Why Do It Jewishly?

The Jewish News
Joshua Berg

Joshua Berg

I recently interviewed for a job with a Jewish charitable organization. I’m usually great in an interview. I can talk about things I accomplished in previous jobs, problems I solved and lessons I learned with just the right mix of braggadocio and humility. But, this time, one of the questions threw me for a loop.

“Why not just do charity, become an activist for the sake of the cause alone? Why do it Jewishly?”

The answer will be obvious to those who identify as Jewish, religiously. However, as a secular Jew and a humanist, I have been struggling with the question and puzzling until my puzzler is sore.

I spoke with a Jewish community professional who reminded me that we can relate to struggle because we are an oppressed people. We are oppressed and we should never forget that. However, as I walk down the street, I am viewed first as a white American male, and I reap all the privileges born of that bias. Oppression may inform my actions, but I can never put my feet directly in the shoes of a person of color.

After the recent events in Charlottesville, I finally arrived upon somewhat of an answer. “Jewishly” is a valid way, but not the only way. It may be Judaism, Islam, Christianity, humanism, a combination of things or just our own personal insight that motivate and guide us. What is important is not what informs our action, but that we take action effectively.

Jews have gathered in the wake of Charlottesville so that we may never forget the wrongs done to the Jewish people. I applaud the recent efforts of local Jewish groups to come together with the greater Detroit community to talk about race, prejudice, the struggle for justice, and the proper response. But, doing it Jewishly must mean using that community strength motivated by our own experiences of oppression to lead us to action to help the truly underprivileged and all who are currently being oppressed daily. This means not just those hurt overtly by fringe groups, but at every level and by all societal prejudice and discrimination.

So, if I am ever asked the question again, “Why do it Jewishly?” my answer will be this. If it is meaningful to you to do it Jewishly, more power to you. But, regardless of how you arrive, we must acknowledge our privilege today and truly become allies as outlined by the Anti-Oppression Network, paraphrased here:  “Allyship” is an active and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people.

  • We must actively acknowledge our privileges and openly discuss them.
  • We must listen more and speak less.
  • We must take guidance and direction from the people we seek to work with and keep our word.
  • We continuously do our own research on the oppression experienced by the people we seek to work with.
  • We must build our capacity to receive criticism and recognize that being called out for mistakes is a gift.
  • We must realize that our needs are secondary to the people we work with.
  • We must not accept awards or special recognition.
  • We must support and make use of our privilege for the people we work with.
  • We must turn the spotlight away from ourselves and toward the voices who are currently marginalized, silenced and ignored.
  • We engage people with whom we share identity and privilege in conversations about oppression of others.
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