Dear TEE community,
Over the summer, I attended an online conference sponsored by Bend the Arc Jewish Action. The session that made the most impression on me was about the Jewish community and reparations to African Americans. It was led by a young man who discussed the difference between the two sides of his family. On his mother’s side, he descended from Holocaust survivors while on his father’s side, his ancestors were enslaved African Americans. The reparation payments his mother’s family received allowed them to escape poverty and start a small family business. Like many Jewish immigrants they were able to become middle class and their children became professionals. In contrast, his Black family members remained impoverished, disadvantaged by restrictions on housing, education, and employment as well as economic impairments.
Listening to the speaker, I realized that the American Jewish community has an important story to tell about the significance of reparations, both as a practical response to the need for restoration and as a public acknowledgement of the profound harm done. Jewish tradition supports the concept of reparations in several ways.
In last week’s Torah portion we read a passage in which God tells Abraham that his descendants “will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” but that “in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” (Genesis 15:13-14) Later, Exodus recounts that before the enslaved Israelites left Egypt, God made the Egyptians favorably disposed to them so that the Israelites could take away all the Egyptians’ valuables. Later rabbinic commentators asked about the purpose of this and suggested that the Egyptian wealth was in payment for the Israelites’ slave labor. In other words, they were reparations payments.
An extraordinary passage in the Talmud discusses reparations in a different way:
With regard to this, the Sages taught…If one robbed another of a beam and built it into a building, Beit Shammai say: They must destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners. Beit Hillel say: The injured party receives only the value of the beam but not the beam itself, due to an ordinance instituted for the sake of the penitent. (In order to encourage repentance, the Sages were lenient and required the robber to return only the value of the beam.) The mishna was taught in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel. (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55a}
The final decision of the rabbis recognizes that we can’t tear down the house — we can’t undo history and take apart the institutions created through slavery. But that doesn’t excuse us from the obligation to compensate the person from whom something was stolen, whether Jewish ancestors in Egypt or African American ones today.
On November 15th our community will have a chance to explore our perspectives on reparations with Rochester City Councilmember Mitch Gruber. A couple months ago, Mitch published an article asking Rochester Jews to consider our specific history in relationship to this issue (). Our Temple Elul class read this article and decided they would like to learn more about local reparations efforts. We hope this program will be the beginning of a longer process of engagement by members of the class, our Tikkun Olam Team and anyone else in the community who is interested. Please join us for this important conversation.
Be well / Zei gezunt / Sano,
Rabbi Drorah Setel
Some additional resources;
I recommend reading this article which has been extremely influential in national discussions of reparations: Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,”
An excellent summary of relevant Jewish sources related to reparations: Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, “The Torah Case for Reparations,”