By Stefanie Rhodes and Ruth Messinger
We are two white Jewish women committed to honoring diversity and striving for justice. We are also a mother and grandmother of Jews of Color. Over the past several weeks, we have felt a range of emotions – outrage, sadness, anger, and fear – in response to the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, and the failures in our law enforcement systems, which too often perpetrate violence. We have also felt deeply troubled and angry by recent efforts to devalue Jews of Color by questioning how many of them exist, precisely at a time when COVID-19 is taking a disproportionate toll on Black Americans and when many Jews of Color are struggling to access basic human services, employment, healthcare, and funding for critical work. The weariness, exhaustion, and fear that Jews of Color and People of Color across the United States are feeling right now cannot be underestimated.
At the same time, we note that many Jewish organizations and leaders are speaking up for racial justice in ways that feel stronger and bolder than ever before, and that gives us some hope. The sands appear to be shifting, and it seems possible that this flurry of organizational statements means that Jewish leaders are beginning to view racial justice as an essential ongoing practice, not a secondary ‘nice to have’ experience when it feels convenient. But we know that statements of solidarity are not enough. They are only a first step on a longer, messier journey of learning and action – for individuals and for our community as a whole.
For white Jews like us – and, hopefully, for all white people – the harder work involves examining our own discomfort, listening to others, and asking critical questions about who we are, what we need to learn, and how we want to change. Savala Trepczynski, the Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law, wrote in TIME Magazine, “A white person rushing to do racial justice work without first understanding the impacts, uses, and deceptions of their own whiteness is like an untrained person rushing into the ER to help the nurses and doctors.”
Years ago, Ruth gave a talk about the Sh’ma as a framework for social justice. She offered:
“The difference between hearing and listening is paying attention; finding and living that elusive element of real connection to the ‘other.’ Sh’ma is a command to pay attention. How can the act of listening anchor our lives with compassion, interconnection, and a shared commitment to justice?”
To be clear, the practice of listening – with rigor and resilience – is different from passive silence, and so much harder. As we reflect on how we benefit from white privilege within our multi-racial families and in the broader society, and as we strive to build a vibrant multi-racial Jewish future and a stronger America, we are continuing to ask ourselves the following questions:
Am I noticing when white people, including myself, are speaking over or on behalf of People of Color?
Am I taking responsibility to interrogate my whiteness, or am I asking others, within and outside of my multi-racial family, to do the teaching and the emotional labor for me?
Do I catch myself when I get defensive during conversations about race and white privilege or when I say something that may offend others?
Am I able to acknowledge when and how my whiteness gives me power, authority, and status over others? And if so, what am I going to do about it?
When I make remarks about my white privilege that are designed to sound informed, am I pausing to make sure that I actually practice what I preach?
Am I guilty – as most of us are – of talking about privilege, race, and racism only when it is convenient and comfortable, but not when it might be most important?
How can I give myself more time and space to understand how my race informs the ways I lead, the ways I influence others, and how I make decisions?
Some people assume that because Jews of Color are in our families, we are experts on understanding racism. We’re not. Other people assume that because of our leadership and commitments to social justice, we have this all figured out. We don’t.
We still have a lot to learn about how racism and white supremacy operate – and we know we will continue to make mistakes. Sometimes we may hurt people we love, despite our very best intentions. Sometimes our words will shut down an important conversation about race instead of cracking it open. And sometimes we may stumble or lose our way entirely because we forgot to stop and listen.
We are on a learning journey – for ourselves, our multi-racial families, and our collective future. We want to see our own implicit biases more clearly. We want 21st-century Jewish life to be the best it can be – to fully include Jews of all races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities. And we want the Jewish community to stand for equality and justice for all people everywhere and to reflect that commitment in our families, congregations, organizations, and philanthropic priorities. At a time of profound discord and brokenness, we know that these efforts are essential to healing our fractured democracy and building a better future for all. As the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught, “We start with ourselves. But we don’t end with ourselves.”
Wrestling with our own white privilege is never easy – in fact, it’s quite painful – but we can’t afford to throw in the towel or give up when we miss the mark. We need to push through our failures and keep on going together – with open hearts, open minds, and the belief that we can and must always do better.Stefanie Rhodes is the CEO of Slingshot and Board Chair of Jews of Color Initiative.
Ruth Messinger is the Global Ambassador of American Jewish World Service.