Jews of Color, Covid-19, Civil Unrest — An Argument for Inclusion

Nate Looney is U.S. Army Veteran, Urban Farmer and the JOC Recruiter at Avodah

We are at a turning point in American history. This isn’t the first turning point, and it will not be the last, however it is a call to action for my White Jewish community and the Jewish non-profit world. Last week, a video of another Black man being lynched went viral for the world to see. I personally refuse to watch any more videos of men who look like me, my brothers, my father, or my friends being killed; each of these videos become the latest #BLM hashtag. I didn’t have to watch George Floyd take his last breath to understand what was happening: his death was not only murder, but also a glaring confirmation of the disdain some members of law enforcement express toward Black and Brown lives.

In the past three months, the US has been thrown more challenges than it has in the past decade combined: Covid-19, economic uncertainty, nationwide protests. As a result, many Americans have been left to fend for themselves. We are in uncharted territory. However, these realities have uncovered the gross inequality that exists in this country. We must take note of which demographic population has the highest Covid-19 mortality rate, economic disenfranchisement, and poor health outcomes. We need to notice which demographic groups earn the lowest wages, yet make up the largest workforce deemed “essential.” We now realize that it took a video (showing what Black folks have been saying for decades) for more White people to understand how pervasive police brutality is in this country.

Today, as I write this, my brothers and sisters around the country are taking to the streets, begging and lamenting for a fair and accountable criminal justice system. This week also marks the 99-year-anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. In 1921, an upper-class Black neighborhood was leveled; its destruction has been documented as a race riot. It is important to note that the Tulsa Massacre was a concerted effort to cover up all documentation of the event. Too often, the narrative around the Black experience and racism is erased and as a result, history continues to repeat itself, I invite you to research the Red Summer of 1919.

Ashkenazi Jews in particular say “never again,” but as a Jew of Color, I regularly ask myself, what does “never again” really mean? My assessment: this statement generally refers to, “never again will White Jews be persecuted.” I say this because most of the same Jews screaming “never again” are eerily silent about the injustices faced by African Americans, and in some cases also further perpetuate the same harms. More outraged by damage to property than the loss of another Black man at the hands of police brutality.

Two weeks ago, an opinion piece was published on eJewishphilanthropy arguing that there aren’t as many Jews of Color in America as researchers would like us to believe — and for that reason, in this time of economic uncertainty, it is irresponsible for Jewish non-profit organizations to devote valuable resources to JOC and diversity-related initiatives. This is an example of an attempt at erasure, but it also highlighted a clear disparity between the reality of our (JOC’s) existence and what some folks choose to believe is the American Jewish community (White). This has been a last-ditch effort by folks, specifically White cis-gender men, who are now realizing that the good ol’ boy system is coming to its end.

Jews of Color were left in a state of shock from the harm of that OpEd article. For years we have been screaming to all who will listen, “we exist.” Jews of Color, a minority within a minority, have an acute understanding of what intersectionality means. To be clear, we come in many shades, from many different countries, and are an asset to any organization.

Currently, I work part-time as Avodah’s JOC Recruiter. The title somewhat speaks for itself, so I want to focus on the timing of my introduction to the Jewish professional arena.

December 2019: I was riding from New York to the outskirts of Philadelphia for the Avodah staff retreat. It was my first official week with the organization. At the same time we were driving through New Jersey, a kosher grocery store was being attacked. Within hours it was clear that the perpetrators were African American. For Jews of Color, this was an alarming scenario because whenever there has been an attack against the Jewish community regardless of who commits the attack, Jews of Color face a higher degree of scrutiny by synagogue security.

The Pittsburgh shooting was another clear example (of this higher degree of scrutiny) from my personal experience. On the day of the shooting, I was scheduled to speak on a panel for queer Jews at a local synagogue. The security team didn’t want to let me through the gate. Mind you, I disconnect from technology during Shabbat, so it was only later that I learned about the Tree of Life attack. Additionally,the perpetrator was White. Still, I faced a deeper level of scrutiny as I approached a community event to speak as an invited guest.

