One Synagogue’s Experience with a Racial Justice Discussion Group

Screen capture: Maine Center for Economic Policy.

By Jayme Epstein and Fran Zamore

As White people around the country are becoming more aware of their advantage and the persistence of anti-Black racism, there is an increasing desire to learn more about the history of systemic and structural racism in the United States. This is a difficult and complex topic that can be traumatic for people of all racial backgrounds to confront and discuss. At Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue in Bethesda, Md., it felt important to initiate a discussion group focusing on learning about racial justice at our own synagogue. We saw this as a way to bring education to a place of comfort for our members, who are majority White but not exclusively so.

The local chapter of the Washington-area grassroots advocacy organization Jews United for Justice had offered a discussion group previously, which one of us had co-facilitated. Our idea was to replicate that series of discussions at our “spiritual home” as a way to draw more of our members into the conversation. And it worked: approximately 40 people signed up for the five-session series, and 20 to 30 of them attended each.

The Workshop Structure

The Racial Justice Discussion Group consisted of five monthly sessions, each lasting two hours. (Here is a link to our materials.) Each session was devoted to a specific topic:

  1. Exploring White Privilege and Unconscious or Implicit Bias
  2. History of Racism in the US
  3. Wealth Disparity
  4. Racial Bias in the US Judicial System
  5. Wrap up and next steps

Attendance at all of the sessions was strongly encouraged.

Setting the Tone

Our first step was to create a “safe container” for the group. The two of us began by introducing ourselves, each sharing our motivation for starting a group like this and our sense of growing self-awareness about Whiteness and anti-Black racism. This included discussing mistakes we had made. We clarified that we are not experts and would not be “teaching” the group. We wanted to be authentic about our experience and our commitment to deepen our own knowledge and self-awareness.

At the first session, we presented guidelines that were revisited at the beginning of each of the sessions. These were:

  • We all have the right to share as much or as little as we are comfortable sharing.
  • We use “I” statements and speak from a place of open-hearted authenticity.
  • We do not engage in “fixing, advising, saving or setting straight” (credited to educator and activist Parker Palmer).
  • We all give our full attention to the person speaking.
  • We respect differences, notice judgment arising in us and practice:
    • Restraint;
    • Curiosity about our own experiences;
    • Compassion.
  • We all commit to both conventional and double confidentiality. Conventional confidentiality means that we do not speak to anyone outside the group about what is shared in this group. Double confidentiality means that when a person shares something that we sense makes them feel vulnerable, we do not raise the issue again with that person or with anyone else in the group.

Participants were encouraged to share their own responses and not engage in cross talk. We asked participants to notice their own discomfort when it arose and to exercise self-control not to correct, rebut or interrupt others. The thinking behind this practice of contemplative listening is to heighten one’s own self-awareness. Participants are asked to consider several questions: Why do I want to comment, interrupt or correct? What’s going on for me?

Offering Resources

Before each session, participants received a list of materials relevant to the upcoming topic, including reading (from short articles to books), viewing (from YouTube videos to feature-length documentaries) and listening (podcasts and TED talks).

The Sessions

Each session began with a short video and/or a quotation that framed the discussion. Then, we posed a question or two designed to have participants reflect on the reading and its impact on their views of race and racism.

We ended with a “take-away” quotation or short video for participants to contemplate and a review and explanation of the list of resources for the following month.

What We’ve Learned

Extraordinary patience is required because everyone is on their own journey and own timeline; this learning and increasing self- awareness can’t be rushed. It’s an evolving and continuous process for us and for everyone.

That said, people are hungry for this education and discussion. Our goal of bringing the discussion to our spiritual home and engaging our fellow congregants was largely met. The sessions successfully elevated conversations around anti-Black racism throughout our synagogue.

Some thoughts on what would we do differently:

  • White fragility and privilege: We White people are a defensive group. Acknowledging our implicit (and explicit) biases and our White privilege can be difficult. We would devote more time and provide more readings about White privilege and fragility in the first one or two sessions of any future series.
  • Addressing micro-aggressions: Inevitably, micro-aggressions arose during discussions, and the “no cross-talk” rule left them unaddressed at first. The facilitators then realized the need to address comments that could offend people of color. Introducing ways to address a racist comment or misconception is important.
  • Addressing Anti-Semitism: Given our Jewish setting, conversation sometimes veered into discussions equating antisemitism with anti-Black racism. Adding a session up-front about the intersection of antisemitism and racism and our common enemy, White supremacy, could provide a foundation for maintaining the focus on anti-Black racism.
  • Modes of discussion: Contemplative listening can be both frustrating and helpful. It is helpful in that it provides an opportunity for every participant to speak and be heard without interruption or criticism. This can encourage participation and honesty. On the other hand, as noted above, problems may arise on two fronts: there is the potential of letting inappropriate comments go unchallenged; and for most people, contemplative listening feels very stilted because it is not a conversation. We now think that starting off with contemplative listening is helpful in setting the tone and that other modes of discussion can be implemented in later sessions.

We believe it is important for Jewish communities across North America to have these kinds of discussions. By laying out our processes – especially by pointing out where we made missteps – we aim to encourage further discussions and offer practical steps. Note that since the conclusion of the Racial Justice Discussion Group, Adat Shalom has continued to partner with Jews United for Justice to explore the fraught and vital topic of anti-Black racism.

Fran Zamore and Jayme Epstein are active members of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). This piece is adapted from a longer essay that appeared in Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, an initiative of Reconstructing Judaism.