The High Holidays are a time for introspection and forgiveness, where we as Jews have an obligation, or better yet an opportunity, to seek teshuvah, repentance, and take responsibility for our thoughts and our actions in relation to one another. Teshuvah is inherently a deeply personal exercise, where we acknowledge our own transgressions, cease harmful actions, seek forgiveness, make amends, and commit to not repeating the same mistakes in the future.
While this atonement process often centers on our specific wrong-doings, there are certain types of issues for which we can unintentionally do harm thru our inaction, or lack of attention paid to something we have a moral duty to address. The push for true racial justice in America is one such issue. When it comes to racism and white supremacy in the US, our destinies as Americans and as humans are intertwined. Neutrality is not an option.
Today, with racial justice at the forefront of national discourse, many American Jews are grappling with our place in the mix, both within our own multicultural mishpuchah and in relationship to other marginalized groups. Many Jewish institutions are actively working to diversify leadership and to be more inclusive and supportive for Jews of all ethnic backgrounds. Productive conversations are probing our complex shared history of marginalization and assimilation in American social and economic standing.
My own organizing in the Jewish community largely centers around building relationships between Black and/or Jewish Detroiters and driving productively uncomfortable conversations about race amongst Metro-Detroit Jews. I’m a board member with the JCRC / AJC, essentially the advocacy and community relations arm of Jewish Federation, and through that role, I’m actively involved with the Coalition for Black & Jewish Unity, a regional effort to build authentic relationships and speak out against racism, antisemitism, and all forms of hatred. Much of my work, and this essay in particular, focuses on the way white and white-passing Jews relate to Black communities in the US.
So, what role do each of us play in this process? Do we each bear personal responsibility to act again institutional racism? To reflect on our own proximity to whiteness? Is it enough to not act outwardly racist, or are we also responsible for our unconcious biases as well?
As we approach the Day of Atonement, I believe we have an exciting opportunity to leverage the wisdom of teshuvah to help us navigate these tricky questions, and I’ll zero in on 4 examples:
- Teshuvah for ways that we passively and uncritically benefit from our skin color.
- Teshuvah for making poor judgments of others as a result of unconscious biases.
- Teshuvah for failing to welcome and support our multicultural mishpucha.
- Teshuvah for the falling out of relationship with our friends in the Black community.
1) Teshuvah for ways that we passively and uncritically benefit from our skin color
Several years ago, a close African-American friend of mine, who I’ll call “John”, was shopping at Macy’s in Somerset Mall. He was approached by a man in uniform and brought into a back room where he was shown security footage of a young man of relatively similar build and skin color shoplifting from the store the previous week. Despite having no connection to the crime, he was questioned about the incident while handcuffed to a table and detained overnight in jail. John had driven to the mall in a car borrowed from another friend, who called me sobbing in the middle of the night unable to reach or locate him, and we spent most of the night frantically looking for him. We’d find out later that the next morning, a cold winter day, John was walked outside in handcuffs without a coat, where he pleaded his case to a magistrate. Thankfully, he was immediately released with no further questions.
If you are reading this and have white skin, can you imagine this happening to you? Your child?
In order to understand our place in the racial mix, it’s essential to educate ourselves about the history of whiteness in America, our proximity to it as Jews, and its very real impact on our lived experiences. The concept of “whiteness” is often misunderstood. When I refer to “whiteness” here, I’m not describing the color of one’s skin, but rather, the ideology of whiteness in an American context. The ideology of whiteness is a social construct devised to categorize people in order to create a privileged ingroup and disempowered outgroup.
Because of the very real historical and contemporary experiences of discrimination and marginalization experienced by European-American Jews, the notion of Jews belonging to the racial in-group has a tendancy to stir some dissonance and occasional defensiveness. Jewish proximity to whiteness is so complex that it has inspired many books, articles, and programs.
In her book “How Jews became White Folks,” author Karen Brodkin explains the way that race and whiteness are dynamic social forces subject to change by time and place, impacted by changing social perceptions and ability to assimilate into mainstream culture over time. She explains how European Jews, like most other light-skinned immigrant groups that migrated to the US throughout the 20th Century, were initially viewed as a racial “other,” but then over the following generations, were largely able to assimiliate into American whiteness, or the racial in-group, particularly as it relates to access to housing, jobs, capital, education, and treatment in the criminal justice system.
To help us make sense of this, she offers a helpful framework that draws distinction between Identity (how we see ourselves) and Assignment (how others see us). In other words, it’s not particularly relevant whether or not we self-identify as being white if others generally view us as such, which has very real implications for our access to opportunity and treatment in our society at large. Thus, we can acknowledge the unearned benefits that come along with our racial assignment, while at the same time, owning aspects of our marginalized Jewish identities, both current and historic, that can inform and inspire our fight for the liberation of all marginalized people.