Specifically, an attack carried out by people of color inevitably has very real implications on the lives of Jews of Color who choose to engage in Jewish communal life. I personally cut down on my meat consumption during that time to avoid scrutiny in my neighborhood kosher grocery stores. That same month, the White House had just published an executive order amending Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The amendment implied Jews were a protected race. The underlying sentiment of this statement was that Jews only come from a certain lineage.

With these two very heavy issues weighing on my mind, I prepared to spend the next two days at the retreat with a group of White folks who I did not know.

As a White Jew, imagine what it would have been like to navigate the pogroms, completely enraged while the rest of your non-Jewish neighbors, friends and colleagues operated as nothing was wrong. This is the argument for the importance of creating and cultivating spaces for Jews of Color. While some organizations are only now incorporating the importance of having diversity at all organizational levels, Avodah has made diverse leadership part of its fundamental mission for years prior. Three years before the JOC Recruiter position was created, Avodah created a Racial Justice Task Force to identify and address diversity and equity shortcomings.

My first task as a recruiter was to observe. How can I recruit anyone, JOC or otherwise, to an organization without first understanding the foundation of its culture? As someone who has spent the majority of his life in the Jewish community, I’m acutely aware of the ways that microaggressions show up in progressive Jewish spaces. I was pleasantly surprised when I experienced none of the usual offenses. I had landed in the right place. Not once was I asked about my Jewish lineage. Not once did someone nervously grab their bag when I entered the room. Not once did anyone avoid eye contact with me. While the organizational culture was clearly one of inclusion, I was aware that there was a difference in lived experience. Avodah is what I would personally call a “woke” progressive Jewish non-profit organization. However, as an organization, they are still vulnerable to a lack of awareness of issues that do not directly impact the quality of their lives (but may speak to the quality of our collective leadership).

During the retreat, I chose to listen in on a breakout session about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Avodah Service Corps. We brainstormed tangible ways to make Avodah an organization that was not only more inclusive of Jews of Color, but also steps to enrich the development of future JOC leaders. One suggestion raised was a bayit (communal home) comprised of Jews of Color only (or majority). The initial argument included questions such as, why would JOCs need a separate communal environment? The opposite of inclusion? The answer is no: for too long Jews of Color have had to exist in isolation, many of us feeling like we were the only one sharing a particular lived experience. Spaces for JOCs enable us to cultivate community, to laugh, to cry, to be loud, to be supported at moments of upheaval as we are currently experiencing in 2020.

Covid-19 has reverberated through this country regardless of whether we have been medically impacted by the virus. While the pandemic is exhausting enough on its own, people of color, in particular, Black folks, have been dealing with the added backdrop of continued violence against Black bodies perpetrated by white folks. Additionally, Black folks continue to convince our “friends” that Black lives actually matter. Black folks have to continually worry about the Central Park Amy’s in our towns and vigilante neighborhood watch folks who are looking for a reason to shoot. As the virus rages on, people of color understand that the highest Covid-19 related deaths occur in communities of color. We have spent the past three months in a holding pattern of waiting to get a call that a relative or family friend has passed due to Covid-19, wondering if we (or the people we love) will have the means to meet our basic needs. We are unfortunately waiting for the latest police brutality related hashtag to hit our social media timelines.

We must acknowledge the fact that just because Jews of Color choose not to show up in your communal spaces, does not mean that we don’t exist in mass.

To the people who continue to deny the significance of Jews of Color in the fabric of the American Jewish community: let the civil unrest of the past few days serve as a wake up call. There is no more Pollyanna bubble in which to exist. My hope for our Jewish community in this moment (and forever more) is an acknowledgment of the harm that has been done to Jews of Color by White Jews AND also a path forward with course correction.

As a country, and as a diverse Jewish community, we can learn from Covid-19 (and the disparities that the virus has uncovered); we can be moved to action. We can take the energy of this moment to cultivate real change personally, professionally, and communally.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Jews of Color are currently doing the work to make that wish a reality. Yavilah McCoy, Ilana Kaufman, April Baskin, Jared Jackson and many of my JOC brothers and sisters have been doing the heavy lifting for years. The past few years have been a psychological blitzkrieg for us, but we have never dropped the banner for racial diversity, equity and inclusion. Creating spaces that cultivate Jewish leaders of color should be a top priority for any progressive non-profit Jewish institution. So I ask, how will you and your organization be recorded or omitted from the history books of this moment?

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