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Pursuing Racial Justice on Shabbat Tzedek

Pursuing Racial Justice on Shabbat Tzedek

Statue of Justice, with law books in the background

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.
Justice, justice you shall pursue.
Deuteronomy 16:18

Next weekend, Reform congregations around the United States will commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with our annual celebration of Shabbat Tzedek. As we engage in community dinners, service projects, and learning programs, we will have the opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made in advancing civil rights in the past half-century, as well as to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of racial justice.

This Shabbat Tzedek comes at a difficult time for our country. A resolution adopted by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in 2014 noted that longstanding structural injustices, especially racial injustices, continue to plague our society. The recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and too many other individuals have been painful reminders of these problems, as has the fact that one in three black men born today will serve time in prison. And we recognize that racial disparities in our communities contribute to making our education systems “separate and unequal.” The question now is how each of us will respond to the ever-mounting evidence that the racial equality that Dr. King sought decades ago still eludes us.

Our observation of Shabbat Tzedek occurs at an important moment for our Movement. Last summer, hundreds of Reform rabbis and congregants marched with a sefer Torah for more than 1,000 miles as part of the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice. We began in Selma, Alabama – the city where, in 1965, peaceful protestors calling for the equal right to vote were attacked by police as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday. And the march concluded at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. – the site where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. During the entire Journey, the Torah stood as a powerful symbol of our obligation as Reform Jews to live out our tradition’s teachings and to continue the work of those who came before us in pursuing justice.

Most recently, the URJ has launched a campaign for racial justice. Structured around three “R’s” – reflect, relate, and reform – this campaign aims to advance education within our congregations about race and racism, foster more diverse and inclusive Reform Jewish communities, build networks of cooperation and solidarity across lines of race, and promote advocacy in support of policies that mitigate racial inequality. Shabbat Tzedek is thus only the beginning of a much longer, movement-wide focus on upending racism in our communities and our nation.

There are many ways to pursue racial justice on Shabbat Tzedek and beyond. One is through furthering understanding about race and racism in our congregations and our families. The RAC’s website hosts a variety of racial justice resources, including sermon starters, sample services and discussion guides that can help facilitate personal reflection and communal conversation about these difficult topics.

You can also take action. During Shabbat Tzedek, the Reform Jewish community across the country will be joining with neighbors to participate in local service projects aimed at combatting racial inequity. If you are interested in finding a service opportunity in your own community, Repair the World has compiled a map of projects taking place over the MLK Weekend.

Finally, you can add your voice to those calling for racial justice on a federal level. Join the Reform Movement on January 19 for a national call-in day to urge your Senators to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), a law aimed at reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. This bill aims to reduce mass incarceration by lowering mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and by giving judges greater legal discretion to circumvent mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders.

The Torah’s commandment to pursue justice is core to our Reform identity. May our observance of Shabbat Tzedek honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and inspire us to continue to work together to create a world in which people of all races are treated with justice.

Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman is the immediate past chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. She currently serves as a vice chair of the URJ’s North American board of trustees and is a member of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, CA.

Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman
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