Temple Israel rabbi: ‘How do you deal with your own implicit bias and racism?’

Marcia Zimmerman
Marcia Zimmerman

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Marcia Zimmerman, rabbi, Temple Israel 

I feel like it’s been a lifetime since we spoke a couple weeks ago. We’re at the epicenter of chaos and a lot of pain. It has changed the world. When you’re right at the epicenter of it, you have a lot of people in trauma and a lot of very strong emotions, and little ability to step back for a moment, so it’s hard. 

We’ve been talking and working at this for a while, but it feels like movements need to happen much faster. When there’s an event such as the death of George Floyd, emotions and wanting it to happen yesterday feels more important. It’s knowing we’re doing the right thing and continuing to do that work and accelerating that work as best we can. 

How do you deal with your own implicit bias and racism? Someone smart said “just slow it down.” We react to things based on our assumptions, and those assumptions are given to us by the society we live in, so we have to slow things down and question those assumptions.  

As white people, we don’t want to perpetuate racism and we often don’t think we are, but we have to be aware of our reality in the world. There’s an old book by psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum that uses a lovely image of a moving sidewalk, which represents the racial understanding of society. Some people are running toward the end of racism, some are running to perpetuate racism. Most of us are on the moving sidewalk but are unaware of it and not doing anything to counteract it. What you have to do is turn around and work against the messages we’re getting, work against the assumptions we’ve been brought up with, work against the racial inequity in our world. I often say we will meet the people we want to be in partnership with on the other side. We won’t meet the people we want to partner with on that sidewalk. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel said this about the Holocaust, and I say it about today: “Some are guilty but all are responsible.” Some are guilty of putting their knee on a man’s neck and taking the life out of him, but we are all responsible, so what are we responsible to do?  

The normal thing I’d be doing is to be down there with clergy I know who are protesting, but I’ve been doing a lot of funerals lately, largely driven by COVID. Yet the temple has been involved; our clergy have been there. 

The temple was not hit by any of the damage on Hennepin Avenue. The neighborhood watch looked after the temple and it was really lovely. We got to know our neighbors better, and that’s exactly the type of security that’s so important. Having neighbors know each other and watch for each other and be a first level of security is so important.  

It’s so interesting because we need to talk about public safety but also emergency response. Perhaps we need a new way of looking at each of those realities in our community that is more effective than what has been the case up until now. It’s in our hands. It’s not, “Let’s wait and see.” It’s, “Get ourselves going and figure out what we ought to do.” We’ve been doing the work, but there’s so much more work to do. It’s not anyone else’s problem — it’s not one call to an emergency. Who is the best to approach a mental health situation, a domestic violence situation, a suicide situatuon? Let’s develop a more community-based response to emergency and security. 

COVID isn’t disconnected from what happened in our city with George Floyd.

For me, deciding when to open up the temple, is a question of has anything changed in terms of increase of exposures, hospitalizations, ICU use and the number of people suffering from COVID-19 daily. I’ve been watching those numbers and I don’t really see a change. I see increases in infection and exposure continue to go up. 

To me, the question is what does that mean as far as putting people at risk and what do we need to do to take care of communal health? These are real questions. Do we not want anyone to be exposed to COVID-19 and do we do everything in our power to not let that happen? Do we open up because it seems like the medical world is prepared to handle it, so if people are exposed we know they’ll be able to be treated? What is our responsibility as religious leaders? There might be a variety of reasons why there is opening up that doesn’t really speak to the question of what is our responsibility to the community. 

I want to get back in person so fast. For my community, I want to be back together as soon as we can, but I don’t see anything changing in the increase in infection rate. I see a change in human desire and human want. We were talking about two weeks of constant decline in infection rates for us to talk about opening. We can’t ever promise that nobody is going to get sick at temple. You come to temple, you might pick up something. The problem is COVID-19 has unpredictable impacts on people. No one understands this virus — that’s what makes it different from a typical cold or someone coming in with a cough or fever. Perfectly healthy people have died of COVID-19. I’ve done 22 funerals since mid-March to today, and at least half of them are COVID positive. 

We are doing a survey with our congregants to ask if people would come back before a vaccine or a treatment; let’s survey and see where our congregants stand on all this.


 You can read all of the stories here.