Reflections on Selah

A photo of succlents with text that says "Reflections from Selah, by Jihelah Greenwald"

I spent the first full week of the year with 23 other Jewish people of color at a retreat in the deserts of Southern California. It was the biggest gathering of JOCs (Jews of Color) that I had ever been a part of. It was the coming together of Selah’s Cohort 16, a group of people from across the country that Bend the Arc have identified as Jewish Leaders of Color. The backdrop of our learning was the clay-red desert canyon where nestled into the valley our buildings were lined with succulents and pink peppercorn trees instead of the more familiar shrubbery and mums of Boston. For me the space was rejuvenating, it was healing, and it was challenging.

We gathered from sun-rise to sunset for five days of learning together to grow our individual capacities as leaders. Between the sessions where we honed our leadership skills, there were many rosy moments of feeling “seen” and “belonging” like the first night at the dinner table trading stories with three other mixed-heritage FIlipinx womyn. In this space, I felt closer to being seen in my wholeness. 

But it wasn’t all rosy. On the third day, our group broke apart.

Tensions emerged in the dusk of the second day after a session on white supremacy culture. Again we sat in a circle discussing, but this time our good intentions fell short. My stomach flipped and my jaw clenched as racist microaggressions piled up. Our own internalized anti-blackness had followed us to the retreat. I opted out of the social time in the evening. Instead, walking to my room in a daze as the discussion and my own memories stewed with each other leaving me frustrated that (as my peer said) “there is no road map.” Before falling to sleep that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that even in a space created to specifically celebrate and uplift leaders of color in the Jewish community, there was still pervasive and prickly patterns of anti-blackness that reflect the anti-black racism that lay at the foundations of our society. **

The next morning, the crisp desert air and bright sunlight woke me. More hopeful after a night’s rest, I was ready to rise to the challenge of creating the group we wanted to live in. That day — through moments of listening, breathing together, taking breaks from the full group, and sticking with each other through our frustrations — we grew. We created new, resilient connections that were stronger than being “non-white Jews”. We built connections from our individual and collective commitment to see each other fully and healing from the anti-black racism that affects all of us.

By the end of the five days, I was tired from our learning and journeying together. On my flight back to Boston, I let my Shabbat practice begin early. I unplugged and allowed myself to rest. I entered the liminal space, the transition between my learning and coming back into my everyday life — where I could cherish the love and gifts Cohort 16 had given me and consider how to keep that spirit and energy with me moving forward. 

Thank you to every single person who joined us physically and spiritually last week. Thank you to everyone at Bend the Arc who made this experience possible, especially our leaders Leili Devari and Graie Hagans. And thank you to my team at JOIN who supported me in showing up at Selah and welcomed me back home.

*Selah a word from the Torah when Moses strikes a rock and water gushes forth. Some of the interpretations we discussed in our group includes a break, a rock, a break in a song, and a pause.

**One of Cohort 16 group agreements at this retreat was to take away learnings and uphold confidentiality. I want to share out my learnings, but the details will be scant to respect my commitment to our group. If you finish reading and want to know more details, my recommendation is to pay attention in multiracial group spaces you are a part of. Then make space for people with marginalized ideas to share their experiences. 

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Jihelah Greenwald is the Program and Network Manager at JOIN for Justice.

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