‘Believe Us’: Black Jews Respond to the George Floyd Protests, in Their Own Words

June 1, 2020
Top left, clockwise, April Baskin, Anthony Russell, Yitz Jordan and Tema Smith. (Baskin: Jill Peltzman; Russell: Courtesy of Russell; Jordan: Courtesy of Jordan; Smith: Courtesy of Smith)

(JTA) — As Enzi Tanner participated in an online havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat Saturday night, his city — Minneapolis — was being torn apart during a fifth night of unrest following the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody there last week.

Tanner, a social worker who supports LGBT families experiencing homelessness, said the ceremony — hosted by Jewish Community Action, a local social justice group, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a national organization and Edot Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative — conveyed a powerful message for black Jews like him.

“As the Jewish community reaches in and says how do we support their cause and how do we support the black community, it’s really important that people reach in to black Jews and other Jews of color and realize that we’re here,” Tanner said. “And we need our community.”

We reached out to black Jews like Tanner to understand their feelings at this wrenching moment and what their message is for the broader Jewish community. Here’s what they told us.

Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity. We will add more as we hear from more people.

April Baskin is a diversity consultant and racial justice director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.

Personally in terms of my energy right now, I’m just exhausted. Just seeing all the suffering particularly in light of the people going out into the streets without a plan or adequate protections in place (friends, march marshalls, legal aid contact info, etc.), the poignancy of people whose politics otherwise have them mostly sheltering in place during the worst pandemic we’ve seen in over a hundred years, that they are compelled to take action — at their and our own peril. But it seems their thought is, “How can we not stand up?” As a Jewish social justice leader, I have a visceral, fundamental concern for people’s well-being in this moment — that people are very triggered and that this is all in the context of pre-existing heightened anxiety and stress because of the pandemic. And for black folks, whether it’s conscious or not, the sense of terror we feel for when is the shoe going to drop for someone we know, someone in our town, for us?

I am experiencing more white Jews sending me private messages. A lot of them are saying “What can we do?” and in time I hope we can advance our collective knowledge and education enough so it can become more of “I’ve been proactively learning from people of color and here is what I am doing,” or “These are the things I’m considering. I’m mostly leaning towards this one, does that sound like it’s in alignment with your vision?”

That said, it’s a step forward and it’s good, but it’s asking more of us as Jews of color to not only figure out how to maintain our jobs and do additional leadership and activism in this moment, but then also being asked to support and manage white Jews’ work during a time in which many of us are traumatized and heartbroken. But this is progress, and I would rather people reach out, however they best know how, than apathy and not doing anything or paralysis from fear.

Ginna Green works in the Jewish community and the progressive movement, and sits on the boards of the Jews of Color Initiative, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, and Political Research Associates.

The current moment, for me, is one of numbness. I rejoined the rest of the world in grief and rage a little bit late, as I was scrambling toward Shavuos as things in Minneapolis and all over were reaching a flashpoint on Thursday. I went into lighting candles that evening with a sense of weight and trepidation, because I did not know what would be true come motzei Shabbat two days later. I was on edge the entire chag. Listening to my 16-year-old black Jewish son leyn Megillat Ruth and playing Shavuot Spot-It with my 5-year-old daughter brought me moments of joy, but not enough to ease my spirit. I knew it would come, but how I had not imagined.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that when Shavuos ended, I was overwhelmed by texts from white folks — Jewish and not — offering support, and checking in. The last several days have been exhausting, but the truth is that the last five years have been exhausting, and the last 400 years have been exhausting. Every black person is tired.

What I need from white Jews and white people is yes, please keep calling, keep texting and asking how I am, and all the other black people you know. And also call and text your fellow white Jews and people: Ask them what they did today to dismantle white supremacy. Give them three places to donate, three black people to learn from; three new classes to take or books to read. The work of beating back the white supremacy is a burden that can’t be left to black folks. We all need all of us. And every black person is tired.

