Study * Engage * Act * Change
By Karen Herron
Image Description: A blue wave on an orange background curing toward the text “SEA CHANGE Study | Engage | Act”.
As individuals and institutions increasingly strive to understand their roles in perpetuating structural racism in the United States, questions abound regarding how to affect meaningful and lasting change. The long-overdue interest spurred a preponderance of virtual events and programming to educate Jewish communities about the history of racism, the experiences of Jews of Color, and an increased awareness of the intersectionality of factors such as race, gender, ability, and socioeconomic position. Yet, despite new awareness and understanding of the causal factors, the search for solutions to rampant inequity can overwhelm even the most informed and best intentioned among us.
In early 2020, before the pandemic and racially charged atrocities brought to light on social media focused our country’s attention on racism, two large, mainstream congregations in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. initiated efforts to jointly address the persistent inequity in our midst. Crossing denominational lines, B’nai Israel and Washington Hebrew Congregations, representing the Conservative and Reform movements, both have deep historical roots in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Recognizing the opportunity to seize this moment to learn with intention, build relationships, and work together toward a more just future, Washington Hebrew and B’nai Israel joined forces to engage in sacred work to address racial inequity and injustice so that our community reflects our values.
As a first step, a planning committee comprised of clergy and lay leaders participated in a racial equity training implemented by a local community organization. Next, we undertook an extensive search of local and national organizations to find an experienced partner who could shape and implement a plan to pursue our mission. We retained JOIN for Justice to bring their expertise and experience in building strong Jewish communities capable of effectively organizing for change. While the focus of SEA Change is racial equity, our choice was also motivated by the stories we heard of how other synagogues were transformed through JOIN’s guidance in incorporating the principles of community organizing.
In November, we launched SEA Change Racial Equity Roundtable, a unique cohort of 50 diverse individuals, comprised of 22 congregants and 3 clergy members from each synagogue, to study and engage together in order to act as change agents within our congregations and in Montgomery County.
The congregants who chose to participate in the multiyear initiative recognized that we cannot wait for our leaders to deliver change. Motivation to participate varied from concerns for the larger community to personal yearnings for inclusion in Jewish communal life. One applicant to the program noted “Indifference to oppression is just as dangerous as active oppression. If we don’t actively fight against oppression, then we support it… We have to fight against the oppression of African Americans.”
Another shared “I think a part of the problem facing many Jews of Color is that it’s hard to deal with the microaggressions and racism that sometimes come with our Jewish organizations or synagogues. It is even harder when you don’t see anyone that looks like you or can relate to your experience.”
While another said, “I’ve determined that as a privileged, White American, I want to help turn back systemic racism. As a Jew, I feel I must do more than want… I need to take some action.”
SEA Change is intended to lay the groundwork for us to take action: to identify and address issues of diversity and equity within our own congregations and to work side by side with communities of color to address racial inequity in Montgomery County.
Both Washington Hebrew and B’nai Israel Congregations have robust social action programming centered around service and ample volunteers willing to lend their time and energy to helping others. However, we recognize that in addition to the valuable service projects that our synagogues regularly undertake, we must also address the underlying causes of poverty and work toward being part of changing the structural foundations that cause unjust situations to continue.
Just like the chambers of government merely miles from Washington Hebrew’s D.C. campus, both communities include congregants who vote Republican as well as Democratic. In these polarized times, additional goals of our work include serving as a model for creating constructive dialogue among Jews around this topic and relationship building between Reform and Conservative communities.
Along the way, JOIN has tailored the curriculum to our community and been flexible when it seemed best to pivot direction or rethink the order of trainings. Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, Senior Rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation, noted recently that “In a world with so many unknowns, JOIN has been phenomenally flexible at readjusting and adding critical components. They are organizationally smart and have provided the right platform to think through next steps and also to model to our congregants how to be proactive and responsive at a time when both are increasingly necessary.”
In Phase One of SEA Change, the emphasis was on learning the key principles of anti-racism theory and practice as well as the fundamentals of community organizing. We began with intensive learning about power, race and organizing, exploring the history and the stories we have each inherited and still hold about race, racism, Jewish identity and antisemitism.
We learned specifically about the historical and present-day reality of race and racism in Montgomery County through the experiences and stories of local leaders of color who are engaged in organizing work in our community. We also heard about the experiences of other congregations who trained with JOIN and successfully integrated community organizing into their communal landscape. Rabbi Lydia Medwin of the Temple in Atlanta and Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in D.C. imparted valuable knowledge gleaned from their congregational experiences. They generously shared their time and imparted tangible examples that provided a view of how community organizing seeped into different facets of their congregations, allowing us to imagine the impact of integrating a community organizing lens. Rabbi Lustig shared that “although it is challenging not knowing where the road is going to take us, there is excitement around the possibility. Those involved have developed wonderful relationships and changed their attitudes and way of thinking. We are building future congregational leadership from within.”
We are currently in Phase Two of our journey which has us working in teams to investigate a variety of avenues for social change. Following interactive JOIN trainings on conducting internal race equity audits of our own congregations and researching to identify external partners for action in our local community, our dedicated teams are busy putting what they have learned to work. In addition, we are tapping the skills we gleaned in a training on conducting relational meetings through informative and engaging one on one meetings across the cohort.
This is the start of a process that we hope will bear fruit for many years to come and there have already been lessons learned along the way. Yes, it would have been nice to meet in person to develop personal relationships to help energize the work. But the combination of our country awakening to an awareness of racial inequity and the limitations imposed by the pandemic created an atmosphere ripe for our cohort to convene virtually with JOIN’s talented trainers from across the country. We are making the most of the technological resources we have at our disposal and are looking forward to meeting in person when we are able.
Soon we will cull and evaluate the information gathered from the External Research Team meetings in order to select a campaign or organization with whom we will partner to address racial inequity in our community. The Internal Audit Committees will share the areas they have identified as race equity challenges and opportunities for internal institutional transformation. This interpretation and selection process will be the focus of Phase Three, and as we move into Phase Four our attention will turn to base building. We will proactively work to integrate what we have learned into congregation activities and recruit additional congregants to be involved through a house meeting campaign.
Rabbi Mickey Safra, Senior Rabbi of B’nai Israel Congregation noted that “SEA Change themes are already starting to permeate throughout different areas of the congregation. I am very appreciative of the guidance and support JOIN has provided and look forward to transitioning to taking off the training wheels and getting to work.” Associate Rabbi Mitch Berkowitz added that “It’s been popping up in organic ways” as he meets with B’nai Israel Committee Chairs to plan for Fall programming. “We now have an opportunity to demonstrate to our community that the investment in SEA Change is broader than the 50 people who have participated so far.”
The success of SEA Change will be measured not only by how many people are engaged in community organizing efforts but also by the type of cultural shifts that are achieved. Already, the relationships developed between the two congregations represent a strong foundation for ongoing sustainable action to achieve change in our community. Rabbi Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew noted recently, “As relational conversations started, the level of participation is quite high. People are finding partnership in conversation. Cohort members are stepping up and taking ownership through leadership. We have seen intergenerational relationships as well as connections between B’nai Israel and Washington Hebrew members invested in building community.”
Many thanks to Master trainers, Megan Black, and Megan Madison (also a JOIN board member), whose wisdom and talent in developing and implementing the trainings were invaluable.