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Nefesh Community Explores How to Become an Anti-Racist

Organizers say this is part of an ongoing dialogue about anti-racism, in tandem with the Tikkun Collective, the wing of the Nefesh community working with other organizations around specific campaigns and social issues.
[additional-authors]
September 30, 2020
Rabbi Susan Goldberg at a rally in Downtown Los Angeles; Photo from Nefesh’s Facebook page

The death of George Floyd while in police custody in May, and the ensuing demonstrations and conversations about racism have permeated current national discourse ever since. One of the recurring conversations is around how to become not just “not a racist,” or “non-racist,” but an “anti-racist.” To address this goal, Eastside spiritual community Nefesh hosted its first anti-racism training over three weeks in July, in partnership with the Silverlake Independent JCC and East Side Jews. 

“We watched what happened to George Floyd and felt the injustice, despair and sorrow, Nefesh Rabbi Susan Goldberg told the Journal. “It cracked our hearts open. Something shifted because of tremendous grief. It opened our hearts to finding information and history that was already there — terms, language, books, films.”

The six-hour training included information sharing, learning and dialogue in small groups. About 160-170 people attended all three sessions, which Goldberg called “one of the first deep engagements for white Jews to look at racism and anti-Semitism and how they connect and relate.”

In a recording of the first session that Goldberg shared with the Journal, she introduced the Exodus from Egypt to liberation as “our central story” and a core motivation for Jewish action, that “our liberation is tied up with the liberation of everyone.”

The organizers say this will be part of an ongoing dialogue about anti-racism, in tandem with the Tikkun Collective, the wing of the Nefesh community working with other organizations around specific campaigns and social issues. Plans in progress for community collaboration will be finalized after the High Holy Days, Goldberg said. Resources, including future trainings, will be available through nefeshla.org. 

Nefesh member Jason David, who organized the training with fellow Nefesh member Rachel Hamburg, said it was important to talk about anti-racism within the Jewish community and to examine with more nuance the place that white-skinned Jews occupy in America.

“We’re not always safe in being assimilated into whiteness and yet we experience significant levels of resources and access to resources because of being part of this larger white group,” David said. “In light of George Floyd’s murder and Breonna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s and seven years of Black Lives Matter organizing and shifting the narrative around this whirlwind moment, people are willing to think about structural racism and their role, especially for people who identify as white, what is our role in anti-racism? … We want to learn but we want to be part of the solution.” 

He added that Jews have a lot of “mutual interest” with BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color) communities fighting structural racism, and “stand to be much safer when we act in solidarity with a BIPOC community.” David also acknowledged the struggle of white Jews of European descent to find a place in America’s racial dynamics, “to both own the way in which we’re privileged but also [that we] face real, unique threats from white supremacy in this country.” 

“If you’re not anti-racist then you’re not actively seeking to dismantle racism. To be neutral is to not participate in working against it. You end up colluding.”
— Melanie Weiner

Nefesh community member Melanie Weiner, who participated in the workshop along with her 15-year-old daughter, Olivia Potruch, said, “What I’ve taken away from [the workshop] is if you’re not anti-racist then you’re not actively seeking to dismantle racism. To be neutral is to not participate in working against it. You end up colluding.”

For those who are feeling guilty for not acting sooner to fight racism, Goldberg said, “Guilt is helpful because it shines a light on something that’s happened to us, or something we did or didn’t say that’s out of alignment with our values. It’s a good feeling because it puts us into action.” 

Shaping an actively anti-racist Los Angeles, she continued, begins with taking an active stance “to become aware of racism around and inside of me, and will actively work to transform that in my thoughts, workplace or neighborhood …. There are places to make an impact everywhere.” 

Some actions, Goldberg said, might involve criminal justice and police reform, committing to local public schools, seeking out qualified candidates of color who may not know about open workplace positions and bringing in experienced facilitators to hold conversations about “what change — not just awareness —looks like in our communities and institutions,” especially around inclusion for Jews of Color.

Olivia said that being an anti-racist means “actively pushing back against racism in systems and trying to reform [them] in a way that brings equality. And pushing back against racism in our everyday lives, questioning when people say or do things that are actively oppressive against minorities.” She added, “Find something by someone who’s verified in the movement and read something. Learning something is the first and easiest step in being an anti-racist.”

David suggested that white people who want to be anti-racist must “have at least one uncomfortable conversation with another white person about racism [to combat the] unspoken rule about silence” that helps perpetuate it. 

Conducting the training within a trusted community was a key component of its effectiveness, participants said.

“To be in a community, where we’re strengthening bonds to each other and the work, I think it brings us into a deeper commitment to these values and ability to act as well,” Weiner said, “giving people space to question their racism [and] having safe conversations in a loving and trusting environment so people can be vulnerable.”

“One of my favorite things is to do activism within a community,” Olivia said. “I have this massive community of people that I love and trust and feel happy with, and then ‘yay activism’ with them.” Goldberg called the work “frustrating but also moving. Racism tampers with the life force from everyone living in a nation where there’s such a profound legacy and so much grief and trauma that’s unseen,” she said. “To do this healing work will deeply benefit the soul of our nation and all of us.” 

She added that creating the training program enabled people “to come to awareness in a deeper way and to take an active stance, take responsibility to transform racism. We’re trying to build an anti-racist community through Nefesh, and figure out what that looks like.”

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