On the Yahrzeit of George Floyd, Let Us Continue to Make a Difference

A Yahrzeit, the anniversary of someone’s death, is traditionally marked by lighting a candle, saying prayers, and doing good deeds to honor the name and the legacy of the one who died.

Today, May 25th, 2021, marks the first memorial for George Perry Floyd, Jr. It was the day a 9:29-minute video shook all of America and the world.

Days after George Floyd’s death, I received a call from Eric Fingerhut, JFNA’s President and CEO. Eric wanted me to help build the internal muscle required to create a sustainable long-term approach to Jewish equity, diversity and inclusion, and I agreed. What follows is what we have done so far and what I have learned.

“Study is more essential than action, because study leads us to (the right) action.”

– Rabbi Tarfon

The newly released Pew study makes clear that American Jewry is multiracial, multiethnic, and multifaith and is becoming more diverse every day. How do we foster a sense of belonging and begin to celebrate the diverse mosaic that is the Jewish people? That is why we started JFNA’s Jewish Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) initiative.

To date, our team has directly partnered with 170 Jewish organizations throughout North America, of which 80 are Jewish Federations and Community Relations Councils and 50 are synagogues - plus schools, senior living facilities, JOC programs, and camps. In total, we have connected with nearly 30,000 Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and multiracial community members through events, programs, training, and one-on-one meetings.

Our JEDI training curriculum—a seven-unit course developed by a multiracial faculty—focuses on sharing perspectives, lessons, and actionable ways to incorporate a more holistic approach to inclusivity and belonging through a racial equity lens. The curriculum includes a handbook, lesson plans, and tools for educators and students. JFNA’s staff and executive leadership are completing the course in the coming month, and seven Jewish Federations around the country have joined together to help us lead the charge and amplify the work in our communities in the future.

Supporting the differing needs of our diverse community can at times be overwhelming. Therefore, the JEDI Council has formed a working group consisting of 10 organizations with missions uniquely focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion in different areas (LGBTQ, gender, race and ethnicity, religion, multifaith, and disabilities) to support organizations in creating a holistic approach to JEDI.

Inclusion should be a part of everything we do.

We need to build the mechanisms to make sure Jewish equity, diversity, and inclusion is not a separate topic, but rather a subject that must be addressed in whatever issue we are working on. That is why we created Moed, a multiracial network for Jewish people of color, their families, and the broader Jewish community, to bring diverse voices to our deliberations. Similarly, Kamochah is a community for Black Orthodox Jews and the broader Orthodox community. Together, these organizations are helping us build thriving Jewish communities.

We also looked for ways to use our public policy work on Capitol Hill - that addresses so many important Jewish community concerns - to also benefit others. As a leading voice on Capitol Hill for tax policy and support for low income families, we received a grant to help build awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit programs, both which are critically important for all low income communities. We expanded our Person-Centered Trauma-Informed Care programs for seniors, which have been life changing for many Holocaust survivors, and began supporting communities of color that have been impacted by trauma. And we strengthened our relationships with non-Jewish groups and built a coalition focused on improving security for people of all faiths.

Real relationships are key to this work—the more, the more.

The more I shared my own truths and vulnerabilities about my life, the more others did in turn. The more I spoke about the isolation and exclusion many of our community members feel, the more people shared about their own hurts and experiences of exclusion. The more we talk about what is uncomfortable, the more we can lower our shoulders and take deep breaths, realizing we are all on the journey together.

Through ongoing learning, and through deepening and widening our relationships, we are able to support our beautifully diverse and flourishing Jewish communities and engage in critically important conversations on race and identity. I am so proud of the growing community that has joined me on this journey. We know we must be flexible and be willing to adapt as we go. And we accept that along the way, we will make mistakes, but we will still move forward—together.

So on George Floyd’s first memorial say his name, but more importantly, stay focused, open your hearts, your minds, and your hands and take action so we can build a world that works for everyone, where no one is excluded or left out, or God forbid, taken from this world because of violent acts of racism and hate.