Beyond Good Intentions

Organizers of the Not Free to Desist campaign discuss their efforts to push Jewish institutions to embrace anti-racism.

Rebecca Pierce
August 27, 2020
The Not Free to Desist team (from left): Lindsey Newman, Aaron Samuels, and Rachel Sumekh.

Amid a nationwide uprising against police brutality and racism this summer, American synagogues and Jewish institutions are turning new attention to their own issues of race and racism, including the erasure and exclusion of Jews of color within Jewish communities. Some communal organizations see the creation of more inclusive communities as not only a moral imperative but an existential one, as Jewish communal demographics shift toward a more racially diverse population. But the work of building truly anti-racist Jewish communities will take more than good intentions; it requires commitment to long-term structural change and a more just allocation of resources. 

In that context, three Jews of color working in communal organizations released an open letter in June urging American Jewish institutions to adopt major changes to combat internal racism. The Not Free to Desist letter outlines seven “obligations” Jewish organizations can undertake for pursuing racial equity, under the premise that “[o]ur covenants remind us that those with power have an obligation to empower those with less, and . . . that those with freedom have an obligation to help free those who are without.” 

The obligations start small—asking institutions to endorse the principle that Black Lives Matter and to establish racial justice as an organizational pillar—and then expand to structural shifts in hiring, governance, education, grant-making, leadership, and communal accountability. One obligation asks that 20% of an organization’s board seats, staff, and senior leadership be filled by people of color. This a change that is meant not only to gain representation for the 10–20% of the Jewish community that are people of color, but to “actively combat generations of discrimination and marginalization that have actively suppressed the advancement of targeted communities.” Another obligation asks that 20% of institutional funding go to Jews of color, and that a portion of senior leadership compensation be tied to “the achievement of anti-racist hiring, staffing and compensation goals.”

Not Free to Desist is the culmination of many years of organizing. The letter’s authors are veteran Jewish community organizers: Lindsey Newman is director of community engagement at Jews of color advocacy group Be’Chol Lashon; Rachel Sumekh is an Iranian Jewish community organizer and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger; and Aaron Samuels is a poet and COO of Blavity, a Black digital media company. The trio are longtime friends, who first worked together in Bend the Arc’s 2015 Selah Cohort, aimed at developing Jews of Color leadership in social movements. I talked to the organizers about why this initiative felt so urgent, the obstacles to advocating change in the Jewish professional world, and the generational shift fueling this racial justice movement. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Pierce: How did the Not Free to Desist letter come about?

Lindsey Newman: For the last six years or so, we’ve relied on each other as co-conspirators and creative partners, thinking about what racial justice work could look like in the Jewish community. We had a call a few days after the Minneapolis City Council announced their intention to defund their police department. We were really blown away by the possibility of transformational change, and inspired to think really big about what could be possible in the Jewish community if we ride this wave of momentum.

Aaron Samuels: While this letter in some ways happened in response to the George Floyd protests, it only worked because we’ve been thinking about this and dialoguing about it actively for many, many years.

LN: The Not Free to Desist letter was us envisioning what we wanted for the Jewish community. We had in mind the fact that Judaism is based on a covenant, and on the obligations that we hold to one another, and so we intentionally thought about the letter as obligations and not demands. It was a way of saying, “This is what we need to be fully supported members of the community.” 

We outlined seven areas of focus in our obligations, using our experience as lay leaders and professionals and our background knowledge in anti-racism frameworks to come up with some of the specific changes that could be made within Jewish institutions.

AS: In Jewish tradition, oftentimes in sacred texts, not only is there a suggestion for how to behave, but then there is a long list of extrapolations—“This is how you do it”—down to the very, specific: “Use a strand of blue into your garment.” We were modeling our letter on the Jewish education we’d received and decided not to just say there’s a problem here, but to propose a very actionable list of solutions that can be a starting place for how to make the Jewish community anti-racist.

RP: Why was it so important to focus specifically on the Jewish institutional community?

AS: When we say the institutional Jewish community, what we’re primarily referring to is the large group of foundations and federations that receive funding and then redistribute money to Jewish synagogues, schools, nonprofits, and other organizations. We’re talking about a group of organizations that have control over a significant amount of wealth and capital and determine major decisions that impact the entire Jewish community.

LN: And it’s not just how money is spent, but also who creates the curriculum that guides how we tell the story of who the Jewish people are. How do we make sure that the story we tell ourselves is representative of all the people that make up our community?

RP: What’s the response to the letter been like so far? Have you seen a sustained response since it was released in June? 

LN: Since releasing the letter, we have received signatures from over 2,000 individuals and over 150 Jewish organizations. We have also received significant additional public support, including statements from Repair The World, The Leichtag Foundation, and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. We have also received outreach from major Jewish organizations around the country asking for our partnership as they seek to implement sustained change within their communities. 