I also want to see the Jewish community embrace radical possibility. A month ago, folks were pointing out the major change a pandemic had made possible. Radical shifts in work. Expectations. Air quality. But racism has been an American epidemic for 400 years, and it is against the backdrop of this transformational pandemic — and one that is taking black lives disproportionately — that we see the grief and rage and impact reach epic proportions. And there are solutions of varying radicalness that black folks have been proposing for years to right the systemic wrongs of a nation that black people built: reparations; universal basic income; mass decarceration; defunding police. Hammers and nails won’t be enough to build what must come next for us all to thrive — we need bulldozers and forklifts. Embrace the radical possibility, and help make it true.

At the risk of belying the danger and concern and fear and worry that are real and present, I am also hopeful. The United States is breaking, painfully, visibly but not irreparably. The cracks have always been there for us to study. Perhaps now we can create the place that holds us all.

Yitz Jordan is the founder of TribeHerald, a publication for Jews of color, and a hip hop artist also known as Y-Love.

What am I feeling? Anxiety. That’s what I’m feeling. I had an anxiety attack on Friday. I live in the ‘hood, I live in Bushwick, so I’m not really geographically in the Jewish community, but I know that somebody on Friday for instance was shot not too far from me and I was terrified as to what the response to that was going to be, were cops going to respond and was rioting going to happen in my neighborhood?

And in the Jewish community, this is the kind of fight that I’m having: “This didn’t happen after the Holocaust, why are black people acting like this?” It’s that role of explaining over and over again to people who quite often don’t want to listen.

I feel like there’s the same split that’s going through America in ideological lines, is going through the Jewish community … whatever percent of Orthodox Jews that support Trump, you see it more from these people. When we say the Jewish community in general that also consists of people like JFREJ [Jews for Racial and Economic Justice] and Jewish Voice for Peace and these other organizations, but in the Orthodox world, the pro-Trump wing is where I’m hearing these types of conversations. And I’m seeing this, ranging from lack of knowledge to callousness regarding people of color. There are some people who genuinely don’t know, and to whom a lot of these issues are very new. Especially Hasidish people, for instance, this just isn’t part of the Shabbos-table conversation — police brutality, inequality, systemic racism. But you have some people who just show callousness.

Gulienne Rishon is a diversity expert and chief revenue officer for TribeHerald Media.

I am thankful for true allies, who understand that this is not the time to center their own experiences. I am thankful for true allies, who understand that the experiences they and their ancestors have had are to be used in this moment as empathy, and that no one is denying them their experiences in asking them to listen and learn.

But mostly, if one more white-presenting Jew tries to tell me today that they don’t have white privilege (not that they aren’t White, but that they don’t have white privilege) because they’re Jewish/the Holocaust/Jews got kicked out of schools, I might lose my mind. I should not have to deal with people telling me that my story (the Black part) doesn’t exist because my story (the Ashkenazi experience) exists. But I do. And I am confident that part of why G-d put me in the skin of a biracial Jewish woman descended from a kindertransport survivor, a WWII veteran who was kicked out of his Hamburg Gymnasium for being Jewish, and two Southern Black Virginians, is to help us as a people face our sinat chinam and take responsibility for being the light unto the nations by helping, not closing our ranks and denying the pain others feel because of the freshness of ours.

Facilitating difficult conversations about race is literally my profession. Yet, some days, I’m just a person behind a keyboard on Facebook who came out of our day of rest hearing that the world erupted in flames, and I look at the beautiful brown skin of my daughter and her parents, and I’m angry and afraid. I’ve worked so hard to have these conversations with grace when you’re caught up in your feelings about the complexity. On a day when it’s not about the complexity, but processing and mourning actual death, can you please give the same grace to mine?

Isaiah Rothstein is a multiracial rabbi who serves as the rabbi-in-residence at Hazon.

Both sides of my ancestry hold a lot of pain of being othered and being oppressed. During these moments it’s sometimes hard to process and it’s a lot to integrate, but it’s a time where we’re expected to stand up and to speak up so I’m trying to find my voice every single day.

On the one hand, I feel restless and frustrated and fed up. On the other hand, I think that like anyone who’s reading or seeing the headlines, I feel frustrated because so many people don’t care enough, or they care adjacently or from the outside. So there’s those emotions but then on the flip-side, I think that this moment is calling on all of us as Americans to stand up.

