By David Eisner
In the weeks before the holidays, I participated in several gatherings of organizations devoted to service and social change. At Service Matters: A Summit on Jewish Service, convened by Repair the World (of which I’m CEO), 125 organizations wrestled with how engaging thousands of Jews in meaningful service through a Jewish lens might support social change, especially in the area of racial justice. Other convenings included a retreat of the CEOs of Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a gathering of the Board of Points of Light, the largest organization devoted to volunteering, and a conference on international volunteering sponsored by the Brookings institute, the Building Bridges Coalition, and Service Year Alliance.
Each convening struggled with the reality that, even as we met, black men were shot by police officers in multiple cities across America, the Black Lives Matter movement was rapidly changing the voices in the racial justice dialogue and the dialogue itself, and the national election was spotlighting racial issues in an extreme and polarizing way.
Over the holiday weeks I reflected on how the our current environment presents some contradicting realities, especially among Jewish organizations:
- Yes, systemic racial injustice is currently illuminated by a bright public spotlight, creating a unique window of opportunity to drive change for the better;
- And, yes, there’s a significant increase in the number of Jewish young adults and others that want want to act in support for racial justice;
- However, instead of more organizations jumping into the fray, working to maximize the opportunity, we’re seeing fewer engage.
The upshot is not just ironic, but stunning: our generational opportunity to move racial justice forward, with more citizens than ever, including Jews, wanting to take a stand, is marked by organizations stuck on the sidelines, paralyzed by uncertainty about how to navigate the risks.
Why? Because the same challenges that have always made engaging in racial issues difficult, risky and uncomfortable are exacerbated by new concerns: almost all organizations are unfamiliar with new racial justice leaders; the consequences of saying or doing something wrong feel higher; and, racial justice feels even more politically divisive than usual.
And, for Jewish organizations these new challenges are joined by a couple of others: the Israel-Palestinian issue has become wrongly enmeshed with racial justice issues; and, this racial justice movement has emerged at the same time that many in our community are experiencing and working to respond to rising anti-semitism, which is frustratingly not acknowledged.
Over the holidays, I considered my own moments of hesitancy and worry, and I reflected on my deepest aspirations for my behavior, my organization’s behavior, and the Jewish and human legacy I want to leave to my children. Around Rosh Hashanah, I started considering five resolutions – after Simchat Torah, I consider them sealed:
1. Act in Solidarity, Regardless of Challenges and Uncertainty
I won’t be deterred by my fear of putting the wrong foot forward, of appearing ignorant or even of being called “racist” for engaging with authenticity; and, I won’t be paralyzed by the fear of alienating stakeholders.
Through Repair the World I’ll work to equip people with opportunities to take action in solidarity through meaningful service. We will address the impact of systemic racism in education and food Justice, which like many needs in marginalized communities are fostered by systemic racism. Service builds empathy and connections across communities – and, it provides an opportunity to emphasize internally and externally that acting against racial injustice is imperative. For opportunities or ideas, check out Repair the World’s newly-launched campaign, Act Now for Racial Justice.
2. Seek Out Jews of Color and Welcome them to the Center of our Community
The fastest-growing demographic in the Jewish community are Jews of color, currently over 10% of our population. They tell us that they do not feel either sufficiently included or welcomed in the Jewish community. If we intend to address the broader society’s challenges connected to race, our Jewish community should affirm the voices and leadership of our own people of color, and break down the barriers holding them at the margins of our community.
3. Follow the Lead of the African American Community
The paradigm of supporting community leadership has been practiced for decades within the field of Community Organizing. For someone like me, not steeped in that methodology, but habituated in leading organizations and claiming public credit, it is difficult – sometimes to the point of sitting on my hands and biting my cheeks – to take a quiet back-seat, and to be responsive to the leadership of others who have lived and are living the experience of oppression. Yet, the effort is well worth it. Many of us who engage in service with people from other communities find that acknowledging our outsider status is a key tool for building relationships and self-awareness.
4. Assert My Voice and Leadership within My Privileged Community
At the same time that marginalized communities have a right to ask me to take a back seat in working with them, they are also right to expect that I, and other people and organizations who care about their plight, will be forceful and aggressive in broadening our own communities’ support for racial justice.
One generation removed from the Jewish German community, I learned at the dinner table what happens when people wait for others to act before joining in solidarity with those who are oppressed. While I am not equating that history with present day, the impetus to act rings true: Each of us can engage our own communities as if our fate rests on our solidarity with others – because it does.
5. Be Curious
Defensiveness is almost inevitable as we explore our relationship with race – it is also the enemy of personal growth and self-awareness. Curiosity is the strongest antidote to defensiveness; it is impossible to feel both curious and defensive at the same time.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve learned a lot through forced curiosity in the last several months. And I resolve to stay curious as we continue this long and urgent journey toward racial justice.
David Eisner is President and CEO of Repair the World.