Members of the Chabad community of Crown Heights marched for Black lives and held signs expressing their Jewish values.
Members of the Chabad community of Crown Heights marched for Black lives and held signs expressing their Jewish values. (Photos courtesy of Mo Gelber)

Across Orthodox communities in New York there were rallies against police brutality and to build solidarity with people of color.

On June 7, more than 200 members of the Crown Heights Chabad community came together in solidarity to march along Eastern Parkway. Across Orthodox communities in New York there were rallies against police brutality and to build solidarity with people of color. One of the organizers of the Crown Heights rally was Ilana Spencer, a University of Michigan research assistant who helped organize the event from her home in Ann Arbor. She even made sure to include her maiden and married name on banners, to normalize being an Orthodox Jewish progressive.

This interview was condensed and edited from a phone call and email exchange.

Ilana Spencer
Ilana Spencer
Tell us about your New York and Detroit connections.

I moved to Crown Heights to go to a religious high school (Beis Rivkah High School). I moved to Detroit three years ago to help facilitate the opening of a Jewish Montessori school in the area. I stayed with the school for a year before moving to Ann Arbor to pursue my master’s degree.

What’s the story about the Facebook group that started this off?

The group was a place where we could really be ourselves with like-minded people, which doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you understand how much regular frum life clashed with our inner worlds and realities. This hadn’t really been as much of a problem before Trump’s election, and then we looked around at people who we respected and interacted with daily and couldn’t really relate to their value systems anymore. Something had really broken permanently in many of our relationships when we saw that.

It started with a Facebook group and migrated into a WhatsApp group of like-minded progressive, observant and formerly observant Jews who shared articles, Twitter screenshots and memes, which started so we could follow the 2019 Democratic primary debates. I was already in Michigan at that point.

How do Jewish values play into both the group and protests?

Part of the reason I was drawn to religious life and community was the focus on self-improvement and community responsibility. Judaism offers something that American daily life is sorely lacking — a sense that we are responsible for our neighbors and to becoming the kind of person who can support our community members through tzedakah and acts of kindness. To us, civic engagement and liberal values align with what we love about Judaism because it gives us permission to care deeply and feel responsible for others and our own impact or potential inaction in the world.

What was the significance of this moment for you?

I saw [Lubavitch] people cheering when the NYPD arrived [in response to a BLM protest] and sobbed. I wanted to normalize being a social justice activist by being a visibly frum person. This action is something one can do as a graduate of Bais Rivkah. The protesters who were there were not on the fringes [of the Chabad community]. Also, to normalize showing up for our Black neighbors.

Members of the Chabad community of Crown Heights marched for Black lives and held signs expressing their Jewish values.
Members of the Chabad community of Crown Heights marched for Black lives and held signs expressing their Jewish values. Photos courtesy of Mo Gelber
How do you feel about the outcome of the protest?

I am so excited and happy that so many people from the Crown Heights community showed up in support of their Black neighbors. We weren’t sure what the turnout would be. It went beyond our expectations.

A historian explained that 3 percent of a community has to come out and protest in the streets in order for a revolution to follow. We were halfway there with our first protest. Given how heavily policed and silenced people are within the community, I imagine there were many more who would have liked to show up but would worry about their kids being kicked out of school or otherwise being shamed for being public [about their liberal politics and activism]. I think there is a lot of energy and goodwill around the ideas we are advancing, and I think we uncovered that there’s a lot more support for a progressive worldview that’s being buried than we had originally thought, which is heartening and galvanizing.

What do you think the next steps will be?

My hopes were to take a stand for racial justice and support our Black neighbors. I wanted both the Jewish and Black communities to see us and know that there is support for this cause. Seeing the positive response has really inspired us organizers, and we are working daily on meeting with local politicians and community groups; forming subcommittees; coming up with a name and logo; and crafting a mission statement and focus. We hope to plan more rallies, educational events and generate awareness about civic engagement and cross-community conversation. This (movement) is internal, organic and rooted in Chasidic values, so we bring something unique to the table.

You can follow along and support the cause on Instragram by following @ker_a_velt

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