In December, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Eddie Chavez Calderon asked our Executive Director, Ilana Kaufman, to speak with their community on Jews of Color and inequity. Rabbi Shmuly, as he likes to be called, is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the first social justice organization within the Modern Orthodox movement. Eddie Chavez Calderon, who has studied under Rabbi Shmuly and is part of the Uri L’Tzedek community, is a JoC and proud DACA recipient. Chavez Calderon also works with Arizona Jews for Justice, which has served over 40,000 asylum seekers at the Southern border.
Rabbi Shmuly and Chavez Calderon organized this virtual event as a capstone to a 12-month immersive learning program about anti-racism among their community. The Uri L’Tzedek community embarked on this year-long, learning journey in January, before the killing of George Floyd. After his murder, the community began developing new frameworks for understanding what their anti-racism should look like; “and then we started seeing things after George Floyd and people were really like, ‘We need to do something…we need a deep dive into education’” Chavez Calderon sees this as a thread in the community’s current process in which they are eager to take action; “we’re really trying to grow away from not just being not racist but actively being against racism and trying to dismantle the system.”
Rabbi Shmuly shared that they wanted to bring the Jews of Color Initiative to help the community shift their anti-racism “from understanding to action.”
“I’m one of these traditional Jews that believes that the primary vehicle of Jewish life is the mitzvah—understood in the pluralistic fashion, however we understand it—it’s the mitzvah, the deed,” Rabbi Shmuly explained to the community before Kaufman began her talk. “To be G’dly is to act…what are we gonna do based on our values?”
In a racist social system that feeds on whites’ apathy to racial injustice, anti-racism requires exactly the type of shift Rabbi Shmuly and Chavez Calderon are seeking for their community. Anti-racism cannot be merely rooted in learning about inequality but must drive those engaging in anti-racism to take action. “Being anti-racist is a verb, the same way being Jewish should be a verb,” Kaufman told the virtual gathering.
The community of Uri L’Tzedek is part of the Modern Orthodox movement, which observes halachah (Jewish law) while also engaging deeply with contemporary, secular society. Those involved with Uri L’Tzedek are passionate about Torah and halachah, Rabbi Shmuly said. The idea that anti-racism should be about doing, the way being Jewish is about doing, reflects the community’s existing understandings that practice is an essential part of holding true to one’s values.
Kaufman discussed how curating diverse spaces is essential for moving forward as a community. She explained that, like communities that were once only men and later incorporated women, when Jews of Color are included as equal members of a community “the vibe changes, the energy changes. And that’s a really good thing. But we can’t gracefully create that kind of change [for racial diversity] unless [JoCs] are in the spaces to help with that.”
Following Kaufman’s talk, Chavez Calderon opened a thoughtful Q&A (Question and Answer) forum in which those attending could direct the conversation. Both the questions and the responses offer insight to the important dialogue around a range of issues. One of the first questions was posed by Chavez Calderon from his position as moderator of the event and the Q&A. Chavez Calderon took the opportunity to voice a question that is often asked by white Jews to Jews of Color.
“What do you say to folks who say ‘well, we Ashkenazi Jews had it bad…we’ve suffered just as much as JoCs suffer now. Why are we highlighting JoCs? Why don’t we all just call each other Jewish?’”
“Jews of Color as a group, People of Color as a group, can stop existing when we stop creating a baseline of whiteness, or when white stops being the norm,” Kaufman responded. “It’s very important to understand how the United States has created race identity structures, and how those race identity structures inform everything we do in this country, including the structure of Jewish communal life.”
Kaufman also pointed out that if our goal as a Jewish people is to understand the collectivity of Jewish suffering, our narratives of Jewish suffering in the U.S. are informed by the lens of whiteness and Ashkenormativity. “What about our Bukharan family? What about our family in the Middle East?” Kaufman explained that being funneled into whiteness in the U.S. has flattened American Jews’ conceptions of who Jews are, the Jewish experience, and the history of Jewish suffering globally.
Kaufman pointed out that the idea of being “just Jewish” is a racialized concept among the Jewish community, one in which being Jewish is already assumed to mean white and Ashkenazi.
In other words, it is not that Jews of Color are creating divisiveness among Jews, but that Jews of Color are responding to the existing structure and culture that treat white Ashkenazi culture, history, ancestry, identity, and minhag (customs of practice) as the singular Jewish experience.
This discussion continued when another participant, a rabbi, asked further questions about Ashkenormativity. She said that she has recognized “implicit veiled racism in continuity questions” about the survival of the Jewish people and traditions. “How do we disrupt this notion of continuity without disrupting the idea that we do, in fact, want continuity as a people—but not necessarily in this narrow framework [of Ashkenormativity]?”
Kaufman responded by revisiting the earlier question about being “just Jewish.” “When we think about continuity, racism is so potent that we view Black and Brown people as interrupters to Jewish continuity. It’s the racism that makes people wonder ‘can’t you just be Jewish?’ instead of assuming that we can be whole Jewish Black people all at the same time, as if when you walk around you can’t be a woman and Jewish…We need to stop patronizing people …identity is intended to be whole, it’s not intended to be cleaved. So, we have to assume we can be whole.”
Kaufman further explained that this particular manifestation of racism which can view Black and Brown Jews as a potential threats to continuity ignores the giant elephant in the room: racism is actually a grave threat to the continuity of the Jewish people, particularly as we are becoming increasingly multiracial. Kaufman stated that those who perpetuate racism while voicing concerns over continuity “can’t see that the next generation is relying on this generation of racially diverse Jews being able to be whole.”
“We need to have not a reinvention of Judaism, but an extension of our story so that everybody actually understands our history, our current contemporary identities. We need a refreshed sense of potential, a sense of expansion, authentic enthusiasm about our racially diverse Jewish future,” Kaufman said.
In a follow-up interview, Chavez Calderon said that the event was “a really big awakening to a lot of people,” with Rabbi Shmuly adding that it was “productively challenging and motivational” in the sense that the community was left with a drive to take action. Chavez Calderon knows that there is still a long journey ahead and recognizes that, despite their year-long educational process, these are only the “first initial building blocks of what we want our community to be.”