by Laura Davis
This fall, the several hundred people attending Rosh Hashanah services at Adas Israel in Washington, DC were eagerly anticipating Rabbi Gil Steinlauf’s sermon. After the rabbi of the high-profile Conservative synagogue came out as gay immediately after last year’s High Holidays, no one was sure what to expect. This year, his sermon centered on a conversation he’d had with a congregant about the activist group Black Lives Matter and the Jewish place in it, calling for Jews to take a more active role.
Jews have had a place in issues of racial justice since the mid-20th century, when rabbis around the country stood by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. throughout his fight for civil rights. During Selma and the March on Washington, many rabbis joined King in his marches and supported the movement. But now some people are asking what the role of Jews should be in today’s national conversation about race.
Rebecca Ennen is the development and communications director at Jews United For Justice, an organization based out of Washington, DC and Baltimore that deals with issues surrounding race, class and poverty. Ennen explains that whether Jews feel the need to help fight racial discrimination because of personal memories or the general history of Jews, many want to be inclusive and ensure no one else is ever on the “outside.” She says that because the Jewish community in the Washington area is generally white and part of the professional class, many feel disconnected from the black community. “The Black Lives Matter movement has been something that so many of us were horrified and heartbroken over once we really started hearing about the degree of police violence in communities of color,” says Ennen. To discuss the race issues in the DC and Baltimore area, Jews United for Justice has had speakers and events that give white Jews the opportunity to hear and learn from people of color who are both Jewish and not.
Some congregations are involved in immediate relief projects that don’t have much of a political overtone, such as volunteering at food pantries or picking up trash, says Ennen, who notes that some rabbis are pushing for projects that address racial tensions at an institutional level. “They feel like these are issues they also care about and their community cares about,” she says. Ennen speculates that many Jews shy away from the Black Lives Matter movement because of what some perceive as its confrontational nature. “I think a lot of white Jews are uncomfortable with it,” Ennen says. “A lot of us carry a legacy of not wanting to be too visible.” She notes that it’s also very stereotypically “un-Jewish” to be involved in events that could turn violent.
Steinlauf sees the need for Jewish communities in America to be challenged, and to start thinking more deeply about their identities. “In the mainstream Ashkenazi Jewish community, there is this sense that yes we’re white, but it’s time to wake up to the fact that being Jewish is our core identity,” Steinlauf says. “Being Jewish is fundamentally never about being identified with an American racial construct. We now have to question the role of that construct in our Jewish identity formation.” Steinlauf believes that Jews of European descent must question their Jewish relationship with whiteness. Adas Israel is a large synagogue that is home to many congregants who are powerful in government, journalism and think tanks; in his sermon, Steinlauf encouraged the members of his congregation to take on the responsibility of recognizing their white privilege and using it to make societal change.
Black Lives Matter has shifted organizationally both in terms of new supporters—people like Gil Steinlauf—and in terms of the issues it addresses. “Over the last year I’ve heard so much about the way Black Lives Matter has adjusted from being primarily around police accountability and now extending the view to all the inequalities,” Ennen says. Steinlauf agrees that the conversation around the movement has extended outside of the black community. “The very fact that my sermon happened is an example of the impact that the Black Lives Matter movement is having,” he said.
Ennen suggests that the impact of Black Lives Matter may be strongest on millennials who feel compelled to do something that would make a difference in the fight against racial injustice. “We have a responsibility as a good neighbor to see that they’re being treated in a fair way,” she suggests. By speaking at Adas Israel, whose congregation has a prominent older, wealthy demographic, Steinlauf hoped to pull the older community into a cause that’s generally more salient for younger American Jews. He believes that gap may exist because the older generation had to try very hard to pass as white, and now that they have succeeded, they may not necessarily see themselves as having a responsibility to help combat racial injustice.
This isn’t just limited to the politically aware arena of Washington, DC. Jews across the nation have been taking part in the movement and finding their place, both individually and in groups. One such group is Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis. The group works as an ally by donating money, supplies and snacks, or marching in and organizing events. “We’ve educated and trained our own community about how Jews can be an ally,” says Carin Mrotz, director of operations and communications at Jewish Community Action.
Mrotz describes Minnesota as a state that often organizes based on faith and says that people of faith have a big impact on social and economic justice issues. “It resonates with Jews because we have the opportunity to combine our history of oppression and our current power to help those most affected today,” she says. Jewish Community Action sees Minneapolis as important to the movement because of the large population and racial diversity. “I think that Minnesota is in a unique pivotal place right now because it’s so liberal and progressive but we have some of the biggest racial gaps.”
Steinlauf sees the conversation at his synagogue continuing to other congregations across the nation, and hopes for a positive outcome. “I think it’s interesting to watch how this continues because it’s very important,” he says.