If I could say in short what do I think the Jewish community should be doing, I would want every community to have an educational platform for communities to contextualize discussions around race, specifically as it relates to the Jewish community. I would want to have platforms, summits, days of learning. I would want every community to sign on to have educational campaigns around racial equity and racial awareness and racial sensitivity, so that we could find a bridge to understanding and perspectives through history, through knowledge of the past, so that we could better create a stronger, healthier bridge for the future.

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell is a musician who blends traditional Yiddish and African-American music.

Let’s get real here, American Jews: You are living in an Old Country, whether you choose to recognize it or not. The state-sanctioned violence visited upon Black communities happens in ghettos you can easily pronounce, in towns you visit without the aid of a tour guide and cities you reside in without a granted law of return.

So, who are you in this narrative, this country from which there is no real option of flight, this century which is your own, your heartless ruler, hands slick with the blood of children and refugees, the cavalries, maintaining “order” on your behalf over a people whose mere existence for centuries has been deemed disorderly?

Solidarity with Black people doesn’t require a radical act of historical imagination. You are here. We are here. You know what to do. Do it. Now.

Tema Smith is a writer and the director of professional development at 18Doors, an organization for interfaith families.

I’m deeply upset about George Floyd and also that he is not the first and not the last, and that it’s taken a murder so egregious to really get people out into the streets in this way, and get a lot of people to wake up to what happens unfortunately too frequently.

I also have deep gratitude for the moment that we’re in, for so many people who hadn’t previously spoken out are speaking out.

As far as the Jewish community, the number of people who either have spoken out publicly or who have reached out privately as people who just care and want to make sure that me and other Jews of color are feeling OK right now — and I think most of my friends who are Jews of color are experiencing similar things from their friends — is huge. Frankly, I’ve gotten messages from people who I’ve never corresponded with beyond public tweets, just reaching out saying ‘Are you OK?’ and a recognition that is in many ways at a new level.

This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. This is the first time I’ve received messages from so many people and that makes me hopeful for that grassroots community level being there to support each other, and that is huge. And the fact that there is a growing chorus of voices in the Jewish community speaking up, that’s huge, and that people are showing up at protests, I can’t say enough of how meaningful it is to see that.

Enzi Tanner is a social worker in Minneapolis and works with LGBT families experiencing homelessness.

Yesterday we hosted a havdalah with JCA [Jewish Community Action] and JFREJ and I did a little talk and for me the thing that is really real for me is black Jews and Jews of color all across the country during this time have been incredibly supportive and amazing and just speaking for me, it has made this time so much more doable and bearable.

I also say that because at this time, it’s also important that as the Jewish community reaches in and says how do we support their cause and how do we support the black community, it’s really important that people reach in to black Jews and other Jews of color and realize that we’re here. And we need our community.

And the other thing is: believe us. When George Floyd said I can’t breathe, he was not believed. When black women tell doctors and nurses during childbirth that they’re in pain, they’re not believed which is why they die at a higher rate. We don’t want to have to give a dissertation when we say we’re experiencing racism in our communities. We want to be believed. And in this moment now, it’s really important that, in those situations, that we’re able to be believed.

When we say our elected officials aren’t doing the best job they could be, we want that to be believed, we don’t want to be told that they’re doing the best they can because we’ve been here for far too long and our cities are literally burning and we just need folks to believe us and to support us.

And to reach out to the Jews of color, the black Jews within the community as well as reaching out and being in it for the long haul. This isn’t about just one person, this is about all these different people and different things. And it’s hopefully not just about right now, it’s so that a different world will be possible.

Evan Traylor is an educator, activist and soon-to-be rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.

Right now, Black Jews are grieving. We’re grieving for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. But we’re grieving for so many more lives, Black lives, that have been taken from this earth far too early because of brutal, systemic racism. And that pain isn’t going away tomorrow, or next week, or next month. It’s going to last for generations to come. And, if we want a better world, we have to change the system.

I’m grateful for so many white Jewish allies who have reached out, comforted me, supported me not just over the last week, but for years now. And right now, we need more from our white Jewish siblings, and more from our Jewish institutions — we need support, allyship, resources, and strategies to confront racism in our community, and in our world. We are all created in the image of God — it’s time to build the Jewish community and world that makes our Torah true in this age.

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