Ben Bag-Bag and #BlackLivesMatter

Ben Bag-Bag was a rabbinic sage and disciple of Rabbi Hillel. Aside from a single adage quoted at the end of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) Chapter 5, he is not mentioned. There he says:

 Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.
Reflect on it and grow old and graywith it.
Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה

Today, I was sitting and participating in an interfaith dialogue program with Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (I am a local chapter member and participate nationally).  Today’s topic was comparing Revelation stories and observances between the two faith traditions. A few weeks ago in my local chapter, I learned and wrote about the deep similarities.  During today’s workshop, we broke into small (Zoom) groups and shared stories of our own experiences with Revelation, these holy days, our sacred texts, etc.

I decided to share about Ben Bag-Bag, and how that each time we encounter a piece of Torah or other Jewish texts, we are challenged to learn something new, to apply it in new ways, come to a new understanding, investigate it further for deeper meanings, find links from it to other traditional or modern texts.  I shared that even one short line of Torah can lead to new learning each time we encounter it because WE are different, our lenses and experiences change every day – even if we aren’t fully cognizant of it.  Each time we do this new REVEALS (revelations) occur.

So as I sit here tonight, not teaching on Shavuot for the first time in many years (quite thankful to not be teaching at 3 a.m.!), I decided that I actually can teach on Shavuot – this time via my blog.  Some may not get to this “learning” until after the Chag (two-day holiday) and for some it might be the only learning they engage in on Shavuot.  It’s all welcome!

So, what does my understanding and appreciation of Ben Bag-Bag
have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?  


I’ve always considered myself to be a friend (and later an ally) to PoC (People of Color).  I grew up in a neighborhood that some may call the “rainbow coalition.”  Hispanic family two doors down, Jewish neighbors (some related to us) sprinkled about, Asian families, Black families, White Christian families of every denomination, Indian families … and almost all of the kids went to the same local elementary school, most of us played together in the streets (remember when that was a thing) or up on the nearby sideway easement.  We understood our holidays may be different, and our skin colors different, our accents different, our favorite family meals different, but we were the same – a bunch of kids growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri – playing ball, jump rope, tag, riding bikes, catching fireflies, playing in sprinklers.  We went to each other’s birthday parties and our parents exchanged advice and recipes. It didn’t even occur to me until I went away to college in Des Moines, IA that there were people my age who had NEVER met a person who wasn’t just like them (My own roommate was a devout Mormon from Utah who said she’d never met a Jew). Dorm mates admitted that they had never shared a meal with a PoC much less a living space, never met an immigrant, never had friends of different religions. I could not even wrap my head around the fact that this existed in the US.

If I had seen #BlackLivesMatter as a child – what would I have learned and understood?  Based on my upbringing I would might have thought:  “You invite Black people (all people) to eat with you, to play with you, to learn with you at school.”

If I had seen #BlackLivesMatter as a college student – what would I have learned and understood?  What would that new Revelation be?  Perhaps it would be a bit sarcastic:  “Wake up isolated small-town White Christian folks, there’s much more to the world than you have been exposed to, time to get on an airplane and get some culture and reality into your system!”

As a Jewish communal professional, I think #BlackLivesMatter has revealed itself to me many times as I have explained in my last blog post: “SEEING, ELEVATING, COUNTING, INCLUDING, REPRESENTING Jews of Color (aka “Be an Ally”).”  It’s about all the learning I have done, the eye-opening and heart-opening to Jews of Color in my community.

These last few weeks in the USA have been particularly horrific as it relates to #BlackLivesMatter. From White Nationalists basically indicating slavery is okay but masks muzzleswearing facemasks during Coronavirus is violating their rights – to the release of the video of Ahmaud Arbery being HUNTED AND MURDERED in my own state (and law enforcement ignoring it until the video was released) – to a White woman calling 911 on a Black man named Christian Cooper, who simply asked her to put her dog on a leash (which was the law) – to a crew of Minneapolis police officers killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck (or standing idly by while their colleague did it).  Sadly, this isn’t rare.  It’s not Screenshot 2020-05-28 20.50.35new.  It’s just that more and more people are filming these things and the public now has a first-hand view at the on-going violence against Black people.  So what to learn from this round of #BlackLivesMatter (and all that has been revealed since the movement was formed in July 2013)? Screenshot 2020-05-28 20.51.25That each and every one of us has an obligation to stand up, to teach, to speak out, to protest (peacefully), to challenge authority, to vote, to lobby, to be vocal, to condemn.  We can’t just turn on the news, see someone dying in front of our eyes, shake our head, and then turn it off and do nothing. It isn’t acceptable to stand idly by – it never was.

This past year, as part of my dissertation work, I asked the teen participants about their experience with antiSemitism (aka JewHatred) and I also engaged the teens I taught this year on Sundays at a local Reform congregation in the same discussion.  For my Confirmation teens, I showed them excerpts of the movie The Hate U Give and we talked The hate u giveabout issues threaded through the movie about racism and correlations to issues of antiSemitism.  Issues of standing up and speaking out for those that can’t speak for themselves. Issues of bias and bullying. Issues of people feeling threatened by “other.”  Issues of insiders and outsiders.  As a result of these conversations with my Jewish teens this year and research into the role of allies in Gay-Straight-Alliances and other minority partnerships,
I made a recommendation in my dissertation about engaging non-Jewish peer allies in Screenshot 2020-05-28 20.39.15trainings to fight antiSemitism. The basic idea being that Jewish teens invite several non-Jewish friends to join them in professionally run workshops about the impact, threat and danger of antiSemitism (from jokes to swastikas), and how to stand up and shut it down.  


But this week’s #BlackLivesMatter a-ha revelation, is that we need to do the same kind of peer ally training for Black children and teens. We cannot let another generation of White Privilege and White Pride emerge.  As communities, congregations, neighborhoods, and families, we need to organize and sponsor multi-racial experiences where PoC invite White peers to join them in ally training: where White children and teens learn alongside their peers of color to shut down jokes, stereotypes, biases, and bullying; where they learn how to speak up to their older siblings, their parents and grandparents, their neighbors, their faith leaders, their teachers, and yes, to their peers.  Black and other non-White children and teens need to know that their White friends will stand with them and will speak out with them.

For me, my Shavuot #BlackLivesMatter revelation is that I need to start take responsibility and action by reaching out to organizations like the ADL to see if they would partner with me to do this.  Maybe first hosting one in my neighborhood (which is also the “rainbow coalition”) where a lot of children and teens live, most of whom I have never met.  Perhaps I will need to wait until it’s safe for us all to be in a room together in order to launch this concept, but the groundwork could be set over the coming months. It’s on ME to start making a difference in Black Lives.  A real tangible, hands-on difference.

Prior to this week, to this new revelation, I would have continued to teach my ADL Pyramid of Hatepredominantly White Jewish teens to stand up to bias and bullying of all kinds.  I would have taught them about the ADL Pyramid of Hate and how jokes and stereotypes are the foundation of violence.  But it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I – a professional Jew – should offer programs for Black children and teens and their non-Black peers (Jewish or not!).



P.S.  This is why “Black” and “White” are capitalized throughout.











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