Dear TEE community,

Thinking about the protest movements that have been growing over the past few weeks has brought to mind a reading from our prayerbook: “When will redemption come? When we grant everyone what we claim for ourselves.”

I am hopeful that the United States may now have reached a tipping point where enough white people are willing to address the fact that we have not been willing to grant people of color what we have claimed for ourselves. Consciously or not, all those of us who are treated as white (whether or not, as Jews, we perceive ourselves that way) benefit from centuries of public policy and private structures which have deprived other Americans of those same opportunities.

We have also been raised in a racist society and, therefore, absorbed racist attitudes, despite our best intentions. This is often discussed as “unconscious bias” or “implicit bias.” We cannot live outside our society and so we are all racist, just as we are all sexist, antisemitic, etc.* Rather than feel guilty or condemn ourselves or others for being racist, we have the choice to take anti-racist action.

Jewish tradition itself makes this distinction in emphasizing action over belief. I often have occasion to be grateful that Judaism does not equate thought with behavior. It is advantageous for me — I will be a better and happier person — if I think well of others, but what counts is how I treat them. To illustrate this point, I like to use the example of tzedakah, the Jewish responsibility to apportion part of our income for the alleviation of poverty. The people who are fed or clothed or housed as a result do not care about what we were thinking when we provided the money, but it benefits us to find satisfaction in doing so.

Our obligation to take anti-racist action is underscored by the concept of being an upstander. This language emerged from scholarship on the Shoah contrasting the majority of people, who were passive bystanders, with the minority who stood up against fascist authoritarianism and genocide.

Many of us are proud of our Jewish tradition of advocacy for “the stranger”– those who are targeted and oppressed. This is a moment to demonstrate that belief by being upstanders in the struggle against racism.

It can feel overwhelming to think about changing racism in the United States. I suggest we start by addressing the issue within our Rochester Jewish community.

First and foremost, as Jews, we must understand that racism is not something “outside” our community. Jews of Color all too frequently experience denigrating attitudes within Jewish institutions. Additionally, many of us are part of multiracial families. This is about our own. In addition to acknowledging our own racism and educating ourselves about diverse Jewish cultures, we should stop assuming that “Jewish” equals “white Ashkenazi.”

We also have an obligation to assess and work against racism as it affects employment in Jewish organizations. Are we hiring people of color in administrative positions or only as custodians? What is the experience of Black and Latinx health care workers at the Jewish Home? In Jewish homes?

Racism in our region is exacerbated by the segregation that exists between the city and the suburbs. Many Jews recall with fondness their roots in a thriving Rochester community but no longer feel a connection to their former neighborhood or the city itself. It is essential to acknowledge that the problems of the city — poverty, poor schools, violence — are rooted in racism and caused by regional policies. As a Jewish community we, like others, have not worked to change those policies. Citing the work of sociologist Orlando Patterson, Nicholas Kristof makes an observation that clearly applies to Rochester:

[W]hile whites increasingly have progressive views about race in general, they often still favor public policies that disadvantage African-Americans. For example, they may oppose multi-occupancy housing in their affluent suburbs, reducing affordable housing and perpetuating segregation. Or they may support a broken local funding system for education that results in apartheid schools. (NY Times, 6/6/20)

None of these tasks are easy or achievable in the short term but they are our specific Jewish responsibility. We can and should lend our support to related issues, such as police accountability, but those commitments cannot substitute for the work of justice required within our own community.

During the next few weeks I will be offering resources for those of you who would like to begin or expand your work against racism. These include: a workshop on Jews and Racism; a discussion on Jewish Racism and Black Antisemitism with Ashley Gantt (a staff member at the NY Civil Liberties Union and one of the organizers of local Black Lives Matter protests); a discussion of Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, and a list of resources related to Jews and Racism. I also want to encourage you to be part of Tikkun Olam Team’s work with  the Reform Movements’ Civic Engagement Campaign.

I look forward to our continued discussions and work together to ensure that all members of our Rochester and larger American community have the freedoms and justice we claim for ourselves.

Rabbi Drorah Setel, June 7, 2020

*Two examples of how we can internalize oppressive attitudes even if we belong to the group being harmed: (1) Despite being a feminist, I find myself assuming that doctors are male. (2) I grew up with Jewish family members who straightened their hair and had nose jobs because they had internalized the idea that they couldn’t look beautiful if they looked Jewish.