This Jewish New Year, Let’s Account for Racial Injustices In Our Own Communities

We must use our voices and our actions to ensure that our Jewish communities are more welcoming and inclusive for racial and ethnic minorities.

This article was sponsored by Avodah.

When Breonna Taylor was gunned down by police officers in Louisville, it struck close to home. When George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, it hit us hard across the Midwest. And when Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it felt like my backyard.

I live in Wisconsin. In many ways, the Midwest has been at the center of events that have sparked unrest across communities this summer.

As the leader of the Edot Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative, I saw firsthand how the national reckoning with systemic racism that was sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police was mirrored in the Jewish community. We, along with other organizations led by Jews of Color doing similar work to address the effects of contemporary racism on Jewish life, were inundated with requests for programming, partnership, and even our volunteer time. As a result, we had to become very discerning when fielding these requests.

So much so that I hesitated to say yes when I received a personal invitation to participate in something called “Speak Torah to Power” from my friend, Avodah CEO Cheryl Cook — with whom I grew up over summers together at Camp Tavor, the Midwest Habonim-Dror camp. Ultimately, however, I decided to lean in. After all, if anyone should be participating in speaking Torah to power in Tishrei of 5781, it is Black and Brown Jews who have been bearing a great amount of the labor involved in our Jewish community responses to this moment.

A year ago, I worked with a group of colleagues to launch a new organization to focus on making Midwest Jewish communities more welcoming to Jews of Color and diverse Jewish families. It was a tough year to launch a new organization. I’m really proud of the way our Edot team moved ahead and reached for ways to fulfill our mission of building a Midwest Jewish racial justice network that centers Jews of Color and diverse Jewish families, even in the midst of a global pandemic and community uprisings. Today, we have staff on the ground in Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Madison, and Minneapolis. We are partnering with over a dozen Midwest Jewish organizations. We are building relationships among Jews of Color and diverse Jewish families in our communities. We’re using technology to create an exciting series of programs that draw folks across our region.

We’ve learned a lot over the past year. We’ve learned that the majority of the Jews of Color currently engaged in Jewish community life in our region are children, so we need to fast-track pipeline programs that will maintain engagement over time as well as pipeline programs that will boost the numbers of Jews of Color who are Jewish community professionals and role models in our communities.

We’ve learned that there is great power in numbers. For individuals, it is very meaningful to connect with networks within and across communities. Furthermore, our Jewish organizations, especially in our smaller communities, also benefit from being part of collaborative regional opportunities.

We’ve learned that the need for our work is even greater than we’ve anticipated — and that we are going to need to build a much more sophisticated development strategy to meet the need and compensate our people appropriately for their work.

So what does it mean for our organization, for the Jews of Color in our communities, for the diverse Jewish families of the Midwest U.S. region to “speak Torah to power?”

The phrase, of course, is a play on the phrase “speak truth to power,” coined by civil rights icon Bayard Rustin, who first wrote in 1942 that “the primary social function of a religious society is to ‘speak the truth to power.’ The truth is that war is wrong. It is then our duty to make war impossible first in us and then in society.”

Later, in 1954, Rustin was part of a group that authored the influential Quaker movement document titled Speak Truth to Power, which called for nonviolent alternatives to end the Cold War. Although Rustin was an important member of the group, he reportedly asked that his name be omitted from the publication, fearing that his recent arrest for sex with another man would be used to discredit the document and its message. It wasn’t until 2012 that the American Friends Service Committee restored Rustin’s name to the publication, issuing an apology for the original omission.

This story of Rustin and his phrase “speak truth to power” is a story about who is left out of the official narrative a community tells itself about itself, and it is also a story about trying to repair a harm. For Jews, we have our own stories about who is left out of the official narrative that our community tells ourselves about ourselves — and we also have traditional teachings about what we do when we need to repair a harm.

Apropos to this time of year, in which Jews engage in teshuvah, the process of reviewing our deeds of the past calendar year, working to repair harms, and setting goals for improvement, the talk I produced for Avodah is about using a Jewish teaching — the practice of cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of the soul” — as a tool in our work to make Jewish communities more welcoming and inclusive for racial and ethnic minorities.

Avodah has created the Speak Torah to Power speaker series as part of their work to ignite social change and cultivate future Jewish leaders. In Rustin’s original framing, truth was the Quaker commitment to nonviolence, as a response to the power of the actions of oppressive governments. In the Avodah framing, our truth is our Torah, and power is framed as “the most pressing issues of our time.” In my talk, contemporary racism and its effects on Jewish community life are the power to which I speak my Torah.

The other talks in this year’s series conceive of power in different terms — the climate crisis, food justice, political engagement, creating change within our political systems — and the Torah spoken to these powers is spoken by incredible leaders: Nate Looney, Avodah’s manager of racial justice initiatives and a U.S. Army veteran with a background in urban farming; Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action; Jamie Margolin, a Latinx Jewish teen climate activist and author; founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger Rachel Sumekh, who credits her intersectional lens to her being raised by her Jewish Iranian immigrant parents; and the inimitable Ruth W. Messinger, former CEO of American Jewish World Service, who also held elected office in New York for 20 years. Past speakers from the series, now in its third year, include Yavilah McCoy, Dove Kent, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Dr. Koach Frazier, and other bold leaders. I am proud to be a part of this dynamic group, and I’m glad that I accepted my friend Cheryl’s invitation to be a part of this project.

But the truth is that none of us needs a TED Talk-style opportunity to leverage our Jewish heritage in service of our work to make the world a better place. Our histories are replete with those who have sought out opportunities to speak Torah to power in everyday life, and who then backed up their words with actions. This year, I challenge all of us to do the same.

Header image by Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Shahanna McKinney-Baldon

Shahanna McKinney Baldon is director of the Edot Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative. A longtime Wisconsin educator in both Jewish and public education, Shahanna has been a Jewish diversity advocate and thought leader for over 20 years. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and children.

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