David Bryfman

A conversation on racial justice must lead to action

In the midst of a live video conversation on Jewish education’s role and responsibility to work for racial justice, Yoshi Silverstein of Mitsui Collective captured the urgency of this moment: “It’s a very ‘white’ response to say ‘Let’s learn about it’ before feeling ready to actually do something about it.”

The idea that the time for talking—or at least only talking—is over permeated my recent conversation with Yoshi and Chava Shervington, current board member and past president of the Jewish Multiracial Network. They were happy to share their personal experiences as Jews of Color and insights on this current moment on The Jewish Education Project’s weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education. But, more importantly, they implored the hundreds of Jewish educators watching to take action and to use their role as educators as the catalyst for action.

I know that many educators and leaders right now do want to be a part of creating change. In that spirit, I want to share more of what I learned and heard from Yoshi and Chava.

For many Jews of Color, being engaged takes time. And Chava and Yoshi didn’t mean this in an abstract sense. When Jews of Color walk into a space for the first time, they are often looked at inquisitively. Why are you here? What’s your purpose? Chava explained that it takes her far longer than white Jews to get buzzed into a building with security. She shared the story (funny and sad at the same time) where she was meeting a colleague in the Jewish organizational world. They spent a half hour looking for each other at a synagogue, walking around the exact same area, passing each other repeatedly. Why? Because the other person was never told by her colleagues that Chava was black. Because we so often avoid issues of race, it felt too “taboo” to say.

Chava continued, “I want people to understand my presence in Jewish spaces. I have to take space regardless of whether people want to give it to me. I own my Jewishness; this is my Jewish experience. I demand that the community recognize all of me.”

Jewish communities that think of themselves as being welcoming and open still view Jews of Color as being “guests at the party.” Chava explained that this mindset, spawned by a still narrow view of who Jews are, needs to shift to understand that Jews of Color are hosts of the party too.

This part of our conversation offered just the briefest window about their lived experience as Jews of Color. As we dove more deeply into their views on Jewish education at this moment and in the future, more salient points came to the fore.

Yoshi wants to see Jewish education instill in learners the “ability to implement and adapt the wisdom and toolkit of Jewish tradition in ways that are grounded in our history, in our lineage and culture, and in values and ethics that enable us to live more meaningful and purposeful lives today.” It’s a statement underscored by his belief in both the power of education and of the educator. He elaborated that “If Judaism is an instrument that we use to co-create the world, Jewish education should teach how to use that instrument.

Israeli movement practitioner, educator, and thought leader Ido Portal explains that when you’re learning a new skill the progression of learning is isolation, integration, and improvisation. We can’t stop at integration. True mastery of a skill (in music, think jazz),  is when you can improvise it and you’re in the moment, and you have the ability to do with the skill what you want. We need to teach more about how to improvise with Jewish education. Our learners need the tools to improvise, to meet any moment thrown at them.”

The analogy begs us all to ask a critical question: We teach learners about values like Tikkun Olam, Betzelem Elohim (all humans being created in the divine image), and the like. But do our learners have the capacity and know how to do something with these values, at this moment?

Being able to answer that question with an affirmative “Yes,” is dependent on all of us who consider ourselves to be educators. At the same time, in addition to educators, Chava emphasized the importance of content and curriculum, particularly as we think about how to create change for racial justice. She pointed out that “Black people have already accomplished the amazing feat of time travel.” In other words, she explained, in most educational curriculum for youth in the U.S., “Black people were around for slavery, for the Civil Rights movement, and when Barack Obama became President.” If children don’t learn at an early age about the lived experience of Black people, let alone their existence through history, then we shouldn’t be surprised when those same students grow up and have gaps in knowledge. She added, “wealth disparity and racial injustice didn’t just appear—and our education system needs to reflect that.”

Which brings us back to the words I started with about “learning.” To be clear, Chava and Yoshi would both say, as their words clearly demonstrate above, that education, and Jewish education, can and must play a pivotal role in the fight for racial justice. Of course we all should learn about what to do and how to do it. But it is more important to actually take the time to do. And, as Yoshi said, do both at the same time! Educators should be authentic with their students about what they know and don’t know about racial justice. Conditions on the ground—literally, in the streets—are changing rapidly. Yoshi noted that when educators let students know they are learning alongside them—while also doing—it creates a deeper bond between student and teacher. And Chava referenced back to the ‘80s “when the absence of explicit racism was considered a big win. Those days are long gone.” We all must demand more and do more. They both believe Jewish education can help us respond to this moment and to move forward in the fight for racial justice.

This act of moving forward will only happen if we create it. Chava and Yoshi left all who were watching with a powerful closing message, imploring us to understand “ally” as a verb. Do. Do. Do. Let go of preconceived notions about what being an ally means. Like any verb, it’s something everyone can always get better at it. Chava said Jews of Color need more people allying with the movement—invest in programs and initiatives. Support projects designed to create change. Even little things, Yoshi noted, like changing who is or is not included on an educator’s source sheet are part of allying.

I have long argued that Jewish education is only relevant if it adapts to its time; if it spurs something in people that is meaningful and resonant. Today, the purpose of Jewish education is to activate people to get out, to stand up, and to create change. We’re all learning about this. But as we learn, we must heed the call to do.

About the Author
David Bryfman, PhD, is CEO of The Jewish Education Project in New York. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.
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