Adapting Jewish Peoplehood to Jewish Equity

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Charlene Seidle

We are a tradition of questioning and adaptation. In that spirit, I propose that we update and adapt the framing of Jewish peoplehood and move to a paradigm of Jewish equity. Jewish equity moves us from responsibility to responsiveness, from generosity to accountability, from service to justice. Jewish equity is the fundamental mandate of Jewish philanthropy at this moment.

The simple definition of equity as provided by Merriam-Webster is “fairness in the way people are treated.” Equity is different from diversity, which is a quantitative indicator of different types of people, and different from equality in which everyone has the same amount. Instead, equity seeks to acknowledge and meet individual needs within an overall framework of proportional access to networks, resources and capacities.

If Jewish peoplehood builds from the principle kol yisrael areyvim zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other, Jewish equity amplifies the ecosystem of shmita and yovel which governed land ownership, resource allocation, consumption and fundamental power structures in ancient times to ensure distributed access. In the words of Adam Berman, founder of Urban Adamah: “Shmita is the most economically, environmentally and socially radical idea in the Torah, hands down.”

Jewish philanthropy has the greatest responsibility to advance Jewish equity because our sector holds both power and resources, two tools which help reverse the systems that perpetuate inequity. Inadvertently, and generally with the best of intentions, philanthropy has sometimes hindered equity by not acknowledging implicit bias and by making assumptions about beneficiary communities without their full representation. How many of us who influence resources have experienced deep poverty? How many of us have been fundamentally alienated from institutions of Jewish life? How many of us are Jews of Color? The list goes on and on. To be sure, we are more representative as a field than we were since the last time this journal was published, but there are still substantial advances that must be made.

I will offer four thoughts to our field on how philanthropy can promote Jewish equity drawing from the experience of the Leichtag Foundation where I serve as Executive Vice President. I want to clearly acknowledge that Leichtag still has a long way to go. Our team is not representative enough. We often make decisions about rather than with the people who will be most impacted by them. We sometimes use language that does not connote accountability to our end-users. We are a work in progress. In that way Leichtag reflects the very story and essence of our people.

1. Individual Journey: A decade ago, when Leichtag began funding in Jerusalem, we encountered skepticism and even resistance from funders and experts alike. Many thought the choice was foolish and naive, that Jerusalem was already too far gone.

Reflecting on the feedback we received, instead of hiring staff or consultants in Israel in this critical initial stage, we instead turned straight to the grassroots, those who were already making an intentional decision to pursue their lives and progress in Jerusalem.

We gathered a brain trust of social entrepreneurs from all sectors of the city who essentially served not just as advisors but as Program Officers, providing direction on credible projects, needs and initial grantmaking. In this way, we avoided a singular voice or filter that, however well-meaning, could not deeply understand the individual journeys and experiences that must inform change making in such a complex, diverse city.

Those with stories should speak for themselves. And when those stories are coupled with resources, more equitable systems emerge. Research also shows that including a critical mass of underrepresented groups in decision-making processes reduces implicit bias.

2. Tzimtzum space: The notion of tzimtzum is a profound ingredient for Jewish equity. In Kabbalistic teachings, the act of creation was accomplished through a contraction called tzimtzum where G-d withdrew in order to create the space and room for this world. In both San Diego and Jerusalem, the two localities where Leichtag focuses its efforts, tzimtzum co-working spaces known as the Hive and Restreet respectively allow for creatives from all different disciplines and organizations to interact with each other, dream up new ideas, learn together, and allocate resources together.

Those who use the Hive and Restreet have become co-creators of the space. They provide substantial input to our overall strategies and to the mission, use and planning of our 68-acre property Leichtag Commons.

3. Operationalizing equity: Equity may be a buzzword in the field now, but our Jewish traditions and set of laws have provided much for us to draw from for generations.

Concepts inherent to our Torah like justice for the vulnerable, amplifying minority voices, disagreement and diversity, questioning objectivity and more can be analyzed in modern contexts. They can also become much more than words in an ancient book. We can implement these principles of equity through immersive experience and intentional inclusion of new rituals into organizational culture and Jewish communal norms. They inform how we relate to land, to what we own, inequality in our community, the nature of work and rest in our lives, our relationship to debt. These issues are as relevant to our lives in 2020 as they were in the year 20 providing rich substantive guides for community building and outreach. They are relevant in the workplace too. At Leichtag, a task force of staff members representing multiple levels and life experiences convened to developour equity guidelines. They also prepared a set of working principles that govern many elements of daily interactions and decision-making processes. Each of these principles is connected to a Jewish tradition, sometimes updated or modernized.

It’s important to acknowledge that not all our Jewish practices promote equity. In fact, some may actively seem to perpetuate inequity. Talking about those systemic inequities openly, and letting the voices and directions of those among us who have been most hurt by them lead in correction are the first steps to repair.

4. Partner and scale: Leichtag is proud to be a founding member of both the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative and the Safety Respect Equity Coalition. These two important consortiums and others are actively working to institutionalize better practices around equity into the Jewish communal ethos. Only by working with others who share our goals will we be successful in achieving Jewish equity. Our partners help push us in new directions and leverage the effectiveness of individual efforts.

There may be differences in our backgrounds, our worldviews, and our interpretations of reality. We cannot let these differences interfere with the way we see each other but rather see them in ways we can help one another. By listening to, acknowledging and embracing individual journeys. By challenging and questioning and resisting our biases. By seeing the potential in each person to give to our Jewish community and receive from our Jewish community. This is Jewish equity.

The Mishna in Sanhedrin says: “One person was created as the common ancestor of all people, for the sake of the peace of the human race, so that one should not be able to say to a neighbor ‘my ancestor was better than yours’.” Let’s name our power as funders, share it, know and check bias and ultimately advance a Jewish community that will never say to each other “I am better than you.” A Jewish community of equity.

Charlene Seidle is the Executive Vice President of the Leichtag Foundation, a private,independent foundation with offices in Encinitas, California and Jerusalem.

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.