On Racial Justice, We Can All Do Better

The past few weeks have been heart-wrenching. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have peacefully taken to the streets to vent their anger over the death of George Floyd and call for racial justice in America.

Major American cities enacted curfews, and states of emergency were declared. Amidst peaceful protests and demonstrations, looting, vandalism and violence occurred, affecting Jewish institutions and Jewish-owned businesses, among others. On top of a global pandemic, these conditions have further increased fear and uncertainty in our communities.

The associations and organizations that represent the majority of American law enforcement leadership have strongly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis police officers who are being charged with George Floyd’s death. Failing to meet the “standards of community law enforcement, May 25th was a painful reminder to all who strive for justice of the work that remains before us,” they said. “The law enforcement community must do better.”* We agree. In fact, we believe we can all do better.

Jewish Federations have, for more than a century, been the essential catalyst for building flourishing Jewish communities at home and supporting Jewish people around the world—work we will continue to do, for the next century and beyond. The success of this mission has always depended on the strength of the civil societies in which we live. That is why we must address, with urgency, the real and legitimate concerns raised by communities of color and Jews of color about racial discrimination.

As the Chair and the President of The Jewish Federations of North America, representing 146 Jewish Federations and 300 independent communities, we, together with our entire local and system-wide leadership, are committed to meeting this challenge.

Raise Voices of Jews of Color

A flourishing Jewish community is not only healthy, safe and caring but also deeply engaged in Jewish life and welcoming to all the differences and diversity of the Jewish people. For Jewish Federations to be effective in building flourishing communities, we must reflect this diversity.

We begin here because we know we have work to do to make sure all voices, particularly the voices of Jews of Color, are heard at our tables. In doing so, we are guided by the vision of the prophet Isaiah: “My house of prayer shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7).

To help us with this work, we are pleased to welcome Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein to The Jewish Federations of North America professional team as a Rabbinic Scholar and Public Affairs Advisor. Rabbi Rothstein most recently served as Rabbi-in-Residence at Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability. Federations have turned to Rabbi Rothstein many times in the past to serve as a scholar and teacher. View a message from Rabbi Rothstein here. You can also view his presentation to our 2019 FedLab here.

We will support Jewish Federations and all Jewish organizations in recruiting Jews of Color for lay and professional positions across the full spectrum of roles and will provide access to enhanced training in the field of racial equity, diversity and inclusion. We will track our work and report our progress over the coming months.

Strengthen Racial Equity and Equality Alliances

Our public policy priorities, including health care, safety, food security and the needs of the elderly and disabled, have always lifted up and protected all people and all faiths. We will strengthen our alliances with national organizations that represent communities of color to ensure that our advocacy is providing the greatest support possible to other marginalized communities as we advocate for the needs of the Jewish community.

Support Meaningful Police Reform

We understand that communities of color have serious concerns about racial discrimination in law enforcement. Together with our elected officials and policy leaders from minority communities, we commit to helping with policy efforts aimed at police reform and other manifestations of racism.

Over the past 10 years, we have worked to develop deep relationships with law enforcement in our local communities and through our Secure Community Network (SCN). These relationships have proven invaluable in the effort to protect Jewish communities from violent and persistent acts of anti-Semitism. We believe they can be used as a bridge for multi-racial and faith-based communities, and we will work to bring this to fruition. SCN will also update and enhance its best-practices training curriculum on anti-bias for security and safety personnel to ensure that all members of the Jewish community and our guests feel safe and welcome.

This is just a beginning. But every journey begins somewhere. Our sages taught that “the day is short; the work is long” and “we are not required to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). We approach this work with both humility and determination, and we are confident that the collective leadership capacity of the Jewish Federation system can, and will, play an important role in addressing the urgent questions currently on the national agenda.

*See statements from Major County Sheriffs of America, The Major Cities Chiefs Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Mark Wilf is Chair of the Board of Trustees and Eric D. Fingerhut is President & CEO of JFNA.