Look folks. I’ll get right to the point.

Dr. King fought against race prejudice and Jim Crow segregation, right?

So why do so many of us American Jews pretend as though we’re really committed to his work? Isn’t racial segregation still the ‘in-house’ policy of American Judaism?

Black Jewish congregations have existed in the New World for no less than two hundred and fifty years. Now let that sink in for a moment. Over two hundred years. Yet any fair and honest observer will admit that even American Protestants have made more progress in intra-religious race relations than American Jews. (And that’s no small claim, given that the KKK embraces a Protestant Christian orientation!) At least American Protestants admit that black churches and white churches are indeed “Christian” churches. White Jewish organizations, however, often have difficulties admitting or acknowledging the mere existence of black Jewish organizations as “Jewish” in the first place. Many white Jewish rabbis, educators and community leaders have never set one foot into a black synagogue or learned about black jewish organizations, and many of our community’s predominantly white institutions function to the complete exclusion of their black counterparts.

American Judaism’s racial segregation, a segregation in such full force and willful perpetuation that I must occasionally argue that its black underside even exists, stands as a continual reminder of American Judaism’s inability to live out the meaning of Dr. King’s dream of human equality and interracial harmony.

FACT: American Judaism is more racially segregated today, in the 21st century, in the year 2009, than it was during all the antebellum centuries of New World slavery.

Today… in the 21st century… in year 2009…

Demographic research on American Jewry still systematically excludes the vast majority of Jews of African descent.

Today… in the 21st century… in year 2009…

Historical scholarship on Judaism still systematically neglects and almost completely ignores the cultural and religious contributions of African-American Jews to American Judaism.

Today… in the 21st century… in year 2009…

Rabbinical councils and other Jewish leadership organizations remain racially segregated, and many Jewish professional organizations still cater only to Jews of European descent.

Today… in the 21st century… in year 2009…

American Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools still overwhelmingly teach Ashkenazi-centered and European-centered versions of Jewish history and culture, sometimes even to the complete exclusion of Afro-Asian Jews from students and faculty personnel.

Today… in the 21st century… in year 2009…

There still exists vast, visible and complex socioeconomic disparities between white and non-white American Jews.

And as a result, today…

An ecumenical, religiously inclusive and vibrantly multiracial American Judaism still stands as only a distant possibility.

By simply mentioning these few issues, we have only begun to scratch the surface of talking about American Jewish race relations.

But Dr. King understood that mere talk about racism has never amounted to a fight against racism.

What would Dr. King make of this situation, were he here to witness how his dream has unfolded in Jewish America?

What do you think he would say?

“Yes, my Jewish brother! Yes, my Jewish sister! It’s easy to talk about Ethiopian Jews’ struggles against racism in Israel, but how often do you talk about Black American Jews’ or Asian American Jews’ struggles against racism at your local JCC, or the local synagogue, or the local Jewish day school?

Yes, it’s convenient to talk about how Rabbi Heschel marched hand-in-hand with me during the Freedom Movement.

But how often do Ashkenazi rabbis march hand-in-hand with African-American rabbis on your own local rabbinical councils… or how often do Euro-American synagogues worship hand-in-hand or side-by-side with African-American synagogues? How can it be that hundreds of Black Jewish congregations (including the ones in your own home town) go unnoticed, unsupported and virtually neglected by your white Jewish organizations year after year after year? How is this anything but religiously sanctioned, Jewish Jim Crowism?”

If Dr. King uttered these questions, how would we respond?

Look, during this time of reflection, let us not as American Jews deceive ourselves. Let us no be quick to dismiss racism’s influence because we ourselves are too afraid to admit its role in our own lives.

Instead, we need to be honest about the racial apartheid practiced right here in American Jewish society.

Challenging the injustice of racial segregation in our own community is what provides us with the moral courage to challenge injustices in other communities– not the other way around.

And so this year, as we once again mark the importance of Dr. King’s legacy, the challenge for us to return to our own Jewish spheres of influence, with our own struggles with race prejudice, presses itself upon us. This time in a renewed commitment to the struggle for racial equality right here in our communities of American Judaism.

This is not a task from which we can always run. History will ultimately bring us our day of racial reckoning. And in the meantime, when we think about the precious memory of the Civil Rights Struggle, though a part of us may still not want to believe it, let’s at least have enough moral courage to admit the obvious: American Judaism–much like many other American religious traditions–is deeply, deeply racist.

And in all probability, it will be so for a long, long time.

If you want to honor the memory of Dr. King, and like me, you’re proud of your American Jewish roots, let’s start realizing his dream by being honest about how far we’ve fallen short in achieving it.