If Not Now, When? Ahead of High Holidays, Jewish Organizations Must Strive for Racial Equity and Inclusion

By Cheryl Cook and Nate Looney

Towards the end of the summer of 2005, the United States got a glimpse into what can happen when we aren’t prepared for a crisis. Hurricane Katrina, and the lives and physical toll it took, illuminated the growing disparity between black and white Orleaneans. One of us was in the Superdome then, responding to the catastrophe, and saw first-hand that most of the evacuees were economically disadvantaged people of color.

COVID-19 is America’s Katrina, illuminating the disparities in health, economic and resource access for people of color. The video of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent civil unrest that followed, brought the issue of racial inequality to the forefront of our national consciousness.

For too long the Jewish community has approached racial discrimination as being separate from the fabric of American Jewish life. However, in 2020, with mass quarantines in effect, we can no longer look away or turn our backs. The reckoning of our proximity to white supremacy requires us to take a deep and often painful look at the ways our institutions have excluded Jews of color at every level.

There is a growing consciousness of the realities people of color, Black people in particular, face. Powerful uprisings and the social awakening we’re seeing across the nation give us hope that this will lead to change. We’re heartened to see that many Jewish organizations are now seeking to undergo this same reckoning and believe this is the moment to strengthen our Jewish community by leaning into racial justice work. Statements are a good first step, but they are just that – a first step. As we approach 5781 and consider how we will show up in the new year, we must recognize that there is deep internal work to do and action to take.

This internal work is something that Avodah has been quietly working on for years. In 2016, we decided to dive deeper into racial justice work. Avodah is part of a field of Jewish social justice organizations, and many perceived us as ahead of the curve in this work. Yet, as we started to examine ourselves more closely, we found that we had far to go. Four years later, while there is still much progress to be made, we have also learned a lot from our process and taken actionable steps that have resulted in positive change. Now, we’re excited to share our learning lessons and acquired tools in a newly created Racial Justice Guide. As we approach the High Holidays and turn our focus inward, we hope this guide will be a useful tool for other Jewish organizations that are just beginning this internal work so that together, we can create stronger and more inclusive organizations that fully represent the diversity and breadth of Jewish life.

If not now, when?

But first, why the urgency for the Jewish community to do internal work? Regardless of the image presented by popular culture and our institutional leadership, the Jewish community is neither monolithic nor uniformly Ashkenazi. There are an estimated 7 million Jews in the United States (American Jewish Population Project 2013-2019), and at least 1 million identify as non-white People of Color (Counting Inconsistencies 2019). If this is surprising, it’s because Jews of Color have been marginalized, discredited, and dismissed, with the result being that our organizations rarely reflect our actual diversity. The lines traditionally drawn between “the American Jewish community” and communities of color are simply false. If we aspire to be part of the great anti-racist movement awakening across the country, American Jews need to start looking to our own community and recognizing who is not at the table.

This isn’t easy; change rarely is. Fighting the 400 years of racism and white supremacy in our country, that has also permeated our Jewish community, is not a simple task. Genuine diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) requires much more than a “token hire” or an occasional speaker at a Black History Shabbat. Our institutions must look inward and be willing to step into the messy but crucial work that is required. This is Avodah shebalev – work of the heart. We believe our Jewish community is up to the task – and we know that the integrity of our community depends on it.

Taking the First Steps

Our own racial justice process forced us to look inward, and in doing so, we quickly saw that we had challenging but crucial work to do to get our Jewish house in order.

Here were our statistics when we started this work in 2016: one person of color on our staff of 30 and an all-white board. We weren’t even collecting data on the race and ethnicity of our participants, so our best guess from data we have since gathered is that about 8 percent of our participants before 2016 identified as Jews of Color, Sephardi, or Mizrahi. Our first step in this process was to conduct an audit. We spent time learning where we need change and committed to serious efforts to make those changes, which are now just starting to make a difference.

Today, our work continues – but we have made improvements. Our past cohorts included about 15 percent of those who identify as Jews of Color, Sephardi, or Mizrahi. We know our work is stronger and more equitable with the leadership of Jews of Color across all departments of Avodah. Our hiring practices had to shift to reach talented Jewish professionals of color. We realized that in order to reach JOCs, we needed to be in deep community with JOC led organizations. These changes helped diversify and increase the quality of our applicant pool. After all, we know that the absence of employment diversity has never been due to a lack of talent, but barriers to hiring people of color and Jews of color face. We’ve also created a new position – a Racial Justice Initiatives Manager – to oversee and guide our work. And we are slowly but surely continuing to make other changes at Avodah.

