What does a congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, have to do with a Hollywood superstar? In the aftermath of the Academy Awards spectacle, according to ethics and compliance consultant Lisa Schor Babin, they have at least one thing in common.
Several weeks ago, I took a trip with friends to the South. During our stop in Savannah, Georgia, I strolled through the city’s historical district, hearing stories of haunted houses and mysterious sightings.
In one beautifully landscaped square, our guide casually mentioned that beneath us was a burial ground with the unmarked bones of the nameless enslaved African-Americans and other indentured servants who helped build the city. Then, she regaled us with stories of the American war heroes, many of whom were slave owners, whose signs and statues commemorating them were prominent everywhere.
At the next stop, in Charleston, we also toured the city’s charming historical neighborhoods and got a sense of the deep history and the pride of its residents. Here, too, we heard tales of city landmarks built by the enslaved and indentured, with nary an eyebrow raised by our guide or the other visitors. Here again, I was caught off-guard by what seemed like casual acceptance of a historical narrative that included human slavery.
But it was the last stop of the trip that gave me goosebumps. Beside the entrance of the first reform synagogue in the U.S., Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), a plaque prominently placed at the entrance read: “This sanctuary, dedicated in 1841, replaced an earlier structure that burned in 1838. The first reform synagogue in America, it was constructed by a Jewish builder, whose workers included enslaved African-Americans. Upon the renovation and rededication of the building in 2020, KKBE rededicates itself to recognizing the errors of the past and reconciling the beliefs of our faith with our actions as we commit to spiritual growth and social justice for all.”
Finally, public acknowledgment of the darkness of acts committed against humanity. I was glad to learn that the city of Charleston issued a formal apology in 2018 for its role in the slave trade.
KKBE’s Rabbi Stephanie Alexander subsequently acknowledged the KKBE community’s part in the injustices of the past during the synagogue’s renovations, which began in 2019. “We’re being honest and transparent about what has enabled us to come together and has enabled us to come to this space. The hope is that guests will be inspired to also think about how many of the nation’s institutions are built upon the legacy of slavery. Hopefully, they’ll be inspired to do some of that soul searching,” he said.
According to one KKBE congregant, “It’s a heavy burden. We have to acknowledge it.”
Barry Stiefel, associate professor of historic preservation and community planning at the College of Charleston, said, “Serious soul searching, reflection and community building across racial and ethnic divisions will have to happen for any kind of reconciliation. … A plaque is a step forward, but we also need to focus on the full marathon that needs to be traveled toward a better future.”
In referencing his prior work at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Poland, he said, “It’s important that we, too, participate in fostering justice and reconciliation here in the United States with African-Americans and others who have endured slavery and other great acts of oppression.”
But a week after my travels, my mind returns to that building in Charleston as I watch actor Will Smith slap presenter Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. No doubt, Smith’s slap was the act of one individual, as complicated and layered as it might be, and slavery was the doing of many. But don’t both lead us to questions of redemption and recovery?
What happened at the Oscars was shocking, and the natural tendency is to rush to judgment and condemnation. Smith’s actions and words should be condemned, and his resignation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was an appropriate beginning.
But no shocking and aberrant behavior has a simple explanation, least of which to explain why he believed he was defending his wife by responding to his own needs.
It is not my intention to justify, explain or understand his behavior or, for that matter, the behavior of the KKBE congregants of the 1800s. It is, instead, to say that people should be given the space and the time to find the path to healing.
KKBE and Smith have acknowledged that they are works in progress.
Redemption is, in my mind and for purposes of this essay, what connects the congregation in Charleston with Smith’s actions. To be redeemed for bad acts — large or small — space and time must be given to recognize the errors and harm done by these acts to others, to reflect on them and repent through acknowledgment and apology, to reconcile with the victims and the bystanders, to redefine the path forward and to repair through social action. The journey is long, and it requires space and time to heal.
In my years as an ethics and compliance professional, I have encountered my fair share of bad actors, those with intent to commit misdeeds or to cause harm. When they get caught and are given a second chance to redeem themselves, my experience has been that bad actors eventually slip up or get tripped up, and they ultimately repeat their harmful actions and mistakes.
As Bryan Stevenson writes in “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
For the good actors, when given a second chance along with the space and time to recognize, reflect, repent, reconcile, redefine and repair, they rise to the occasion and redeem themselves. They prove they are worthy of the space and time they were given.
On the Charleston synagogue sign, the final quote says, “There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other.” (Based on Mishnah Yoma 8:9).
Words are easy, but actions are hard. A sign on a building and a declaration by a Hollywood superstar that “change takes time” only go so far.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian whose words were once used to elicit laughter, proves to us each day that actions — not words — demonstrate true leadership, and in his case, passion for righting wrongs and the commitment to the legacy of self-determination for his people.
As this tragedy unfolds, I wish for his safety and the safety of his people, and for the day when healing can begin for all.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of CCI Media or its editors.