I experience myself as an optimist by nature, yet in the last few years, even though I personally have so much to be grateful for — work that I love, adult children who are thriving, and a new grandson — I have watched my mood deteriorate, as feelings of cynicism and despair about the state of the world have grown.
Having said that, I have just completed a course that feels life altering. The course, called Whiteness Havruta, is designed for white Ashkenazi Jews and offers an in-depth study of white privilege and systemic racism. The learning was highly personal and deeply challenging. It was designed to help white Jews examine racism and our relationship to it, including how we personally interact with, and am experienced, by People of Color.
I was drawn to the course for several reasons. A move to Detroit from Toronto six years ago made me a fresh witness to a city that is still in so many ways starkly divided (even in the midst of Detroit making a “comeback”). My early experience of exploring the city, in its beauty and its ruins, and then driving back to my home in the vastly different suburbs was shocking and created discomfort in me. I now wonder why this experience seemed so new to me.
As a social worker/psychoanalyst by profession, my perspective is one that includes awareness of the impact of social injustice (and trauma) on psychological functioning. The opportunity to learn more about the struggles of those who never feel safe or secure also drew me in.
Furthermore, the extreme political tension of the last four years, and the arrival of Covid-19, continued to expose me to the reality of racial inequity in both Michigan and across the country. It laid bare the lack of equal access to the most basic resources necessary for all Detroiters to live safely and flourish. I see now that this was a reality so painful that I often unconsciously held it at bay, denying it full entry into my awareness.
The pain was there, but perhaps unbearable, in part because I felt powerless to do anything to change it. Being white, I am privileged enough to be able to avoid the pain of the injustices our Black neighbors face every day. I feel grateful that as a result of this course, I have been able to let these realities in. I now cannot stop thinking about the risks involved in "driving while Black," "walking while Black" — the oppression that Black people face every day in just trying to have the same access to rights and resources as their white neighbors.
It is only by holding these realities in mind, that we can step into our power to do something about them.
An essential lesson for me from the course has been to understand that one cannot do this work alone. This realization has resulted in an amazing shift in my overall state of mind. Despair being replaced by restored hope. Somehow, in the context of this learning, I have found the strength to look into the darkness that is oppression — an ill that must be named, challenged and overcome before we can all be free.
Within this work, lies joy.
Doing this work with others means becoming a part of a community. It means having a group of people with whom you can share, analyze and act regarding racial justice. This class helped me create that community for myself. All my teachers and mentors from whom I’ve had the opportunity to learn are part of that community now. They helped me to begin to cultivate a racial justice lens from which to view the world and find my place in it:
April Baskin, one of the country’s leading Jewish racial justice activists, and the founder and director of joyousjustice.com; Barry Rubin, my Havruta (study partner); Rabbi Alana Alpert, founder and leader of Detroit Jews for Justice; Susannah Goodman, DJJ’s deputy director; all the new partners I have found, including so many passionate young people working across cultural lines, and inspiring me with what is possible.
I am also grateful to Rabbi Asher Lopatin and to my fellow members of the The Coalition of Black and Jewish Unity advisory council.
This learning spoke to all parts of me: trauma therapist, social worker, mother, grandmother, and very powerfully, to my Jewish soul. I understand so clearly now how our very humanity and freedom is connected to the liberation of all people, and that with this understanding, we can play a powerful role as co-liberators. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights and women’s rights activist from the 1960’s, “Nobody's free until everybody's free.” I think so many of us feel the weight of this truth more every day. Racial justice work is amongst the most pressing work of our time.
The course examined the complicated relationship between Jews and Blacks, antisemitism and racism. More personally it gave me the knowledge and skills which can guide me in actually living the Jewish values I was raised with. It helped me learn how to work in tangible ways toward Tikkun Olam and the fullness of the mitzvah of loving thy neighbor. This includes a commitment to working in small ways every day toward equal access for all to the necessities of life. Judaism teaches the unity of the human race, yet faith and belief are not enough. It is through the actions we take to obliterate inequity that we will truly find peace.
I wanted to share this experience because I know I am not alone. The dissonance between my values and my lived reality was becoming difficult to navigate. Personally, I have found that my only choice is to face racism head on.
The good news is that doing this in the context of a skilled and supportive community has been beyond enriching, and soul nourishing, it has been transforming. It is comforting to know that the Jewish community is ripe with racial justice and social justice organizations deeply engaged in work that is inclusive and loving, working with humility to create the world we want and need.
I am hopeful my experience may speak to you.
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