Notes From the Field: After a Shul Shooting, Keeping Our Multiracial Jewish Community Safe

By Ilana Kaufman

After the heartbreaking news of the eleven Jewish community members murdered in Pittsburg this past weekend, my work email and Facebook message boxes filled with two types of notes. White Jewish community leaders seeking advice about securing their buildings while trying to be mindful of the very real concerns expressed by Jews of Color that police and law enforcement terrorize and murder Black and Brown people, so securing Jewish community buildings with traditional law enforcement would further terrorize and put at risk Jews of Color. The other half of the notes were from Jewish community leaders who also happen to be People of Color imploring me to intervene with White Jewish leaders focused on building security while forgetting the Jewish community is multiracial thereby not considering the needs of Jews of Color. How ironic that these notes – all coming from Jewish community leaders, were similar in content but were coming from two groups of colleagues that seldom get the chance to work together and inform one another.

To bring together these colleagues in conversation, I organized an impromptu online convening and very quickly had over a dozen racially diverse Jewish community leaders gathered by video conference to openly and honestly discuss very real concerns of Jewish community safety, hear perspectives of Jews of Color as informed by the national and Jewish community context of racial injustice, and share practical suggestions about both.

We asked, how do we keep the minds, bodies and spirits of our Jewish community members and our institutions safe in ways that are realitybased, racially informed and inclusive?

Here’s what we learned:

Our leaders, colleagues and staff need professional training and skill development:

In 2013 the Steinhardt Social Research Institute American Jewish Population Project told us that 11.2% of the U.S. Jewish community is non-White. We must shift the paradigm so that when Jewish community leaders are thinking about the community – seeing in their mind’s eye – they see it as racially diverse. And, at the same time, we must build up skills and capacities, as a multiracial community, to be inclusive. And this has to include addressing issues of equity and justice, so that when tragedies occur Jews of Color are part the conversation and thinking about their specific circumstances becomes communally reflexive.

As we work to include and center the voices, experiences, perspectives and power of Jews of Color, it’s important to understand that if there are no Jews of Color present in the conversation, you’re probably missing something. In fact, it’s fairly safe to assume that if there are no Jews of Color informing your ideas, actions and policies, they will probably be imbued with a vein of racism. That’s not unique to our community, it’s simply an American reality.

Teach and train our community to navigate safety and security issues:

Hire firms who are informed, led and staffed by people of color. Certainly some are also Jewish. Prioritize vulnerable populations like children and elders. Consider training Jews of Color and other vulnerable populations in security techniques or even Krav Maga and similar skills for self-empowerment and defense. And, most critically, work to build grassroots groups for community safety. Things like watches, patrols and escorts specifically for the most vulnerable and other target populations.

Embrace, teach and celebrate defensive community postures and training – empower the community to scan perimeters, identify threats, and receive defensive training. But do so in a way that they will not be engaging in racial profiling. Instead build community/security “nets” in a way that there are not sides who might be adversarial in relationship, but rather as integrated networks of safety/advocacy/familiarity.

We need to work within our network to

  1. Build inclusive relationships and trust
  2. Ask how other people are doing
  3. Show kindness and compassion

Jewish community organizations have the ability to deploy their unique skills using racially informed lenses. Imagine a community service organization creating racially informed approaches and programs based on racially diverse Jewish populations! We can make this the new paradigm.

After this past weekends’ shooting, I began to think about the safety of my own family at Shul. Every second of the day I worry about exposure to racial violence. And this week I worry as much about anti-Semitic violence. So much so that I had a conversation with myself about a coming family Simcha, would I hire armed guards, and would they be Black given how many non-white family and community will be in attendance. I wondered how I will keep the minds, bodies and spirits of my multiracial Jewish family and community safe.

In the afternoon on October 30th I received a note from a community relations colleague who was on the video conference earlier in the day. He said he was, “…really inspired that you so quickly and thoughtfully Zoomed such an insightful group. It was very helpful for me to hear articulated the ways that heightened security, which we’re almost certainly going to see moving forward, is making people feel less safe and what the community can do about it.” The conversation helped me too. Our leadership community is stronger now that more of us know and have had honest conversation with each other about some of the hardest issues to work through. And I am now better equipped to take care of my family, friends and community.

God willing, next time there is a Simcha at Shul, everyone in our multiracial Jewish community will be and feel safe.

Ilana Kaufman is the Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. She is a Senior Schusterman Fellow, public speaker, occasional author, strategic designer and problem solver. Ilana works with Jewish organizations and philanthropic entities navigating the intersection of Jewish community, Jewish identity and racial justice.