Beyond the Count was a study commissioned by and for Jews of Color. At the same time, we know that our way forward as a multiracial people will involve the collaboration of dedicated allies—or “accomplices” as they are sometimes termed. We spoke with three white Jewish leaders who have shown an ongoing dedication to the work of racial equity and justice in the Jewish institutional community to hear their perspectives on the role allies can play moving forward: Claudia Horwitz of Rise Up, Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the URJ’s Religious Action Center (RAC), and Gali Cooks of Leading Edge.
“There have been other studies in the past that have had a massive impact,” Claudia Horwitz began. “It’s not too often, but there are these moments where studies are groundbreaking for the community, and where the moment becomes seminal because of what has been uncovered. I feel like this study is a watershed moment for the Jewish people.”
Horwitz explained that while white Jewish leaders who are engaged in the work of anti-racism may have been familiar with the experiences of Jews of Color based on anecdotes of friends, family, or colleagues, from their study of racism, or from their intuition about how racism operates in the United States, Beyond the Count provides one essential ingredient for moving racial equity forward: data.
“I think it’s hard for people to really reckon with reality without data,” Horwitz said. “And because of the work Jews of Color have been doing for a long time, the leadership positions they’ve been holding, and the struggles they’ve experienced, some of the groundwork has been laid for Beyond the Count to resonate. This data isn’t just coming up at the beginning of a wave. We’re probably at the middle of this wave.”
Similarly, Rabbi Jonah Pesner described how the existence of multi-method data can influence the community. “It’s critical that we move beyond anecdotes—which of course are powerful and real, but don’t come together to give us much leverage to make change,” he said. “The data in this study give us that kind of leverage as well as the authenticity of real voices.”
But Horwitz reminds us that while compiling data through rigorous methods is an intellectual process, the next steps that emerge from the study’s findings should focus more on action than intellect. “This cannot stop at being an intellectual or academic conversation. Just because the data is intellectually driven doesn’t mean that that’s what we’re being invited as a community to do. This has to result in concrete change in how folks are operating in their day to day lives and how they lead Jewish institutions.”
One of the most striking learnings from Beyond the Count for many institutional leaders has been the disconnect between the diversity of Jewish people, experiences, and identities that exist in the community and the monolithic institutions that make up the Jewish communal ecosystem. Beyond the Count revealed that Jews of Color feel the least sense of connection to predominantly white Jewish organizations. “There’s a gap in what the Jewish community really is and what the organizations and institutions look like,” said Rabbi Pesner, “and we have to interrogate that, understand why it’s happening, and center the voices of the people that the study proves have been the most marginalized to really hear from them.”
Anti-racism involves both the deep listening Rabbi Pesner described and the mobilization to create change. Gali Cooks said that this requires white Jewish institutional leaders take a strong stance on being part of the solution. “Even if you’re not a social justice organization, you do have to wrestle with these things. You have to bake in equitable practices into your organization’s DNA, it can’t just be an add on. And that’s hard work.” While this is indeed difficult and complex work for institutions and their leaders, Cooks knows that leaders must “pay attention and lean in.”
Another component of change will involve rethinking definitions of community. Rabbi Pesner explained that there needs to be a reconceptualization of who and what constitutes the Jewish community. “It’s not about ‘including “them” in what is.’ It’s about centering the voices of Jews of Color and allowing those voices to transform everyone so that we all are part of what we create together.” He believes that if white Jewish allies can approach anti-racism in the Jewish community through this lens, then we will be able to “transform the community so that everyone’s experience is the rich and inclusive and equitable Judaism we believe in.”
To get there, Cooks says white allies should be ready to take on a role in the collective paradigm shift among other white Jews. “We should be asking, ‘what’s a way that white allies can have the conversations with other white people that non-white folks shouldn’t have to handle? I want to see us deploying ourselves to do that work, to carry some of that water.”
Conversations that occur among white allies can be beneficial in bringing new allies into the fold of anti-racist practice without placing the burden on Jews of Color. She provided an example from her childhood to illustrate the point: “when I was younger there was this one dentist who always made me feel terrible about not flossing. But the other dentist just said, ‘okay, you can do it now.’ That’s much like the posture we as allies need to hold…as white allies, we need to take the posture of accepting people joining in who maybe should have been engaged long ago but are choosing to show up now.”
White Jewish allies are continuing to utilize Beyond the Count to reflect on the state of the community’s anti-racist practice. Rabbi Pesner believes that the timing of the Beyond the Count launch should resonate with the community at large. “We just finished the high holy day season where the shofar was the wake-up call. This study should be the shofar, the call to accountability, the cheshbon nefesh—accounting of the soul—of the Jewish people in the U.S. Who are we? What do we stand for as a people? And we will be judged by whether or not everyone is assembled—the mixed multitude at the mountain—to hear the revelation of this shofar.”