As Jews, we have a moral obligation to support, listen to, and learn from all communities facing oppression, persecution, and discrimination. To be in solidarity not only means to challenge racism and white supremacy in our neighborhoods, city, country, and homeland—but it also means confronting internalized racism within the Jewish community. How can we challenge ourselves to become better allies to communities of color? How can we address the struggles and erasure faced by Jews of Color, Sephardi, Maghrebi, and Mizrahi Jews? Jews comprise approximately 2% of the U.S. population, and Jews of Color constitute approximately 15% of the American Jewish population. At BJ, we believe the fight against antisemitism must be in tandem with the fight against racism and all systems of oppression. We welcome all into the BJ community and celebrate our diversity as a congregation.
Racial Justice Task Force
A concerned group of BJ members gathered for two sessions in 2016 to discuss race and racism in our community. Sessions continued with a study of Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s The Colors of Jews and a Pre-Pesah Seder on privilege, power, and race in 2017. Out of these events, we formed the Racial Justice Task Force, which is beginning to look more systematically at the ways in which we can address issues of race and racism within the BJ community.
Through community conversations, anti-racism workshops and trainings, and an examination of our Kadima@BJ Hebrew School curriculum, we are asking ourselves such questions as:
- What are our assumptions about who is and who is not part of the Jewish community—both at BJ and writ large? How can we challenge or broaden those assumptions?
- Where do those of us who identify as white harbor internalized prejudice or racism?
- Do those of us who identify as Jews of Color feel comfortable and at home at BJ? What are the barriers and how can those be dismantled?
- What unique challenges do Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Maghrebi Jews face, and how can we be more inclusive in Jewish spaces and discourse?
- How do racism and persecution affect communities differently in the U.S. and Israel? How do we strive towards a more equitable world for all?
- What barriers do Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Mizrahi Jews experience in Israel and abroad?
As we explore these questions, we may recognize that much of what we need to do begins with ourselves. Though there are many worthy issues that cry out for our attention and support, we decided to start with heshbon hanefesh: a soul accounting of the ways that race and racism play out in our individual hearts and minds, and in the collective BJ community.
SPSA/BJ Racial Justice Group
Meanwhile, we are also working on addressing issues of racism in the broader NYC community and throughout the United States. When we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our partnership with the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in 2016, we recommitted to our relationship by launching a joint racial justice initiative. Beginning with a book study, we read and discussed Just Mercy, an account of racism in the criminal justice system by Bryan Stevenson.
We have formed a joint leadership team, and in the winter of 2017 we researched issues, potential campaigns, and possible partner organizations. We came to recognize that, in both of our communities, there is interest in advocacy campaign work, direct service opportunities, and continuing education. The education piece is two-pronged: (1) learning more about the institutionalization and implications of racism and white supremacy; and (2) understanding specifics about the issues on which we choose to work.
There are currently three subgroups working together on:
- Education: developing joint BJ/SPSA reading and discussion groups
- Direct service: working with Welcome Home—an organization addressing the needs of men in Lincoln Correctional Facility (a work-release program)
- Advocacy: becoming part of a new program of the Fair Housing Justice Center to harness the power of religious communities and faith-based organizations to advance fair housing in the New York City region; and working with the Alliance of Families for Justice, which addresses the needs of families of people who are incarcerated).
To learn more and get involved, contact Martha Ackelsberg (at BJ) or Jim Melchiorre (at SPSA).
Black Lives Matter
The vicious murder of George Floyd—a veritable lynching—is the latest of a long chain of murders of Black people at the hands of the police. We will continue to commit to undoing racism day in and day out in our community, and in partnership with other communities.
The work of undoing racism and building an inclusive community and country is neverending. Today, with America in the throes of a national reckoning on race, the call for justice rings even louder in our ears. Moreover, Jews of Color are calling for Jewish institutions to take responsibility for undoing racism. We are answering these calls by articulating our commitments in Na’ase V’nishma, BJ’s public statement of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A Look Back and the Road Ahead
Going forward, there will be more opportunities to engage with the topic of race, and there will be opportunities to deepen and expand our relationships with other BJ members. Both of these are necessary for us to become a beloved community that can affect change both within BJ and out in the world. We acknowledge the ways in which we have contributed to the suffering of others, and commit to new behaviors in the year ahead.
Race and Us
In addition, BJ has launched ‘Race and Us,’ an initiative to examine the role of race in Jewish identity, Jewish community, and American society.
Racial Equity Resource List
Explore this racial equity resource list, originally compiled by Eliana Slurzberg with input from our Race and Us Steering Committee.