As Enzi Tanner participated in an online Havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat Saturday night, his city — Minneapolis — was being torn apart during a fifth night of unrest following the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody there last week.
Tanner, a social worker who supports LGBT families experiencing homelessness, said the ceremony — hosted by Jewish Community Action, a local social justice group, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a national organization — conveyed a powerful message for black Jews like him.
“As the Jewish community reaches in and says how do we support their cause and how do we support the black community, it’s really important that people reach in to black Jews and other Jews of color and realize that we’re here,” Tanner said. “And we need our community.”
JTA reached out to black Jews like Tanner to understand their feelings at this wrenching moment and what their message is for the broader Jewish community. Here’s what they said (their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity).
Yitz Jordan is the founder of TribeHerald, a publication for Jews of color, and a hip hop artist also known as Y-Love:
“What am I feeling? Anxiety. That’s what I’m feeling. I had an anxiety attack on Friday. I live in the ’hood, I live in Bushwick, so I’m not really geographically in the Jewish community, but I know that somebody on Friday for instance was shot not too far from me and I was terrified as to what the response to that was going to be, were cops going to respond and was rioting going to happen in my neighborhood?
“And in the Jewish community, this is the kind of fight that I’m having: ‘This didn’t happen after the Holocaust, why are black people acting like this?’ It’s that role of explaining over and over again to people who quite often don’t want to listen.
“I feel like the same split that’s going through America in ideological lines is going through the Jewish community … whatever percent of Orthodox Jews that support Trump, you see it more from these people. When we say the Jewish community in general, that also consists of people like JFREJ [Jews for Racial and Economic Justice] and Jewish Voice for Peace and these other organizations. But in the Orthodox world, the pro-Trump wing is where I’m hearing these types of conversations. And I’m seeing this, ranging from lack of knowledge to callousness regarding people of color. There are some people who genuinely don’t know, and to whom a lot of these issues are very new. Especially chasidish people, for instance, this just isn’t part of the Shabbos-table conversation — police brutality, inequality, systemic racism. But you have some people who just show callousness.”
Gulienne Rishon is a diversity expert and chief revenue officer for TribeHerald Media:
“I am thankful for true allies, who understand that this is not the time to center their own experiences. I am thankful for true allies, who understand that the experiences they and their ancestors have had are to be used in this moment as empathy, and that no one is denying them their experiences in asking them to listen and learn.
“But mostly, if one more white-presenting Jew tries to tell me today that they don’t have white privilege (not that they aren’t white, but that they don’t have white privilege) because they’re Jewish/the Holocaust/Jews got kicked out of schools, I might lose my mind. I should not have to deal with people telling me that my story (the black part) doesn’t exist because my story (the Ashkenazi experience) exists. But I do. And I am confident that part of why G-d put me in the skin of a biracial Jewish woman descended from a Kindertransport survivor, a WWII veteran who was kicked out of his Hamburg Gymnasium for being Jewish, and two Southern black Virginians, is to help us as a people face our sinat chinam and take responsibility for being the light unto the nations by helping, not closing our ranks and denying the pain others feel because of the freshness of ours.
“Facilitating difficult conversations about race is literally my profession. Yet, some days, I’m just a person behind a keyboard on Facebook who came out of our day of rest hearing that the world erupted in flames, and I look at the beautiful brown skin of my daughter and her parents, and I’m angry and afraid. I’ve worked so hard to have these conversations with grace when you’re caught up in your feelings about the complexity. On a day when it’s not about the complexity, but processing and mourning actual death, can you please give the same grace to mine?”
Isaiah Rothstein is a multiracial rabbi who serves as the rabbi-in-residence at Hazon:
“Both sides of my ancestry hold a lot of pain of being othered and being oppressed. During these moments it’s sometimes hard to process and it’s a lot to integrate, but it’s a time where we’re expected to stand up and to speak up so I’m trying to find my voice every single day.
“On the one hand, I feel restless and frustrated and fed up. On the other hand, I think that like anyone who’s reading or seeing the headlines, I feel frustrated because so many people don’t care enough, or they care adjacently or from the outside. So there’s those emotions but then on the flip-side, I think that this moment is calling on all of us as Americans to stand up.
“If I could say in short what do I think the Jewish community should be doing, I would want every community to have an educational platform for communities to contextualize discussions around race, specifically as it relates to the Jewish community. I would want to have platforms, summits, days of learning. I would want every community to sign on to have educational campaigns around racial equity and racial awareness and racial sensitivity, so that we could find a bridge to understanding and perspectives through history, through knowledge of the past, so that we could better create a stronger, healthier bridge for the future.”
Evan Traylor is an educator, activist and soon-to-be rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion:
“Right now, black Jews are grieving. We’re grieving for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. But we’re grieving for so many more lives, black lives that have been taken from this earth far too early because of brutal, systemic racism. And that pain isn’t going away tomorrow, or next week, or next month. It’s going to last for generations to come. And, if we want a better world, we have to change the system.
“I’m grateful for so many white Jewish allies who have reached out, comforted me, supported me not just over the last week, but for years now. And right now, we need more from our white Jewish siblings, and more from our Jewish institutions — we need support, allyship, resources and strategies to confront racism in our community and in our world. We are all created in the image of God — it’s time to build the Jewish community and world that makes our Torah true in this age.”
Shira Hanau contributed reporting.