Getting Our Racial Justice House in Order

Photo courtesy Avodah

By Cheryl Cook & Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

This year, Avodah decided to undergo a process to determine how our racial justice work can or should be strengthened or expanded. As it turns out, doing so has demanded a real heshbon ha-nefesh of us – an accounting of the soul of our work, and our organization.

Avodah trains young Jewish leaders for lifelong work in social and economic justice; we’ve been working at the intersection of racial justice and economic justice since our inception. And yet, the the emergence in recent years of movements like Black Lives Matter fighting systemic racism and the growing national conversation about race has caused us to ask what and how we can do better. The answer, as it turns out, is: a lot.

Our majority-white alumni base strongly expressed a preference for Avodah to focus its time and energy externally, on activism and coalition-building. And yet, the staff and alumni of color and Jewish leaders of color to whom we spoke encouraged us to focus internally – that is, to look at all the ways we could make Avodah itself, in its day-to-day workings, better reflect our values, so that our work for justice in the world comes from a place of more strength and integrity, with more voices of color leading the charge.

We knew we needed to listen to the people of color in our community, and to to get our own house in order.

So we’ve begun a comprehensive game plan to make our work in every area more inclusive and just:

  • In our hiring and training of staff;
  • In our engagement of advisory council and board members, in our recruiting and supporting participants of color in our programs;
  • In rethinking what we say and how we say it in our written communications;
  • In going over the biases in our curriculum with a fine-toothed comb to see whose story is centered, whose practices are assumed to be standard, how we talk about who’s a Jew and who’s an ally and who’s at the forefront of racial justice work and in what way.

This work is both a good in of itself, and a necessary prerequisite to being more useful to the work happening in the larger Jewish community and the country.

As we work through this, we’ve discovered a few tensions that we’re working on navigating. In the interest of openness, and to start a conversation for other companies and organizations working on these same questions, we thought we’d share a few of them here.

Inclusion vs Tokenism

Recent studies show that between 10-20% of the Jewish community are people of color (stats vary depending on how you define a Jew of color), but few orgs have even close to this level of representation on their staff, on their boards or in their participants. But work to become more inclusive could easily, understandably, be read as tokenizing, or actually be tokenizing. Is this hire or is this board addition, being brought on primarily because their skin color or background will help an organization or company feel that they’re checking off a “diversity” box? Or is that recruit, this hire organically and authentically the right fit, and someone whose voice is going to be valued – and not only on issues of race?

Expanding Our Network of Relationships

In order to do this well, Avodah, and many other Jewish organizations, need to expand our network of relationships. For example, around 70% of our Service Corps members can name an alum who suggested Avodah, but our alumni pool does not yet represent the fullness of the Jewish community; it will take an investment of time and resources to interrupt a self-perpetuating cycle, as well as the awareness that building both trust and respect in new circles is unlikely to happen overnight – we have to have patience and be prepared to play a long game.

Being Prepared for Tradeoffs

And we have to know that doing this work might require tradeoffs. Might we be OK with fewer applications for a few years while our Director of Recruitment and Outreach is investing time in new relationships that might not yet (or might not ever) bear fruit in expanding our applicant pool? What kind of capacity do we need to add to make sure that the right eyes and perspectives are looking unsparingly at a full year’s worth of training and curricular materials? If we have to make some hard decisions based on our financial resources, what do we prioritize first?

We’re grateful to our friends at Be’chol Lashon, Jews of All Hues, the Jewish Multiracial Network, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and others who have done much of this work and provided a powerful roadmap, and we’re glad that, little by little, the Jewish community is expanding its understanding of what is and what needs to be. But many of us have a long way to go. We all have to be willing to face the ways in which our own organizations and companies have yet fallen short of our ideals for racial justice in America and in the Jewish community – and to begin the work of doing better, working from the inside out.

Cheryl Cook is Avodah’s Executive Director. Cheryl has over twenty years of leadership experience as a manager, fundraiser and program planner in the Jewish community. 

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg serves as Avodah’s Rabbi-in-Residence. She is an award-winning author and has been named by Newsweek and The Daily Beast as one of ten “rabbis to watch,” and one of the top 50 most influential women rabbis.