NEW YORK — Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon the nation to “rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
It’s in that same spirit the New York-based non-profit Repair the World launched its first ever “Act Now for Racial Justice” campaign. It seeks to show how racism permeates economic, social, and criminal justice systems in the US. It also aims to drive the conversation about racial disparity towards more practical moves that can be taken to make a difference.
And if Repair the World’s CEO David Eisner has his way, the campaign won’t be just a moment — it will become part of the movement toward increased partnerships between Jewish and African American organizations.
“The issue of racial justice has moved so far up our consciousness. Young adults in both the Jewish and African American communities are creating change,” Eisner said. “And by standing in solidarity they are making a meaningful difference, sending an important signal, and building deep relationships across racial lines. Our Jewish values compel us to stand for racial justice and to right the wrongs we see nearly daily.”
Officially launched during the Jewish High Holidays, the campaign will go through Passover 2017. A variety of programs are planned, including “Turn the Tables.” The initiative gathers participants around the dinner table to break bread and learn about the root causes and impacts of racial injustice in America.
During its campaign, Repair the World will send a Jewish delegation to Facing Race, one of the largest multiracial, intergenerational gatherings. Held in Atlanta, Georgia, between November 10-12, Facing Race works to grow the racial justice movement.
“The more you can drive uncomfortable conversations, the more disciplined and intentional conversations we have around power and privilege, race and class, the more people come back to engage. When we ask hard questions it becomes one of the powerful and transformative parts of our identity,” Eisner said.
While some skeptics consider recent calls for a “conversation about race” a cliché, most who are fighting on the front lines for racial justice say otherwise.
“Dialogue is not a societal nicety, it is a societal necessity. The common criticism for efforts like this — interfaith, interracial — is that they are well-intended but intangible. I want to reject that,” said Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP.
“I’ve been crisscrossing this country, flying into, driving into, walking into places where there is anxiety and conflict. And the difference between bad and worse is often between conversation and silence,” said Brooks.
Brooks became NAACP president in May 2014. Several weeks later Staten Island resident Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold. The grand jury decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo resulted in peaceful protests. More than a year later, in Baltimore, Freddie Gray, who had died in police custody, was buried. Riots erupted.
One of the biggest differences between cities that are “burned and looted and those that are not” lies in having long-standing relationships between different communities, Brooks said.
Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel in Memphis agreed about the need for committed relationships between interfaith communities.
“I am less enthusiastic about marches, events, and campaigns for racial justice and more enthusiastic about deep, ongoing, and genuine relationships,” said Greenstein, who serves on the national board of the NAACP. “It dawned on me last week when I spoke at two African American churches in South Memphis, that getting proximate not only means white Jews and Gentiles being present among friends in the black community, but vice versa.”
The first step for participants in Repair the World’s “Act Now For Racial Justice” is learning about the need for racial justice. The second step is finding ways for participants to perform meaningful service in solidarity with communities of color, be it in areas of food insecurity, voting rights, mass incarceration, or education.
‘I am less enthusiastic about marches, events, campaigns — and more enthusiastic about deep, ongoing, and genuine relationships’
Of the 50 million people in the US facing food insecurity 10.6% are white, 21.1% are African American, 23.7% are Latino and 23% are Native American, according to Repair the World.
To that end, Repair the World has joined with several community groups, including Muslims Against Hunger, founded by Zamir Hassan. The organization has a network of 20 volunteer communities nationwide. Its Hunger Van, started in 2011, brought together Muslim and Jewish students from Rutgers. It also recently launched One World Community Café, a kosher, halal and vegan soup kitchen.
Regarding voting rights, advocacy organizations such as Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (a past Repair the World partner) are taking steps to ensure all voters, especially people of color, don’t have their votes suppressed this election.
“For us this is not a short-term thing, it’s an existential part of who we are and the Reform movement, which has played a historic part in civil rights,” Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Executive Director of RAC, said. “It’s not enough to do just one day of awareness, one symbolic gesture. It has to be an ongoing thing to work for election protection, criminal justice reform.”
‘It’s not enough to do just one day of awareness, one symbolic gesture’
Together with various chapters of the NAACP, RAC launched a nonpartisan initiative called “Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation” to educate and register voters. Additionally, “election protection” volunteers will be at polling stations across the country, to make sure that no one is turned away from voting through intimidation.
Voting rights are of particular importance to RAC because portions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were drafted in the organization’s conference room in Washington, DC.
Indeed, Jews and Jewish organizations have long been engaged in social justice.
In 1909 Henry Moscowitz joined W.E.B. DuBois and others to start the NAACP. Between 1910 and 1940 the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald funded more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and 20 black colleges, including Howard, Dillard and Fisk. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arms with Martin Luther King, Jr. and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in the march for voter rights.
Yet, in recent years a perception has arisen that the trust and cooperation has eroded.
“We have to understand that the story is more nuanced than the mythology. There is no doubt Jews played a role, a powerful role, in the civil rights movement,” Eisner said. “At the same time, we have to understand how split the Jewish community was, how in some parts of the country how difficult it was to voice support. The same holds true today, though I don’t buy into the narrative that Jews are abandoning the movement, the fight for racial justice.”
Rather, much of the work and “deep conversations” simply go unnoticed, Eisner said.
For example Sinai Temple in Springfield, Massachusetts, holds study circles with the neighboring Black Baptist Church. And in Westchester, New York, the Larchmont Temple holds events with the nearby Strait Gate Church.
These kinds of relationships are critical, the NAACP’s Brooks said.
“We cannot find common ground amidst the tear gas and the police trying to restore order,” he said. “So the fact that people are trying to have meaningful conversations gives my heart much joy.”