prolific in a people’s cultural repertoire is that they say it so often that they miss its true ramifications. Yes, it’s easy to say and sure, it rolls off the tongue and everyone chuckles.  It’s said by the locals; it’s said by those who have been here for years.  It’s said with condescension to the naive newcomers, the off-islanders, the mainlanders, the tourists who don’t quite get it.   “That’s just the way things are here” means, essentially, you’re not going to change anything, so don’t even bother trying. But what does it truly mean? What are you really saying? Not “silly newcomer, why don’t you slow down and get to know us first” or “naïve tourist, you could never rough it here full time.” What it truly means is that poverty, corruption, poor education, murder, theft, dishonesty, racial divide, poor infrastructure, and debt have simply been accepted as part of the charm of the Virgin Islands.

When you say “That’s just the way things are here,” what you are expressing is a resignation of the current state of affairs in the Virgin Islands, an acceptance of the Virgin Islands as simply a place to survive.  As a community, that has its own consequences, but the true challenge is that those sentiments directly contradict American Jewish thought.  Anyone who sat with me during our Elul Study Sessions regarding Medieval Jewish History knows that for centuries Jews were truly at the mercy of whomever was in power where we dwelled in the Diaspora: the Romans, the Visigoths, the Muslims, the Christians.  We had little to no influence over governmental affairs, and when we did rise to power to help make change, it was short lived.  Prayers have been created in our liturgy, special prayers “for the welfare of the Government.”  These prayers, according to historian Jonathan Sarna, “stand out as expressions of minority group insecurity.  In one case, for example, Jews added to their prayers a special plea for ‘all of the Muslims who live in our country.’ Another Jewish prayer book contains a special blessing for the welfare of the Pope.”[1]  Yosef Hayim Yerushalami observed that during Medieval Christian Europe, “the Jews inevitably, yet unwillingly, allied themselves to the Crown as the best, and ultimately, the only guarantor of stability and security.”[2] In other words, we had no choice but to resign ourselves to the wills of others. Back then, accepting that “That’s just the way things are here” was truly a question of life or death.

However, this idea that we were powerless to influence, and should simply keep our mouths shut and pray for protection, ended abruptly when Jews found themselves in the land of the free, the United States of America. For example, in this country, George Washington wrote to the Touro Synagogue that they now lived in a place that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”[3] Thus, no longer in danger of pogroms or government-sponsored violence, at least in America, American Jewry did what it had never been able to do before.  We stopped simply praying for the country we lived in to get better and we started doing something to make it better.

Likewise, since our Jewish arrival to the Virgin Islands in the 17th century, we have lived with the freedom to worship, to own property, to serve in government offices and on boards, to gain membership to clubs, everything.  The first governor of the Virgin Islands was Gabriel Milan, a Jew sent by the King of Denmark to be governor in 1664.  He would be the first of three Jews who served as governors here, including after America’s purchase of the Virgin Islands in 1917.  This island, like the US mainland, was different.  We no longer had to put our heads in the sand and hope for survival.  Our prophetic call for justice, equality, and peace became front and center, as I spoke about last week at Rosh Hashanah.  In other words, we couldn’t accept the world simply as it was anymore.  We had the power to change it.  And here, in the Virgin Islands, we’ve got to change it.

Of course, the problems that face Virgin Islanders are complex, and solutions aren’t easy. Still, we must start somewhere. In speaking to clergy who sit on the Interfaith Council of the Caribbean, and in speaking to local senators, business owners, and attorneys, it seems that we all agree that the overarching problem here is that there appears to be an inherent lack of appreciation for life. The value of life and for life just isn’t there. As you might imagine, this then leads to gang-related shootings wherein one person will shoot another because of where they walked, or in retribution for something they did not have anything to do with, or because of association with a certain group.  Life is taken.  You can ask the attorneys who represent these young men who have murdered; they have, often, no understanding of the weight of what they have done.  They have taken a life from the earth.  They placed no value on it and seem genuinely surprised when they learn they will probably spend the rest of their life in prison because of it.

