Four Insights for Realizing Racial Justice in the Jewish New Year

By April N. Baskin and Abby Levine

The Jewish month of Elul, a time for cheshbon ha-nefesh (spiritual accounting) before the Jewish New Year, offers us rich opportunities to reflect on the brokenness within ourselves and commit to becoming the people we want to be.

As Jewish communal leaders working at the intersection of social justice and Jewish values, we know that working for racial equity and justice requires both cheshbon ha-nefesh and communal accountability – not only during Elul, but every day of the year. And yet, our communities have not done nearly enough to dismantle structural and cultural racism. Together, we set out to change that by piloting a series of racial justice trainings with the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network of 64 organizations animated by Jewish tradition and values.

When we hatched this idea in 2016, we certainly didn’t have all the answers – or even a clear sense of where to start – so we began by asking key questions: How can we meet organizations where they’re at in their racial justice journeys? How are Jewish racial justice trainings different from other racial justice trainings? How might one-time trainings lead to sustainable organizational transformation, and what does it take for such a process to succeed?

Guided by the wisdom of Jews of color and white Jews who are seasoned experts in the field of racial justice, we implemented seven racial justice trainings over the course of three years. Now, three years into this work, 197 people from more than 50 organizations have attended six regional trainings – in Berkeley, Washington, D.C., Boston, New York City, and Detroit – and 157 people from 47 organizations joined us at our all-network gathering in 2017. Of course, trainings alone are not enough to fully realize racial justice in every facet of Jewish life. But we believe they are a solid start. Here are four meaningful lessons we’ve learned along the way:

Racial justice is as much about a state of being as it is about a state of doing.”

Learning how racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy operate – and understanding how to stop these oppressions in their tracks – is not a linear process. Building a racially just world requires that every person develop a posture of openness, a lens of curiosity, and an orientation rooted in equity, in addition to a check-list of tasks. We consistently found that our participants wanted clarity on what they could do after the training. But such clarity doesn’t always exist – at least not in the form of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ to-do list that our participants often wanted. Our trainers tried to shift participants’ expectations around these journeys. And yet, developing shared, agreed-upon outcomes remains an ongoing project for us. Clarifying our roles to make an impact as leaders and organizations – and holding ourselves accountable to make good individual choices – is a marathon, not a sprint.

Show up and take risks.

In our trainings, we didn’t always know how participants’ identities would inform our collective learning. We also didn’t know how they would respond to the content until we were living and breathing it together. We needed to build trust, lean in to our discomfort, and accept that wading through the thorniness of power and privilege is essential for making progress. In order to do the deepest learning possible, we needed to push participants to show up fully and courageously as themselves. We also needed to value relationships over results to ensure that our work would be generative and sustainable in the long run.

Create a learning environment in which mistakes are okay.

We regularly heard from training participants that they were afraid of making mistakes, such as saying the wrong words, expressing the wrong ideas, or offending people whom they didn’t intend to offend. Working for racial justice requires deep reflection and honest sharing. It also requires an awareness of shevirah – brokenness – to acknowledge our mistakes and pain points. Anchoring our work with a racial justice lens means creating spaces where people can be candid and brave, without fear of being shamed. Missteps are inevitable and expected. But we know now that fears of failing should not stop us from immersing in the work and striving to do better. We, at the Roundtable, made mistakes of our own and encountered rough patches in our relationships with colleagues. Our mistakes opened up a process of deep learning that helped us reimagine the Roundtable with a racial justice lens and prompted us to initiate a new strategic plan. While not easy, this process was productive and rewarding. And our journey reinforced that staying in relationship with people and being willing to adapt is the only way to build a better future.

Honor and embrace our Jewish multiracial reality.

We know that an estimated 10 to 20 percent of American Jews are Jews of Color. These statistics were recently affirmed in a Jewish population study, “Counting Inconsistencies: Analysis of American Jewish population Studies with a Focus on Jews of Color,” commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. This study concluded that roughly one million Jews of Color are missing from counts of America’s Jewish community. It’s no surprise, then, that Jews of Color are not adequately included in Jewish communal conversations about racism or sufficiently represented in Jewish communal leadership roles. That needs to change. Research suggests that multicultural groups bring richness, sophistication, and strength to society as a whole. In our trainings, we aimed to pay attention to who was present and who was absent when shaping our communal conversations. Furthermore, we supported Jews of Color to lead and contribute in ways that felt right for them.

This work is complex, not only for organizations that are part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable but for us, as leaders, too. And yet, we know that with more practice, our work will only strengthen over time. When we build our muscles to advance racial equity, we improve other aspects of our work as well. In order to address the enormous challenges that lie ahead, we need to harness the strength, power, wisdom, and full diversity that exists within Jewish life today. Our journey is teaching us – as individuals, organizations, and as a field – how to work together across differences. We have too much to lose by retreating from that journey now.

In preparation for the Jewish New Year, we hope you’ll download our full Racial Justice Framework and display our Racial Justice Guiding Principles on the walls of your schools, synagogues and Jewish organizations.

April N. Baskin is the Racial Justice Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.

Abby Levine is the Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.