This dichotemy was succinctly captured by Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, in a powerful 2016 Atlantic article titled Are Jews White?, where he states:
“There’s no doubt that the vast majority of American Jews live with what we would call white privelege. And yet, even though light-skinned Jews may benefit from being perceived as white, “[Jewish] identity is shaped by exogenous forces–ostracism, exile, and other forms of persecution. I think there is this sense of shared struggle [...] programmed into the DNA of the Jewish people.
By acknowledging our complex relationship to the ideology of whiteness and the ways we may benefit from it, may we seek atonement.
2) Teshuvah for making poor judgments of others as a result of unconscious biases
In addition to reflecting on our proximity to whiteness, it’s crucially important for each of us to explore the ways conscious and unconscious biases impact our behavior. For those of us who are human, biases are baked into your brain. People are quick to make predictable snap judgments about others that are helpful in certain contexts but harmful in others. In a racial context, this can cause direct, unintentional harm, especially in aggregate.
The first step here is to be honest with ourselves about how these biases impact all of us. Take a moment to think about the last time you were uncomfortable, maybe even quick to be concerned for your safety in the presence of another you knew nothing about, other than their appearance. Maybe it was in a gas station, in an elevator, or in the park. For me, my bias appeared just the other day when I was walking down the street in Detroit towards a large Black gentleman in a hoodie; I suddenly noticed that I was a little bit nervous, to no fault of this presumably nice guy, or quite frankly, of my own.
More recent research unfortunately shows that we cannot easily train away unconscious biases; however, there are concrete strategies we can adopt to keep them in check. One way to do this is by pausing and reflecting in the moment. I often find that when I further analyze a negative snap judgment, I realize that it’s completely unfounded, rooted in stereotypes rather than facts. In the case I mentioned above, I also reflected on how lucky I am that others don’t generally perceive me as looking dangerous, instead giving me the benefit of the doubt. Another strategy I’ve found useful in my work is to challenge our prejudiced assumptions by forming relationships with people from racial outgroups. The goal here isn’t to be perfect, but to be on the path of self-awareness and improvement.
I should note that a natural response to acknowledging our own internalized racial bias is to feel guilty. Jewish teaching points to guilt as being a productive force in context of teshuvah, so long as it inspires a change of behavior. And so, I encourage those grappling with feelings of guilt not to shy away, but rather, to channel this energy into productive self-reflection and action.
By working to reflect on our biases in real-time and then challenging our preconcieved notions, we can begin to break down our biases and seek atonement.
3) Teshuvah for failing to welcome and support our multicultural mishpucha
In Metro-Detroit and in the US at large, a vast majority of Jews are of European decent. This means that for most of us, we’re likely to have been primarily exposed to Jews who are culturally similar to ourselves, and much less likely to be regularly engaged with Jews of different cultural backgrounds from our own. This is true for individuals as well as the leaders of our various institutions. This heavy skewing towards Ashkenazi Judaism is sometimes affectionately referred to as being “Ashkenormative.”
At the same time, far too often in my work, I hear stories from Jews of Color feeling uncomfortable or misunderstood in predominantly white Jewish spaces.
In order to make our community the welcoming, inclusive place that I’m confident we all want it to be, it’s essential that we first decenter our own worldview. In order to do this effectively, we need exposure to other cultures. Once we do that, we can shift to viewing Ashenazi Judaism as one of many valuable lenses into Jewish life and culture, while simultaneously adjusting our language and attitudes around what it means to look and act Jewish. The amazing thing is that we’re all members of a beautifully diverse, multicultural community that is global Jewry, and we have an exciting opportunity to celebrate this multiculturalism as one of our strongest assets.
This point was hammered home for me when, in summer 2017, I had the privilege of attending the ROI Summit thru the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, where I joined 150 Jewish grassroots leaders from 29 different countries for a week-long summit in Jerusalem. Participants represented a wide range of cultures, political identities, and levels of religious observance. I met Jews from every continent, notably including Rachel, an observant woman from rural Uganda who sells hand-made yarmulkes to fund her work supporting local women. Amidst this cultural mix, the most striking of all was the inexplicable feeling of cohesiveness that surfaced, which I’d venture to call “Peoplehood.” This multicultural exposure left me with a deeper understanding of myself and what makes my community's expression of Judaism unique and valuable, while at the same time expanding my notion of what it means to be Jewish.