You don’t have to look far to understand where this attitude stems from. Too many of the young people growing up here do not see opportunity or success available to them in their future. Their parents struggle to find work, or work two, three, even four jobs and are still just barely getting by. Their teachers are burdened with unmanageable workloads and too little pay. College, their only ticket out, seems unattainable and unaffordable. It is a cycle of poverty seen across America, but made extreme on an island with no roads elsewhere. How do you value life when it feels that there is little in your future worth living for?

I can see many of you squirming uncomfortably in your seats. You may be quick to think to yourself that I am painting an extreme picture. That there are plenty of people here who succeed, who love and value life, who are the very opposite of what I describe. And yes, I too know those people. But the truth is, for too many of our young people, what I have just described is their reality. And let me say, if this was the reality for just one person, it would be one person too many. And here, it is the reality of too many to count.

As Jews, we should see this situation as unacceptable. For us, there are few things more important than the immense inherent value we place on human life.  One of Judaism’s central themes is that we are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God.  Each one of us carries within us a spark of the Divine, meaning that no matter what race, what religion, what culture, each one of us shares something in common with the other.  A small spark leftover from creation.  Human life is so precious that the rabbis compared it to a universe in the Talmud, “He who saves one life…is as if he saves an entire universe.  He who destroys a life…is as if he destroys an entire universe.”[4]

People like to gloss over the commandment in the Torah, from the ten commandments, “Thou Shalt not Murder,” thinking it is pretty clear and simple. Of course I shouldn’t kill anyone.  But within this commandment is an idea more complex than the evils of murder. It is really about the sacredness of life.  In Judaism, the value of life is so high, in fact, that the rabbis created the term pikuach nefesh wherein when the life of any person is in danger, the mitzvoth, the laws in the Torah, can and should be completely disregarded.  For example, if there is a fire in a home on the Sabbath, you better believe you can pick up the phone and call 911, or pick up an ax to go break down that door. Or, for an example that likely hits closer to home, if you are sick or have a condition, you should not fast on Yom Kippur.  Why? Because life is more important than the commandments.  Life is more important than the rules.  Life is more important than tradition.

And this understanding has carried itself to modern Judaism, to Reform Judaism.  And herein lies our charge.  People are dying.  Kids are dying.  Not from old age, not from incurable illness. They are dying from gunshots, and stab wounds. They are dying from poor health care and inadequate health facilities. They are dying because there are, apparently, more important things than life here on this little island: money, power, control, apathy, resignation, and acceptance.

“That’s just the way things are here,” is not the call of any twenty-first century Jew.  No, ours is another call that we must understand, a call from Isaiah 49:6: “For God has said: ‘It is too little a task that you should be only My servant, in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will also make you a light to the nations, so that My support may reach the ends of the earth.”  This is our call.  It is not enough for us to only care for Jews, for each other.  God has made us a light to shine upon the nations, to better the entire world, and spread support, spread goodness, acts of kindness, education, and peace to the ends of the earth.  In saying that “That’s just the way things are here,” we ignore that call.  In thinking we work only internally to better the synagogue and the congregation, we go against our charge as Jews.  We have the ability here to lead by example, to reach out and teach: we must show our young people the value of life; we must shine that light upon the downtrodden, the lost, the confused.  Show them our understanding of b’zelem Elohim, of pikuach nefesh.  We must start talking and we must start doing. But most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, in this year of 5777, whenever we hear those words, “that’s just the way things are here,” we must speak loudly, clearly, and assertively in response:

“Not for long.”

 

 

 

[1]http://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/sarna/americanjewishcultureandscholarship/Archive/JewishPrayersfortheUnitedStatesGovernment.pdf

[2] Ibid

[3] http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter

[4] Talmud – Sanhedrin 4:5

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