Ways Reform Jews Can Act Now for Racial Justice

June 3, 2020Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

George Floyd was murdered by an officer of the law whose duty was to protect him; he died crying out for his mother, begging to breathe. Ruach Elohim, the Divine Spirit, can be understood as the Breath of Life, a gift from the Creator of All Life. To deny a human being breath is idolatrous – and George Floyd’s murder comes after countless Black and Brown people have similarly been killed and countless others have suffered the brutal systems of racism in our country.

The United States simply cannot achieve the values of “justice for all" to which it aspires until we address ongoing racism on the local and national levels. And we can begin by asking ourselves what actions can we take to make this world one of justice, wholeness, and compassion.

Here are eight ways that white and white-passing Reform Jews, especially, can act now in pursuit of social justice, both directly on a systemic level. These include advocacy for policy change and for confronting racism within our own communities, and are guided by contributions and feedback from Jews of Color.

1. Beware a misplaced sense of urgency. 

In their book Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, authors Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun suggest that white-dominant people and groups consider “how [to] make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency.” They explain that acting hastily in such moments “makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences.” 

White Jews should not rush to make immediate decisions without Jews of Color at the table. What white people think needs to be done now may very well not be the case and could cause unnecessary harm. Though it’s likely that some kind of immediate action is indeed needed, white people should take cues from leaders of Color – particularly those who have been doing antiracism work for many years and will continue to do so beyond this moment. 

2.  Don’t let white emotions dominate spaces. 

Jones and Okun explain that dominant groups often believe “that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort.” By taking up a lot of space to emote, intellectualize, and seek comfort, they can cause unintentional harm. (Read about the phenomenon of “white tears” in multiracial settings.) 

When we are given the gift of multiracial or cross-racial dialogue, we can practice taking up less space and sitting with our discomfort (including processing our emotions with other white people). 

3. Assess your own inclusion efforts. 

The Union for Reform Judaism is in the process of creating a self-assessment tool to help Reform communities gauge their inclusion efforts; it will be made widely available within the coming days and linked in this post. Although it is designed to be used in congregational and communal settings, you can also take the assessment as an individual.

4. Center the voices of People of Color.  

A few ways you can do this within the Jewish community are to listen to and to share episodes of our podcast, Wholly Jewish, whose first season features one-on-one interviews with Jews of Color discussing their experiences, insights, and how their intersectional identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community.

You can also read Chris Harrison’s powerful new essay “The Black Jews Are Tired” and JTA’s “‘Believe us’: Black Jews respond to the George Floyd protests, in their own words,” as well as past essays from Jews of Color on a variety of topics relevant to Jewish life.

Also, on Wednesday, June 3, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism hosted a Facebook Live conversation with Eric K. Ward, executive director of the Western States Center and one of the leading voices on the relationship between hate violence and preserving democratic institutions, governance, and inclusive societies. Watch that video on Facebook now.

5. Contact your elected officials.  

Across the nation, police officers do vital and heroic work to keep communities safe – yet racism has existed throughout U.S. history, creating systems that have resulted in the disproportionate use of force against People of Color.  

Today, Black men and boys are 2.5 times more likely to die during a police encounter than their white counterparts. Individuals from minority communities are also more likely to be stopped by police, and those stops are more likely to result in frisks, searches, and arrests than those involving white individuals

Use the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s action alert tool to easily contact your members of Congress to urge them to prohibit racial profiling and deem maneuvers that restrict the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain by law enforcement to be federal civil rights violations.  

6. Take part in justice efforts led by communities of Color.  

Stand in solidarity and action with the NAACP’s #WeAreDoneDying campaign, a multi-pronged effort that includes a petition calling for justice for George Floyd, as well as action steps related to criminal justice, economic issues, health issues, and voting rights/access.  

Check out, too, The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, an effort to confront systemic racism, shift the moral narrative, impact policies and elections, and build lasting power for poor and impacted people. You’re invited to join the campaign and the broader Reform Jewish community on June 20 – 21 for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington, which will bring together the nation’s largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-wealth people, moral and religious leaders, and advocates committed to addressing the crisis of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and more. 

7. Engage with experts. 

You’re invited to join us on the RAC’s Facebook page on Wednesday, June 3 at 5:00p.m. ET for a Facebook Live conversation with Eric K. Ward, executive director of the Western States Center and one of the leading voices on the relationship between hate violence and preserving democratic institutions, governance, and inclusive societies. If you are unable to watch the conversation when it airs on Facebook, it will be available to watch afterward. 

8. Join the Reform Jewish community's civic engagement efforts.  

Every Voice, Every Vote is a nonpartisan effort to strengthen our democracy by encouraging every citizen to participate in the U.S. election. A key tenet of the campaign is working to combat voter suppression. Educate yourself about the candidates for office up and down the ballot to ensure that they reflect your views and values. Visit rac.org/cec to learn more and get involved. 

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When asked why he would risk death by the Roman empire and study Torah, Rabbi Akiva responded that a Jew could no more abstain from Torah study than a fish could live on land. All the more so for Reform Jews, whose Torah – whose very history – is steeped in the struggle for social justice. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “Some are guilty; all are responsible.” Let us take responsibility together.