What weve learned in these four years:

  • To succeed, an organization needs to develop and communicate a clear set of values and goals: Why is DEI important to your organization and the broader Jewish community? How does your organization plan to address the specific challenges revealed by its internal audit? And finally: When? Without a clear timeline, good ideas and worthy intentions can all too easily melt away. At Avodah, we crafted a plan that aligned with our strategic plan, which has allowed us to revisit, course correct, and strengthen our work every few years.
  • Organizational leadership needs to fully believe in and support this work: while the work can be done by many within the organization, it needs leadership to prioritize and provide resources to make such changes happen. At Avodah, that means that the CEO sits on the Racial Justice Task Force, while our Racial Justice Initiatives Manager, takes the lead alongside a member of the Board of Directors.
  • Break open our networks: Organizations intent on fostering real change will have to engage in real inclusion: listening to JOCs within our organizations and beyond; hiring JOCs to lead and direct racial justice efforts, as well as expanding the reach of an organization’s applicant pool to hire JOCs for positions far beyond DEI work to ensure that JOCs are empowered and supported – even and especially when the truth of their experiences or the data they’ve gathered is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or even unnerving for white Jews to hear. At Avodah, we realized that one of our hiring criteria, “a deep understanding of Jewish organizational life,” meant we often hired people from within our network — and this was getting in the way of hiring a more diverse staff. Changing our criteria, reaching out to a wider job recruitment pool, and naming that we are actively seeking candidates of color helped us reach a broader audience, as well as reach excellent candidates who had never applied to Avodah before.  
  • And lastly, but crucially: JOCs are as diverse as the community around them, coming from all backgrounds and all levels of religious observance. Just as no single Jew can ever represent all of Judaism in a non-Jewish setting, no single JOC should be expected to represent the entirety of the JOC experience within Jewish institutions.

Racial justice is urgent and necessary Jewish work

Racial justice efforts are even more crucial and urgent now. COVID-19 has highlighted with brutal efficiency the inequities of our healthcare and social services, while continued police violence against African Americans and Black people has led to Black Lives Matter uprisings and renewed attention to the urgency of uprooting white supremacy. And amidst all of these developments, anti-Semitism has continued to rise. Jews of Color live at the nexus of all these struggles, none of them discrete issues, each compounded by the other.

We are hoping that our experiences will help others. Avodah’s once-internal process is now available as a resource guide; rather than asking other organizations to reinvent the wheel at a time of unprecedented challenges, we offer it to any in the Jewish institutional world who is dedicated to building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Jewish community.

As difficult, and indeed painful, as it may be to launch a genuine DEI process, there is something deeply and profoundly Jewish about taking stock of past behavior and committing to real change. With the High Holidays nearly upon us, these days provide a potent template for the racial justice process, encouraging us to acknowledge errors that are both individual and communal, right those wrongs, and move with intention toward something better. This is cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. This is teshuvah, repentance and return to our deepest values.

Likewise, the annual arrival of the High Holidays is a reminder that we’ll never get it entirely right. Mistakes and miscalculations are an inevitable part of any human endeavor; we must acknowledge that at the outset, and commit to continuous course correction with the understanding that the work for justice and equity is ongoing. Acknowledgement is quintessentially Jewish. We learn in Pirkei Avot that while we’re not required to complete the task of repairing the world, neither are we free to desist from it. If we want a genuinely equitable Jewish community, one in which all Jews are represented and valued, we must begin the work. If not now, when? 

Cheryl Cook is the Chief Executive Officer of Avodah. Prior to Avodah, Cheryl served for nine years as Chief Operating Office of Hazon. She has worked across the Jewish community for her career, at JESNA, at New Israel Fund, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, and at the 92nd Street Y.

Nate Looney is the Manager of Racial Justice Initiatives at Avodah, leading diversity strategies with a focus on Jews of Color (JOC). Nate is also the CEO and Owner of Westside Urban Gardens, an urban agricultural company in Los Angeles. He is a veteran of the US Army National Guard, was part of rescue efforts during Hurricane Katrina and deployed to Iraq in 2008. Nate is a Jeremiah fellow, a Selah alum and is the chair of the LAGLCC Inclusion Taskforce.