The Metro Detroit area is the 26th largest Jewish population in the U.S., according to a report from 2018, which means it is far less likely to be on our Jewish communal radar than major Jewish hubs like New York or Los Angeles. At the same time, Detroit is the second most segregated metropolitan area in the United States. Due to this hyper-segregation, it’s unfortunately not surprising that Jews of Color continue to struggle to be included in Jewish institutions. In an effort to confront the sordid history and current practices of racial exclusion, there is an ongoing, multiracial effort to bring change to Detroit’s Jewish community–and 24-year-old Kendra Watkins is helping pave the way forward.
“As I got involved in more normative Jewish institutions, it became clear to me that if I wanted to be part of multiracial community committed to anti-racism as a practice, I would have to have a hand in shaping it,” Watkins described. They said their interest in being deeply invested in the Jewish community and living a Jewish life occurred simultaneously with their political awakening as a young person, around the time of the murder of Trayvon Martin. “While I don’t think I recognized the connection at the time, those two threads of my life have been deeply connected.”
Supporting Watkins’ vision for a more inclusive and just Jewish community is Detroit Jews for Justice (DJJ). Created in 2015 by Congregation T’Chiyah, DJJ’s mission is to mobilize the Jewish community to participate in movements for racial and economic justice in the Metro Detroit area.
As part of these efforts to build change, DJJ’s leadership also looks inward, with an eye toward creating inclusive and meaningful communities by and for Jews of Color. DJJ knew that establishing a diverse and welcoming Jewish community would not happen overnight. Rather, the way forward would have to be built on genuine and sustained efforts to foster connections with, and opportunities for, Jews of Color.
Watkins began their work with DJJ as an intern strengthening and expanding the community’s networks with Jews of Color through interpersonal outreach, events, and gatherings. They were enthusiastic about this work building sustainable JoC community and leadership. It quickly became obvious that Watkins’ work in the organization would need to expand beyond an internship. “After several months, we decided to create a role that could give time and attention to supporting the growth of a JoC community in metro-Detroit.”
DJJ leadership knew that Watkins was the right person to continue cultivating partnerships with and pathways for Jews of Color in Detroit. In 2020 they were brought on as the Program Associate for Racial Equity.
Watkins’ work today extends beyond DJJ’s connection to Congregation T’Chiyah. They work with synagogues spanning across the larger Detroit area, developing trainings and paths towards greater inclusion and anti-racist efforts tailored to the specific needs of each congregation.
In late February, Watkins led a virtual training on intersectional approaches to racial justice in the Jewish community for Congregation T’Chiyah’s Board members. Watkins’ training was guided by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones’ writings on white supremacy culture, which outline the ways in which white supremacy seeps into our everyday ways of operating and interacting in sometimes seemingly non-racial ways, like perfectionism, defensiveness, paternalism, and individualism.
While these might seem to be neutral concepts, it is precisely their appearance of neutrality that allows them to maintain white supremacy—even among those who may consider themselves anti-racists or are themselves targets of white supremacist hate.
Okun and Jones’ framework focuses on how these traits of white supremacy culture show up in organizational settings. They are best applied in conversation that considers the particular ways these elements operate in one’s own institution. During the training, Watkins worked with the board members to dig into Okun and Jones’ list and discuss how these traits may have found their way into the structure of T’Chiyah’s community.
Watkins sees the white supremacy culture framework as a useful way to encourage white Jewish organizational leaders to reflect on how white supremacy may still operate under even the best intentions.
“Often, I find that synagogues and other Jewish orgs perceive themselves as being very welcoming—and perhaps they are. But taking the time to get into the nitty gritty of the culture of a place, examining the ways our habits and structures may be welcoming to some and othering or even hostile to others, allows for more care and attention in every step.” Watkins says there is a difference between inviting all people to participate and creating a community culture that builds a sense of belonging for every person. “Certainly everyone is welcome in the door, but what I’m curious about is how our values and practices can align so that anyone who comes in once would want to stick around and be part of a community.”
Without uprooting white supremacy, its presence will continue to harm Jews of Color in Jewish organizations, no matter how well organizations develop inclusive programming. In other words, the recipe for racial justice is not to just “add and stir” Jews of Color into the existing Jewish communal system; we must all work to rebuild something equitable, challenging ways the underlying white supremacy of the United States seeped into the cracks of the Jewish community and our institutions.
Eleanor Gamalski, the Chair of the Racial Justice Committee on T’Chiyah’s board, sees Watkins’ discussion with the board members as a starting point for pushing racial justice forward in the congregation’s community, and knows that it takes a strong leader to help communities navigate the work of racial justice.
“I think perhaps Kendra’s greatest strengths are their facilitation skills and magical vibes,” Gamalski praised. “Their loving spirit helps us to approach a challenging journey with curiosity and care…They’re helping us to break up the work into smaller, manageable pieces, meanwhile, they’re providing invaluable staff support and relationships in the field to help us move the work forward.”
Gamalski believes that Watkins is so well suited to trainings and facilitation because of their educational leadership skills. “Kendra is using their strengths as an educator to help our Board’s racial justice committee dive into some really big, exciting, and fraught questions. They’re giving us the tools to not only embark on our personal and Board-wide journey, but also to guide a journey for the wider congregation.”
Watkins thrives at the intersection of education and organizing. “I love being able to be a resource and also work with communities to empower them to take their learning into their own hands, all while making connections to the organizing work my colleagues are doing.” Watkins added that they hope this is just the start to more expansive racial justice work; “through partnership, community members have the opportunity to take their learning and move towards action in meaningful ways at the local level.”
Although T’Chiyah is a small community, Gamalski believes that “the specialness of this work, and Kendra’s leadership in it, will somehow make its way to be felt throughout the Metro Detroit community” and help their own congregation “better live out [their] anti-racism at shul.”