Creating a Space for Conversations about Racial Justice

Artwork by Rachel Stone. The text is “lo tirtzach,” “do not murder” from the ten commandments, repeated. There’s an idea that the Torah/Bible is black fire (the letters) and white fire (the spaces) and the spaces say just as much as the text.

By Lisa David

These days, I’m really missing camp. I’m missing taking long walks outside, feeling the warmth of the sun or watching the stars glow. I’m missing seeing circles of kids with their arms around one another as they sing Siyum L’yom. I’m missing days where my stomach hurts because I’ve spent the day losing myself in laughter about silly antics our campers and staff have entertained us with. The loss of our summer at camp has been hard, but the state our world is in and the struggles many are facing, and some have always faced, make it even more so.

But, what I really miss right now is space where we can grow and change the world for good. There is something about camp, and the intentional creation of community, that provides the opportunity for brave and important life-changing conversations – conversations that are needed right now about racial justice and how we as a Harlam community can address and combat racism within our own community, within the Reform Movement, and within the world at large.

Feeling deeply connected to and supported by those around us – like we feel at camp – lends itself to exploring topics that might otherwise be difficult or off-limits. Challenging ourselves is expected, when there are many around you to provide coaching and help and a place to land if we fail. We can be vulnerable and authentic, and trying big things is encouraged.

Right now, our world needs that space. Our community needs that space. Our kids need that space. They need role models who are educated and committed to anti-oppression work to push them. They need peers to pull them along. They need teachers – near-peer counselors with more life experience and positive influence, international staff with powerful stories, faculty with Jewish wisdom to impart.

In the absence of that space, we still want to encourage dialogue and want Harlam to be a place where we face difficult things, together. In the spirit of growth and learning, we wanted to provide our Harlam community with resources, so that discussion, exploration, challenge, and action to address racial justice can still take place.

Harlam is a place where all campers, families, and staff are able to bring all parts of their identities to our community. We know that we have much more work to do to ensure the Jews of Color and other marginalized groups in our community are able to show up in a space where the hard internal work to address systemic racism – which is pervasive throughout many Jewish spaces – is taking place.

At Harlam, we are actively engaged in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) self-assessment process coordinated by the URJ and co-led by led by JewV’Nation Fellow Tamar Ghidalia and our Inclusion Coordinator, Lori Zlotoff. This process involves stakeholders that represent our current campers, staff, lay leaders, and alumni, from a variety of backgrounds. This group will ensure that we fully examine our practices, policies, behaviors, standards of behavior for our participants and staff, hiring, training, programming, and all other areas of operation to ensure we are learning and doing better, always. This assessment will lead to a strategic plan to ensure we’re taking action, evaluating, holding ourselves accountable, and continuing this essential systemic work.

To help our families do this work with us, we’d like to offer some resources. Included in our resource list below are some items amplifying the voices of Jews of Color. We are glad to see that there are many ways to begin this work and hope this will build on the actions you are already taking. We not only have to commit to making the world a more just place, but also must dedicate ourselves to ensuring our own Jewish communities are actively antiracist. Here are some resources collected by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism that align with the values we hold dear at camp:

Reflect: Learn and Disrupt Your Thought Patterns

Relate: Change Your Behavior

  • Explore and share the guide to allyship put together by NFTY and the RAC. You can find it on social media at @officialnfty and @theracgram.
  • Begin having difficult conversations with white friends and family about racism and inequality. This resource on countering the language of “being colorblind” has great language for explaining why that stance is problematic.
  • Think about how you might use your privilege, skills, and platform to support anti-racist work.
  • Open your eyes to see and call out systems of oppression, rather than seeing racism as individual actions.

Reform: Take Action

  • Follow activists and social justice organizations in your community, so you have the latest news about actions, policies, and protests in your city.
  • When a racist incident takes place, take care of your friends of Color, call out racism, show up as an activist – in person at marches (safely) or in your actions.
  • Take part in justice efforts led by communities of Color. Join the NAACP’s #WeAreDoneDying campaign, a multi-pronged effort that reminds us, “As the world faces unprecedented times and new realities during this global pandemic, and incidents of hate and domestic terrorism are perpetuated leading to routine brutalization of African-Americans, the health and safety of [People of Color] are at an unparalleled risk.” The campaign includes a petition calling for justice for George Floyd, as well as action steps related to criminal justice, economic issues, health issues, and voting rights/access.
  • Contact your elected officials. You can go through the RAC’s Legislative Action Center, or set up a virtual or in-district meeting with the people who represent you to share your concerns. You don’t have to be of voting age to be heard.
  • Join Every Voice, Every Vote, the Reform Movement’s 2020 nonpartisan civic engagement campaign. Protests and activism change history – AND we need people in office who are going to legislate long-term change, justice, and equity.

Talking About Race With Younger Audiences

Here are some resources for talking about race with younger kids. It’s not too soon – studies show babies notice racial differences as early as six months old.

  • NPR Podcast: “Taking About Race with Young Children
  • The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture just launched Talking About Race, “a new online portal designed to help individuals, families, and communities talk about racism, racial identity and the way these forces shape every aspect of society.”
  • There are many book lists circulating with recommendations for all ages. Consider buying whatever books make sense for your family or community from one of these Black-owned independent bookstores.

As I recently shared with our community: We stand in solidarity with all who have been persecuted, belittled, and victimized because of their race. We condemn systemic racism, racist violence, and hate crimes. Injustice and inequality have no place in the world we seek to create, a world of peace.

Though we may not be in Kunkletown this summer to do this important work together, it remains of vital importance.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (Deut. 16:18)  – Justice, justice we shall pursue.

Lisa David became Camp Harlam’s Director in 2017 after 15 years as a professional in the field of Jewish Camping. She is a former Harlam camper and staff member, and a proud parent of three Harlam campers.

First published by URJ Camp Harlam; reposted with permission.