How to Focus on Racial Justice During the High Holidays

August 9, 2016Sarah Greenberg

For the Jewish calendar, the end of summer signals the soon-approaching High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. During the past year, the Reform Movement has been deeply engaged in a campaign to pursue racial justice, and starting on July 18 through Election Day, you can join our new initiative, Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation. This initiative will focus on ensuring that people of color are valued at the ballot box this year, rather than pushed aside by efforts to curtail voting rights.

The right to vote is not only fundamental to our democracy and ensuring the voice of each citizen is heard and valued, but our votes help impact the social justice issues about which we most deeply care. So, as we think about racial justice and voting rights this late summer and fall, we’re also thinking about other key issues that are important to repairing our broken world and combating racial injustice.

Environmental Justice

On Rosh HaShanah, as we think about the new year and the beginning of a new cycle, and as we engage in the holy work of t’shuvah, repentance, and self-reflection on our actions, we turn our thoughts to the environment and our role as the stewards of God’s Creation. As we think about the importance of the environment, we know that the impacts of climate change do not affect all people equally: low income communities and people of color are disproportionately affected by climate change and do not have equal access to clean air and water, and affordable renewable energy. Check out this new resource on the connection between Rosh Hashanah and environmental justice.

Criminal Justice

The Days of Awe – the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – are devoted to contemplation of our sins, and asking for forgiveness. A just society is one in which everyone is judged by the same merit, where prejudices based on race, gender, nationality or any other criteria have no place. A just criminal justice system is also one which primarily seeks not the punishment of wrongdoers but the rehabilitation of former felons. The effects of over-criminalization and mass incarceration have been incredibly damaging for all Americans, but particularly for racial and ethnic minorities living in the nation’s poorest communities. One in every three black men can expect to serve in prison at some point in his life, as compared to one in every 17 white men. Learn more about the Reform Movement’s racial justice campaign.


On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, we fast to free ourselves from our daily needs. This allows us the time we need to concentrate on the tasks at hand on this holy day: t’shuvah (repentance), t’filah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity). As we deny our bodies nourishment, we hope to draw ourselves closer to God. People of color experience hunger at disproportionately higher rates. Much of this can be attributed to the higher poverty rate for black Americans compared to the entire population. Other factors include the lack of supermarkets and healthy food options in low income communities made up predominately of people of color. Check out this new resource on the connection between Yom Kippur, hunger, and racial justice.

These resources can be used to inspire kavanah, intention, for High Holiday services, for personal reflection or perhaps as a conversation starter around your holiday table. They can also be adapted to fit your family or community’s holiday observances or traditions. In this upcoming time of renewal and redemption, may we commit ourselves to making 5777 a year more whole, more compassionate and more just than the year that came before.

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