Searching for Answers, Working for Justice
(printed in the July 2020 Issue of “The Reflector”)
The unconscionable death of George Floyd in late May, and the subsequent protests over a deep and systemic racism in America have shaken our society like few events in recent memory.
We feel the need to DO something; to fix the brokenness in our world.
And we are searching for answers.
It is frustrating sometimes when easy answers don’t come. But if the answers were easy, our society would have eradicated the issues of racism and discrimination generations ago.
So what DO we do?
No one action is sufficient, and many can potentially move us beyond our comfort zones. The work of dismantling oppression is and should be uncomfortable. To remain tranquil amidst suffering is to actively choose to ignore the abuse and mistreatment of a people—an act that itself contributes to those very systems of oppression.
In our recent statement, the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, pledged to “join with our partners throughout Richmond and around the nation in demanding justice and systemic change.” We believe that “‘Justice for all’ must mean something and that our country simply cannot achieve the values to which it aspires until we address ongoing racism in all sectors and at all levels of society. We stand in solidarity with the peaceful protesters demanding this change, while we condemn the destruction and lawlessness that distracts us from the importance of the demonstrations.”
It is clear to us that “the Jewish community knows all too well the dangers of bias and prejudice, particularly when it becomes institutionalized racism within the structures of society.” Our Federation, through its Jewish Community Relations Committee, “will work in common cause with the Black community to bring about a change that is long overdue. We will listen to and engage with our community partners to advocate for justice.”
No one can offer simple antidotes to a prejudice that has been allowed to replicate and fester for hundreds of years. But we start by engaging in conversation because we have much to learn from the experiences of others. Some of these conversations will be new and some have been ongoing. Jewish Federations around the country - just like ours in Richmond - have been working for decades through their Jewish Community Relations arms to build relationships between the Jewish community and other ethnic and religious groups.
We will have honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with our partners in the larger Richmond community about being black in America. We will be more inclusive of those in our own community who can help us learn more about what it means to be both black and Jewish in America. In both cases - we will look to those conversations to learn more about how we eradicate injustice in our society and how we confront our own unconscious bias.
The tradition of advocacy and self-reflection at the core of Jewish belief and practice positions our community well to be part of the solution to these problems. It was our own history with racism in America that helped create the Black-Jewish alliance in the south during the civil rights movement. That is a legacy we can be proud of and one we can hope to revitalize as we set out to take action and make real change in our world.
What You Can Do Today!
- Show up. There is nothing more powerful than standing together and speaking with your legs. There are many groups organizing non-violent protests, marches, and prayer vigils - that also include masks and necessary distancing. It can be difficult to track these actions as they are not always centralized - but use social media to follow individuals and groups that are involved in organizing. Some of the groups most active in Richmond right now are the “NAACP” “For Richmond” and the “Baptist Ministers Conference.”
- Support and amplify. When you show up, if you are not a member of the impacted group, use your platform to amplify the voices of those who speak from experience - not your own. Follow the lead of Black organizers. Just as our Jewish community gets to determine how we understand anti-Semitism and how we want our partners to respond, so too those who are most impacted by these policies and recent events must have our support in defining the response. In keeping with that, when on social media, share voices of color and not just your own sentiments.
- Educate yourself. Acknowledge your own prejudice. Doing this is not easy and it is not simple. It is a lifelong undertaking. Racism has existed in our country for hundreds of years and it cannot be wiped out in a matter of months. Investigate what is at the root of today’s larger issues. Try to understand the ways in which society’s structures might disproportionately impact the black community and people of color. Try to see the injustice that could be hiding under the surface of a system that might seem innocuous to those not impacted.
- Focus on the core issues. You may not agree with everything that a group may say in their platforms or in their calls to action. Showing up to stand in solidarity with those suffering is about the recognition of the brokenness of our systems and is not an endorsement of something problematic the leaders of the group have said.
- Advocate for change from home if you have to stay in. Even if you are unable to show up in person, you can still speak out by calling your elected officials and sharing your concerns. Protests and marches are meant to draw attention to causes and pressure those in power to make systemic changes. You can add to that pressure through phone calls, letters, emails and social media posts.
- Speak up in your networks. This is often the hardest action for some people to take, but it is also the most necessary. When you hear or see what you believe to be a racist comment or a clear example of prejudice, name it. If you find yourself in a situation where you notice it but feel that it is unwise or unsafe to say something, recognize that moment and use it as an educational opportunity at another time.
- Volunteer/Get involved/Participate: There are many organizations throughout Richmond where you can get involved with community building and addressing important issues like food and economic insecurity, and educational equity, Through the Federation as just one example, you can volunteer for the Richmond Jewish Coalition for Literacy, volunteer at Feedmore, join the work of our JCRC Sub Committee on intergroup and interfaith Outreach, and participate in the many virtual conversations around these issues - like our recent Virtual Town Hall with Representatives Don McEachin and Abigail Spanberger and our upcoming Virtual Town Hall with Senator Jennifer McClellan, Delegate Jeff Bourne, and Councilwoman Kim Gray on July 29th at 3:00pm. (Please contact David Cohen, JCRC Director, at email@example.com to discuss these and other ways you can get involved.)
- And of course - Please don’t ever give-up! People often look for the “home-run” in achieving social change. Real, substantive change is more often about incremental steps. The educational moment, the behind the scenes conversations, the personal interactions - these are the things that often help us make the greatest progress - one small but important step at a time.
The work is vast, the road is long, and the process is difficult.
There are no shortcuts and no easy answers. But most of all, there is no excuse for turning a blind eye.
Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v'lo atah ben chorin l'hivatel mimena
“You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to turn away from it.”
JCRC Chair for Intergroup Outreach