Last week, just outside of Baltimore, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable gathered for its second Network Assembly. Participants from Boston, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Minnesota, Oregon and many other parts of the country came together to share best practices, learn from one another, and discuss our organization’s relationship to racism.

Yes, you read that correctly. A group of 100 “professional Jews” and board members got together at a retreat center to discuss a very uncomfortable topic on purpose.

So why did the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable want to make racism a focal point of our conference? Because grappling with our relationship to these loaded topics is critical to our growth as a social justice movement.

The topics of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy are very messy and hard to discuss, especially for a lot of Jews, because it means that we must confront racism on the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural level. It is all too easy for us to take for granted our privilege and ignore the impacts of racism around us. Instead, we must transform the power we have as white Jews to fight systemic racism.

In the Jewish social justice world, all of the issues that we advocate for on a daily basis are impacted by racism. We fight for initiatives like raising the minimum wage, paid leave and criminal justice because we know that these issues disproportionately affect communities of color. But oftentimes when we talk about these topics, we frame it in the context of “justice for all” or “creating the world we want to see.” Our organizations often get caught up in the narrative of “we are doing this work because it is the right thing to do.” And while this is true, the Network Assembly challenged us all to think about why social justice is the right work to be doing at this critical juncture in our country’s history.

The answer to that question may surprise you. It is not just because we are Jews who have been historically oppressed. It is not just because the majority of us are white and some of us have internalized guilt about our nation’s history of slavery and have become ambivalent to cultural norms. It’s because all of these things are true, all of the time.

To begin to address racism, we must be honest with ourselves, with one another, and with our organizations. And the only way we can begin to dismantle oppression of any kind is by holding it and naming it in our everyday lives and work. Then, and only then, can we begin to create the world we want to see.  

At the Network Assembly, it was clear that all of the Jewish social justice organizations in attendance are living the values of tzedek and tikkun olam in the work we do every day. While we still have a ways to go on the journey to dismantle racism, each one of the 57 organizations in attendance walked away from the conference with a greater sense of purpose in our pursuit of racial justice.

To everyone reading this blog, I challenge you to think about the why behind the Jewish values we hold so dear. What you find may surprise you.

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