Shoshana Brown has been organizing with Jews of Color for almost two decades. Over the last few years, her organization, Black Jewish Liberation Collective, expanded its network across the nation and with Black Jewish communities internationally, and deepened its relationship to the larger movement for racial justice and Black liberation. This expansion accelerated when Brown attended the Movement for Black Lives Convening with a contingency of Black Jews.
“We learned in that space that there was a need for Black Jews to gather,” Brown said. “It was pretty apparent, and we felt surprised there weren’t more of us in that space.” Brown explained that while vital work is being done through movement organizing in the Black community, Jews who are part of that community are infrequently at the table. Black Jews also experience how Jewish communal spaces rarely make room for contributions from Black Jews.
Following that 2015 Convening, Brown saw how the marginal space for Black Jews in both the (non-Jewish) Black and (white) Jewish communities left crucial viewpoints out of important community conversations. “Later in the year, the Movement for Black Lives platform was released and there was a big commotion [over the topic of Zionism] among the white Jewish institutional community and Black movement spaces,” Brown described.
The commotion was based on the platform’s use of terms like apartheid and genocide to describe Israel’s actions toward Palestinians. Some saw this as offensive to Jews who have themselves been victims of genocide, while others saw it as an expression of global solidarity among groups who face structural inequalities.
“A rift became really apparent. And no one, on either side, really reached out to Black Jews and said ‘hey, we’re having this conversation about Zionism, you might have something to say about it.” Brown described this experience as akin to a child experiencing their parents’ divorce. “These two communities I deeply resonate with and am a part of are at odds with each other and no one is actually listening to me even though what they’re arguing about impacts me the most.”
From this experience, a new set of conversations emerged among like-minded activists from Boston to L.A. and everywhere in between. Those conversations eventually developed into a formalized group, originally dubbed Black Yids Matter. “We gathered monthly to hold space for community, to connect, to collaborate, to dream, to cry.”
In 2020, about five years later, the uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd stirred national attention to the deep-seated racial injustices that persist in the U.S. The Jewish community began to examine the exclusion of Black Jews. These events turned national attention to Brown’s movement-building organization, now rebranded as the Black Jewish Liberation Collective (BJLC), and they secured a small amount of funding for the first time. This enabled BJLC to codify their vision and their organizational values. As their name implies, liberation is the guiding force of their work.
“Liberation is a journey, not a destination. It’s in the living, it’s in the practice, it’s in the breath, it’s in the speech. Liberation is in the movement of our bodies, our locations, our geographies. It’s about access to housing, and land, and food. It’s about equitable wealth distribution, it’s about reparations.” Brown also shared how she envisions liberation shaping movement-building. “Liberation is about freedom, about having choices and being joyful in our work and joyful in our movement spaces. It’s how we live our lives. It’s not the what, it’s the how.”
BJLC’s vision prioritizes generating Black joy through Black Jewish theology and political organizing. Embedded in this vision is a dedication to build up the role of Black Jewish organizing among the Black liberation movement, aligning Black movement organizers with one another. One of their cornerstone programs each year is a Juneteenth seder. “It’s an intentionally Black space where we gather and leverage our Jewish ritual technology and values in the context of Juneteenth to share with our non-Jewish Black comrades in ritual and invite them into our space of something uniquely Black and Jewish.”
This event has strengthened BJLC’s ties to other Black movement organizers, including the Brooklyn Movement Center, the National Grassroots Reparations Campaign, and the December 12th Movement. These outward connections are a powerful network and movement-building effort. “We aren’t only building those connections for ourselves but to be seen by our Black comrades and developing deeper relationships so our work is aligned, so that Jewish people are at the table—invited to the table—when coalitions and other movements get formed,” Brown explained.
BJLC has success in forming both informal and formal partnerships among Black movement organizers. In this regard, Brown references the Black Freedom Project, an organization that has incorporated BJLC leaders and voices at the table since its inception. “We’re really proud of the way we’re leveraging both spirituality and culture to impact our political organizing,” Brown said.
Brown’s commitment to liberatory practice and collective organizing is evident in each element of BJLC. This is starkly—and powerfully—visible in their relationship to funders. “I’m proud of what we’re building and the way we’re moving in terms of going slower than other people would want us to,” Brown began, referencing funder pressures to secure a formal nonprofit status. “We’d rather say no to money and be able to move in alignment with our values and at the right pacing.”
This stance has only strengthened the community BJLC has created, with many members stating that BJLC’s unwillingness to bend to funder interests is a point that attracts them to the organization.
“So much of our social justice movement is bent and swayed toward what funders think is important in this moment. Having the leverage to say, ‘no thank you’ and value self-determination in that way has been awesome. It feels unstoppable. This is the reason why I became an organizer. This is why I do this work.”
Brown also said that decentering funders has allowed her to “be fully accountable to members” in a way few organizations are.
“Being a leader has meant moving with community. My leadership only means I’m the front face of a lot of people doing hard work, showing up, offering opinions, speaking with me,” Brown said, emphasizing the beauty of working alongside a community of Black Jewish organizers.
“In my leadership, I see myself as accountable to a community of thought leaders, and to being persistent over many years, even in months where no one showed up to a [Zoom] call and I’d feel dismayed. It was really just about sticking with it and being consistent, rooted in my belief that this space is critical and there’s nothing else like it. And how can we not have it in our current political state?”
Brown shared that while larger gatherings and organizations for the wider Jews of Color community are necessary and important, they don’t always provide the same sense of belonging for Black Jews. “Other JoC spaces come with their own challenges around anti-Blackness, just as other People of Color in general, Jewish or not. We have to have spaces where we’re specifically supporting and uplifting Black Jews.”
As Brown builds community spaces centering Black Jews, she is aware of the importance of her organization’s presence for Black Jews across the United States. “We want to be the megaphone of the work of all our members in their various locations, whether that be Atlanta or Minnesota, Detroit or L.A. or Washington D.C…We hope to be a space where Black Jews can find home based on our shared political values and social-political-cultural identities.”