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Rabbi Ari Witkin discusses the launch of Start Here: A Jewish Anti-racism Learning Cohort.

In the first week of June 2020, I was sitting in my basement on a Zoom call with a group of colleagues discussing what our communal response to the murder of George Floyd might look like. Organized by Sarah Allyn (then executive director of Repair the World Detroit), most people “in the room” were representing organizations and congregations that historically had been more active in the work of building racial justice. This was, in many ways, new territory for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit where I serve as the director of leadership development. 

Rabbi Ari Witkin
Rabbi Ari Witkin

Looking around the Jewish world, I saw myself in good company. It felt like a new day of engagement and advocacy as just about every organization, regardless of its mission or history, was launching some sort of statement, campaign or program to support Black community, Jews of color and BIPOC folks (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) more broadly. 

In the early days of last summer, it seemed as though a sort of kairos (critical) moment had emerged at the intersection of the killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery; the early months of the COVID pandemic and a growing incitement of political polarization sweeping the nation. As someone who has long worked to center the conversation about justice in mainstream Jewish institutions, this moment felt exciting. However, in the excitement there was a great question about just what we, as individuals and organizations, ought to do.

The Naivety of Best Intentions

For those of us on that call, white Jewish professionals who in our own lives had begun a journey of anti-racist learning, there was a sense of eagerness and urgency about the opportunity to bring our broader community and institutions into the conversation. And so, we ambitiously put a plan in place. 

With a focus on centering the voices of Jews of color, we would invite the broader Metro Detroit Jewish community to an opportunity to learn more about what was happening in the world around us. What we had overlooked in our hurry to capture the moment was how far behind we and our community were and are in the work, and how many assumptions we had made in the brainstorming of this program. 

Over the course of the next few days, we reached out to individuals we had relationships with to garner feedback on our plan and solicit participation from Jews of color locally and nationally. The response we received could not have been clearer: Don’t ask us; start with yourselves. 

The feedback admittedly was hard to swallow, but so important. I am particularly grateful to my friend and colleague, Rebecca Steinman-DeGroot, for her generosity of spirit and intellect in helping us understand our location in that moment. Though our immediate programmatic plans had taken a back seat, the conversations that had begun opened the door to what became a year of listening and learning, which led to the creation of a new unique and important initiative. 

Starting with Ourselves

In the weeks that followed, Sarah and I met with various individuals and stakeholders in Detroit and around the country. Though much was unclear at that time, what was obvious was that meaningful engagement was not about the moment, but about the work we would do in the long run. Yes, everyone and their rabbi was going to post on Facebook that summer that Black Lives Matter, but would our community and our organizations make a real commitment to cultural and systemic change?

One of our early conversations was with Dr. Andrea Jacobs, a longtime leader and educator in her work to help Jewish communities become more inclusive and equitable spaces. Together, we began to think about what it would mean for organizations like the Federation and Repair the World Detroit to begin an anti-racism learning journey.   

While we knew there was no one thing to do, thanks to the hard work and determination of Rachel Wasserman, a fellow at Repair the World Detroit, and with the feedback of our friends fresh in our minds, we launched Start Here: A Jewish Anti-racism Learning Cohort. 

Led by Dr. Jacobs, with support from the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the Jewish Fund Teen Board, the Jamie and Denise Jacob Family Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, this program brought together 17 mid-career white Jewish professionals and lay leaders, representing 13 area organizations, for a seven-month learning intensive. 

What We Learned

The first question we inevitably got every time we spoke about this idea was “why just white people?” What we know is that while there is important work for white and BIPOC folks to do together, separate affinity space gives room to build understanding of the history of racialization in the U.S. while increasing participants’ capacity or critical analysis and self-awareness around the issues of race. Additionally, and importantly, as a response to that initial feedback, that we must start with ourselves and take responsibility for our own learning, rather than placing that burden on BIPOC folks. 

The content of our learning provided a curricular arch that began with the genesis of racialization and the racial disparity upon which America was constructed. We studied settler-colonialism, anti-black racism, the toll racism has taken on white people, the intersections of racism and antisemitism and what it means for Jews to be white. 

Most importantly, throughout the entire program, Dr. Jacobs moved us toward understanding the ways in which we can bring our learning home as we work to make anti-racism an inherent part of Jewish community infrastructure.

What Comes Next

The truth is, I’m not sure we totally know what comes next, nor do I believe this work is linear. What I hope is that the learning we have done these past months, and the relationships we have built, provide a framework and a foundation to each of us in the moments when we continue to encounter the legacy of racism and white supremacy acting in the Jewish community.

I’m proud that our Federation, through the Hermelin Davidson Center, created a fund to promote racial justice programs in the community, including modest funding for a staff person at Detroit Jews for Justice focused on building community amongst local Jews of color. I am grateful for the support and leadership, particularly of the many women of color, who have long been doing this work in the Jewish community, and consistently and benevolently give their time and energy, all too often without compensation. 

It has been nearly 18 months since George Floyd was murdered. Our communal Twitter feed and d’vrei Torah, briefly ablaze with calls for racial justice, have by and large returned to business as usual. This cycle is not new, but what can be is a far more impactful and quieter commitment in the stalwart structures and organizations of Jewish life. 

While we don’t know what’s next, in Detroit we have chosen to Start Here, with a serious look at ourselves, knowing there is still a long way to go as we continue to work to show up for racial justice. 

Rabbi Ari Witkin is director of leadership development at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

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