The question was simple: “What would the world look like if there was no more racism?”
I turned to my partner and the first thing I could think of, besides a vision of a perfect world and the resultant celebration of course, was that I guess now I’d have to find a new job. With the end of racism, there would be no need for a program manager at an organization that advocates for racial and ethnic diversity. Racial justice would be complete — Hooray! — and our programs would be unnecessary. But then as I considered the question more, I began to think about all the time I currently spend, both personally and professionally, combating the systems built and dependent upon racism and the countless hours in my life spent dealing with the the large and small ways racism shapes my experience.
This seemingly simple question surprised me. What I thought would be an easy mental exercise and one that would inspire thoughts of a perfect world, when I thought about it, actually made me feel tired. Not in an individual sense, in fact I was radically awake and aware. I felt tired as a member of the collective, with the weight of history on my shoulders and all that came before me. I felt that metaphysical burden of history because I realized how much racism shaped the world that I lived in and the people, places and things in it. Because it was suddenly something that I couldn’t escape no matter how hard I tried. Yes, so much work has been done, and yet so much is still left to do.
If I had just stopped there, I would have left that room overwhelmed and defeated. But instead I looked around at all of the smart, passionate people around me. All of these leaders were impressive in their own right, and all were dedicated members of the Jewish community.
We had come together, all Jewish leaders of color, as part of the Selah Leadership Program, an initiative of Bend the Arc and Rockwood Leadership Institute. In one room, we were to spend four days working on our leadership skills and building community. I had applied and been accepted to this fellowship as a representative of Be’chol Lashon, the organization I now work with; as someone who has been doing the work of creating and advocating for a diverse and inclusive Jewish community,
Some fellows, like me, were full-time Jewish communal professionals, while others do the work of creating change and social justice in the secular professional world. All of us had a deep commitment to the Jewish community and a view of social justice through a Jewish lens.
But no matter whether we did this work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or dedicated a good portion of our “free time” to it, the reality is that just by being a person of color in the Jewish community, we are doing the work every moment of every day. We are doing this work just by living our day-to-day lives. Every time I show up in a Jewish space, or proclaim my identity as a Jew and a person of color, I am doing this work. Every time someone asks me “Are you Jewish?” or asks why I am there at synagogue services or in the room at a Jewish event, I am helping to advance racial diversity and justice in the Jewish community.
And so I work to create change for the benefit of myself and others like me, but equally as important, for the benefit of the entire Jewish community. Because a diverse and inclusive Jewish community is a stronger, more just and and more resilient Jewish community.
As I have come into my own as an adult, I have sought out spaces with Jews of color. For the past two years I have made this my professional reality, and I am grateful that I am supported to do this work every single day. And so when I was preparing to go into this week of training, I didn’t know what to expect. I was somewhat surprised to find the connection as meaningful as it was. Almost immediately I was reminded how special it is to connect with like-minded people. I realized that yes, I socialize with and connect with other Jews of color regularly, but how rare it is that I get to connect with fellow Jews of color who are thoughtful and dedicated Jewish actors in mainstream Jewish spaces.
And yet, while we all shared the experience of being a person of color within the Jewish community—and that was one incredibly bonding experience to share—I was struck by the uniqueness of each of our experiences. Some, like me, had been in many situations and communities with other Jews of color, while for others, this week was the first time that they had ever been in a room with other Jews of color. We had urban Jews, rural Jews, East Coast Jews, Midwest Jews, those who were raised Jewish and those who had converted. We identified as gay, straight, queer, Black, Asian, Persian, multiracial, Orthodox, secular and everything in between. This was a good reminder to me that it is important to recognize the specificity of our experiences, even when coming together in solidarity. In the end, the whole was truly greater than the sum of it’s parts.
I still cannot fully imagine what a world without racism would look like, but now I know who my partners in making that happen are and I am strengthened by our connections and our shared commitment as Jews to making change a reality.