While not everyone reading this may be able to travel or attend this particular program, there are many ways to expand your exposure from where you are, here and now. I recommend following and supporting the organization Be’chol Lashon, Hebrew for “in every language,” which aims to strengthen Jewish identity by raising awareness about the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity of Jewish people and experience around the globe. Another incredible organization is Jewish Majorca, which explores Jewish experience around the world by way of regular virtual tours led by local Jews.
By exposing ourselves to Jews of different backgrounds, we can deepen our understanding of which aspects of our Jewish experience are universal versus unique to our own lineage. This allows us to incorporate diverse perspectives and approach programming in a way that’s more inclusive to all. Additionally, once we recognize the rich, multicultural range of Jewish experience, we can also start to see that issues of race, such as those that uniquely impact Black Americans, are issues that directly impact members of our Jewish community.
By decentering our worldviews and expanding our vision of what it means to look and act Jewish, may we seek atonement.
4) Teshuvah for falling out of relationship with the Black community
Much of my community work centers around building healthy relationships between Black and/or Jewish Detroiters. I’m a firm believer that the most efficient way to increase our scope of empathy is by expanding our social networks. Simply put, issues tend to be more salient when they directly impact our friends. When we build an authentic foundation of trust with folks from different communities, we create new opportunities for honest dialogue, active listening, and collaboration that don’t otherwise exist.
I’ll never forget the first time I was the only white person in a group of all Black friends talking about their experiences with police. For context, this was years before Black Lives Matters and the related mainstream media attention, and I was blown away to hear my friend, an upstanding local restaurant owner, share stories of how he’d been arrested or harrassed by police dozens of times by his early 30’s, clearly influenced by his large stature and appearance. Everyone in the room except for me had at least one family member in prison.
Diversifying our friend groups is easier said than done. Metro-Detroit as a region is highly racially segregated, which means that we’re more likely to live around and go to school with people who are culturally similar to us. Because of this separation, I like to practice what my friend Pastor Aramis Hinds calls “Intentional Proximity,” which means seeking out and/or creating racially or culturally-mixed experiences.
This past May, I helped organize a program through JCRC / AJC called Project Understanding, which brought together young Black and/or Jewish leaders in Detroit for an immersive tour of the city thru the lens of Black/Jewish relations followed by honest conversations around shared advocacy goals. We learned about members of Detroit’s first synagogue, the original Temple Beth El, who played key roles in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to Canada. We visited the sites of various Detroit neighborhoods where Jewish and Black Detroiters lived and collaborated side-by-side. We also discussed the painful history of redlining in this region, where Jews and other European immigrants were ultimately able to get federally-backed home loans and take advantage of economic opportunities in the newly developing suburbs while Black residents were explicitly denied these opportunities, relegated to certain areas as their home values plummeted. We discussed how being honest about the historical underpinnings of our region’s segregation and its implications for generational wealth disparity are crucial steps in repairing the relationship between Black and Jewish communities.
I also run a program called Coalition Series, where I host semi-regular brunch and dinner parties, bringing together exceptional Black and/or Jewish Detroiters who are less likely to cross paths simply because our city is so culturally segregated. My goal is to help people make friends they may not otherwise meet, and in doing so, build a foundation of trust between a group of influential machers that opens doors to deeper understanding and meaningful cross-communal collaboration.
By acknowledging the ways we’ve fallen out of relationship with our Black neighbors, forgetting that our liberation is tied up together, may we seek atonement.
In summary, we can’t individually solve racism or dismantle white supremacy. But in the spirit of tikkun olam, while it’s not our responsibility to fix it, it is our obligation to start the work. With anti-Black racism in America, lack of introspection and action from white-skinned people, including Jews, often contributes to the problem by helping maintain a harmful status quo. So what is our individual responsibility?
I’m not suggesting that each of us quits our job to become full-time activists; but rather, we each have a major opportunity to do the necessary self-work by educating ourselves, reflecting on our own positionality, and expanding our cultural exposure and social networks.
In seeking forgiveness for our unearned advantages, may we feel inspired to spread access, opportunity, and resources to those held back by forces outside of their control.
In seeking forgiveness for harm caused by our unconscious biases, may we feel inspired to reflect regularly on our own snap judgments, challenge our assumptions, and give people–particularly racial minorities–the benefit of the doubt.
In seeking forgiveness for the ways we’ve fallen short for Jews of Color, may we elevate underrepresented voices, celebrate multiculuralism as one of our community’s strongest assets, and decenter our worldviews by reframing Ashkenazi Judaism as one of many rich lenses into Jewish culture.
In seeking forgiveness for falling out of relationship with our Black neighbors, may we feel inspired to expand our social networks, collaborate across cultural lines, and advocate for policies that disproportionately impact vulnerable members of our broader community, such as housing, education, and criminal justice reform.
Shana tova, may you have a sweet and reflective new year.