Before the George Floyd protests ignited in late May, the Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel community was talking about race as part of its discussion series “Confronting Racism as Jews.”
But the uprisings added new urgency to the series’ fourth session on June 3.
“This was designed to be a conversation about bringing our identities as Jews into the conversation on racism, and to bring attention to issues about how our identities as Jews intersect with issues of racism,” said Rabbi Batya Glazer, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The session put Glazer in conversation with Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Lassiter, who is African American, spoke about his experience in multiracial coalition-building and answered questions about the future of civil rights.
Senior Rabbi Abe Friedman addressed the protests at the beginning of the event.
“This was a vital conversation to be having even a month ago, and certainly this week there could be no more essential conversation to have,” he said before turning the screen over to Glazer and Lassiter.
“Do you see that anything has changed? Where do we go from here?” Glazer asked.
After reflecting on the legacy of racism from slavery to Jim Crow, mass incarceration and police brutality, Lassiter answered, “I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic. I am a prisoner of hope. Because there are good people of good faith like you and people on this call who want to make change happen.”
He cited civil rights workers like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma civil rights march, as examples of black-Jewish alliance.
“Someone like (former) Sen. Joe Lieberman could have gone straight from undergrad to graduate school, but he said, ‘No, I’m going south with the Freedom Riders,’” he said.
He described his experience leading Operation Understanding, a program that took rising African American and Jewish high school seniors to visit Senegal and Israel. He remembered being highly moved by Yad Vashem.
He also discussed how his upbringing was shaped by both the black church tradition of his parents and the Jewish educational tradition of his mentors. He grew up with Jewish neighbors in North Philadelphia and studied under Jewish professors at the historically black Johnson C. Smith University.
He emphasized that achieving real change required having uncomfortable conversations about race.
“It’s important to join organizations, join groups, join letter-writing campaigns, be willing to listen and learn. But beyond that kumbaya, we have to be real with ourselves that racism exists,” he said.
During the Q&A session, audience members asked questions like “How do I recognize my own racism?” and “How do Jews of color fit into this narrative?”
Shana Weiner asked Lassiter how to engage with people who respond to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” by insisting “All Lives Matter.”
Lassiter said it was important to acknowledge that while all lives matter, the slogan is designed to bring attention to the fact that black people’s lives are threatened by systemic racism and police brutality.
“That’s like going to a cancer benefit and saying, ‘Diabetes matters!’” he said.
Glazer said the response to the discussion series was positive.
“These are not meant to be feel-good programs, but there was tremendous appreciation that these conversations were happening,” she said.
Associate Rabbi Annie Lewis said Beth Zion Beth Israel was focusing on becoming an anti-racist community and supporting Jews of color.
“People are eager to find a way to show up in this moment for racial justice rooted in our Jewish values. We know it’s going to take a lot of effort and commitment and time and as a community we are excited about showing up for our neighbors,” she said.
Friedman said he noticed a growing awareness of the need for solidarity among white Jews, Jews of color and non-Jewish minorities.
“Most often, I’m hearing BZBI talking about anti-Semitism in the context of white supremacy and racial bias. There’s an awareness that the racism and anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant biases are intertwined. We can’t be, as a Jewish community, having a conversation about violence as if we are the sole victims of violence in the world,” he said.
He described the trend as durable, powerful and rooted in Jewish values.
“When we think about a Torah that says all people are created in the image of God, it’s a message very deep in our tradition, and I think people are owning that as Jews,” he said.