What White Jewish-led Institutions Can Do For Racial Justice Now

By Jonah S. Boyarin

We live in heartbreaking times. George Floyd, of blessed memory, a Black Minnesotan, was slowly suffocated by a white police officer in front of a crowd of protesting onlookers. Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, of blessed memory, were also killed by police. During the pandemic, police have been four times more likely to arrest a Black person than a white person for the same violation of a stay-at-home order. In Chicago, Black people are 30% of the population, yet account for 60% of the COVID-19 deaths, a result of of systemic health discrimination and economic disenfranchisement. 

As mass protests across the country bring these issues yet again to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness, white Jewish leaders are recognizing that they, too, have a crucial role to play in changing racist policies, practices, and beliefs. Young Jewish people increasingly wish to affiliate with institutions that mirror their concerns for racial justice, and look to Jewishness as a resource for history, belonging, and moral guidance. Jewish and non-Jewish people of color are eager to see that we are ready to support them. 

As a white Jew who has supported and led racial justice work inside and outside the Jewish communal world, I have some tips for other white Jewish communal leaders. Whether you’re a day school administrator, a pulpit rabbi, or a Federation executive, there’s plenty you can do.

Take a stand

Put out an organizational statement that meets the gravity of the moment, and follows the lead of Black- and Brown-led racial justice organizations. Go beyond simply deploring generalized hate or bias: specifically condemn police violence. Differentiate between property damage and violence against a human being – after all, there is nothing more sacred in our tradition than a human life. Acknowledge that racism is a such a big, systemic problem with such long historical roots that it will require widespread action on all of our parts to solve it. And, it goes without saying, now’s not the time to ask for donations. 

Encourage your constituents to support racial justice. Take a cue from USY (United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative Movement’s youth organization): endorse #BlackLivesMatter and “encourage all … community members to take action … peacefully protest, call your representatives, donate to grassroots organizations – whatever form is meaningful to you.” Five years ago, such a clear and bold statement might have been an unimaginable risk to take. More and more, it’s simply what our communities expect from us.

Check in, Reach out

Some of your members, staff, or constituents are Black and Brown Jews. Offer them concrete support. Perhaps a mental health day for staff, or free remote counseling services for members affected directly by the crisis. Ask if there is any other way you can support them. Contribute to the Jews of Color Initiative COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

Reach out to peer Black and Brown institutions. Synagogues can reach out to churches, and ask if they can support with a donation, medical supplies, or by remotely attending any racial justice programs. Jewish educational organizations might reach out to Black and Brown educational nonprofits to offer time and resources to help build racial justice curricula for the moment. Amplify their messages in your social media and lists. 

Or, if this is the moment you realize that you don’t have professional relationships and partnerships with Black and Brown leaders and their organizations, make a commitment to develop long-term, supportive relationships and partnerships.

Build Racial Justice Within

Roni Ben-David and I co-founded the country’s first Diversity and Equity Program at a Jewish day school, because our Black, Brown, Mizrahi, queer, and female students and colleagues needed more power and support to thrive there, and our white students and colleagues (myself included) needed more guidance on how to build a respectful, joyful, equitable culture. We knew we needed help. 

We started by bringing in a Black Jewish racial justice and educational leader, who laid out a roadmap for our years-long task. We participated in racial justice conferences. We carried out a school climate survey for students, staff, and parents to assess needs. We conducted a listening session for Mizrahi students. And then we – staff, students, and parents – began the slow work of meeting those needs: summer readings on racial justice, transgender 101 trainings for staff, integration of Mizrahi history into the curriculum, and adding cultural competence as a criterion to our hiring process. My co-founder Roni, a Mizrahi woman, is now the program’s director.

There are several organizations that specialize in racial justice consulting for Jewish institutions. Bring them in. Send your staff to racial justice trainings in your general field. Create a permanent, internal equity task force, with real teeth, whose members reflect your various constituencies and represent the diversity of the Jewish world. Listen to marginalized voices in your own organization, and respond to their needs. Hire for cultural competence. Pay a living wage to every staff member. Assess and remove the barriers to participation and advancement for Black and Brown constituents and staff. Commit to long-term institutional equity. 

And when White Jews in your community object to what you’re doing – and they will! – remember that bringing them along is your role as their leader. While you’re doing this work in your organization, continue to develop your antiracist muscles – have a small circle or hevrusa of colleagues and thought partners with whom you can think through challenges and who can push you.

Take Individual Action 

Lead by example. 

If you can attend a protest, do so. If not, there are so many to help out. Donate to bail funds. Offer to be the emergency contact for someone who is out protesting. Help buy supplies for protestors and figure out how to get them to someone who’s attending.

Become a member of your local Jewish racial and economic justice organization, if you have one: CJJ (North Carolina), JCUA (Chicago), DJJ (Detroit/Michigan), Kavod House (Boston), JUFJ (DC/Maryland/Baltimore), JFREJ (NYC), etc. Join Bend the Arc or the RAC nationally. You will find experts there in the field of racial justice who will provide you with invaluable guidance. 

Take Institutional Action

Begin the process of examining your and your organization’s relationship with police and the criminal justice system. Organize a public workshop on police violence, led by an experienced Black or Brown racial justice educator whom you compensate for their time and expertise. Apply your particular lens of Jewish history, Torah, culture, or advocacy to your offering. Host or attend a Know Your Rights Training for safe and empowered interaction with police. Consider alternatives to police for your Jewish community spaces, synagogues, and schools, and especially listen to Black Jews and other Jews of Color on how policing and police-style security impacts them. 

Move your organization towards alternatives to policing and prisons. Call for our legislators to prioritize funding badly needed educational, health, and infrastructure programs, rather than doubling down on police. Are you supporting community oversight of police, shorter prison sentences, an end to solitary confinement, and the right to vote for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people? These are hard but necessary questions to ask if we want to build a society that sanctifies human life. 

Moving Forward

Eight years ago, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors had yet to coin #BlackLivesMatter. Mass protesters had yet to thrust the issue of racist police violence into the awareness of everyday white Americans. Today, we are aware and so we are obligated to take action. Many younger Jewish people in particular see this as one of their main issues. Your members, constituents, staff, and non-Jewish neighbors are all watching you to see how your organization will show up for racial justice. The only way out is through systemic cultural and material changes to our society, and every hand is needed in that effort.

Jewish institutions have an opportunity to take an active moral and logistical role in Jewish movements for racial justice, by funding, amplifying, and showing up for movements to invest in Black communities and end police violence. Seize the opportunity.

Thank you to Rebecca Ennen and Nadav David for your assistance with this piece.

Jonah S. Boyarin (@JonahNYC) is a writer, educator, Yiddish translator, and born-and-raised New Yorker. The Jewish Week recently named him one of 2020’s “36 under 36.” Jonah always roots for the underdog, except when it comes to his beloved NY Yankees.