I think the generally positive response is due in part to the fact that we presented signing onto this letter as a commitment to starting the conversation and embarking on the work. Many people felt called to sign in that spirit. Maybe they’re not sure if they can achieve all the things on the list, or they’re not sure which specific things will be harder or easier, but from the feedback that we’ve received, there are many people in the Jewish community that are inspired to do the hard work.  

AS: In the areas where people have expressed concern, the majority of the questions we’ve received have been about implementation. A lot of the questions actually weren’t coming from a place of negativity, but they were coming from a place of genuine questioning of, “I want to do this, but I don’t see how it’s possible. How can we make this happen?” As far as I’m concerned, that’s my favorite type of pushback, because it means that they’re starting from a place of saying, “We want to try. How do we get there?”

RP: Twenty percent POC board membership across Jewish institutions would be a historic change. What are the practical implications of a commitment like this one, for Jews of color, the organizations implementing these changes, and for the community as a whole?

Rachel Sumekh: People have been asking us specifically about this point. One comment we get a lot is, “Why do you demand that 20% of the board be people of color when only 12–15% of Jews in our community are Jews of color?” We’ve been reminding folks that, in our efforts to appropriately course correct, and fix what has for so long been neglected, it’s not enough for there to be equal representation. You need to overrepresent to meet the situation that we put ourselves in.

LN: Until Jewish institutional leadership reflects the breadth of identities in our population, underrepresented groups within our community will continue to be marginalized. This type of systemic change will require us to look inward and challenge our assumptions about who the Jewish community contains, and how our leadership must serve us. We know the Jewish community historically does not let hard work stand in the way of tackling difficult challenges; what Not Free to Desist is asking for will require vulnerability and courage.

RP: What are some of the obstacles to making Jewish institutions anti-racist?

LN: One of the obstacles is the fear of failure. Part of how we wanted to shift the conversation was to challenge ourselves in a loving way, so that the community at large could feel good about embarking on the work with a mindset of, “We’re going to start this assuming that we can win,” rather than, “We’re going to start this with a big amount of doubt whether we can win or how we can even go about it.” We really wanted to ground the conversation in the idea that this is possible. We have all the tools and all of the resources to do it already. We just have to direct those things in the right way. 

One of the tests is going to be the long-term commitment to this work. We know this is a very specific moment in time, when the Jewish community, and the country at large, is focused on the issue of racism in a way that it has not been in in many years. Part of the challenge is to make sure that that effort is sustained.

AS: The fear is that statements will be issued and task forces will be created and then the energy will die down and things won’t actually end up happening. We won’t see a real shift. That fear partially comes from the fact that this has happened before. Six years ago, when Black Lives Matter first came onto the scene, there were a lot of conversations within the Jewish community about how to support Jews of color, how to make sure that the Jewish community is acting in solidarity with communities of color. All three of us were pulled onto different types of racial justice task forces on behalf of the Jewish community, whether that was through Jewish federations or through Jewish foundations or through organizations of Jews of color. We saw some initiatives continue, but we did not see a massive shift in board membership, communal leadership, and curriculum. We did not see substantial funding to support Jews of color across the country. 

RS: Our community is obsessed with the idea that unless you’re going to do something perfectly, don’t even try, and don’t tell anyone you’re going to work on it. One of the key components of this letter is that it’s an open letter, because we’re hoping for an open conversation across organizations about what’s working and what’s not working. 

LN: The burden of rectifying marginalization very often falls on the marginalized themselves. We want that burden to be shouldered by the institutions. When we’re told that we have to wait to see change happen, that implies that it’s okay for the marginalized to bear the discomfort of marginalization, rather than the institutions to bear the discomfort of change.

RP: What does change and success in the context of this letter look like for you?

AS: Millennials and Gen Z view the world very differently than prior generations: The speed at which information travels is significantly faster, which creates an expectation among younger generations that social change should be able to move at that speed. To be blunt, I don’t think there’s any reason that shouldn’t be the case. I think that some of the intracommunal conflict we are having has to do with the fact that many Jewish institutions have very ingrained traditional practices and move much slower than younger generations expect. This generational shift is happening no matter what. The question is, how can we best facilitate that change? How can we honor the contributions of previous generations and hold onto those important traditions without getting locked into some of the slower practices? Judaism is designed to grow and evolve as the Jewish community grows and evolves. Our tradition is a testament to that process. What I believe we’re asking for in this letter is to apply that same ingenuity to the present moment.

RS: When Jews started to come to the US in large numbers in the 1800s and early 1900s, they built the institutions to meet the specific needs of their communities. Those needs have evolved, and a lot of them have been met. Of course, there are still Jews who live in poverty and Jews who face discrimination as Jews, but in many ways, the needs and the demographics of our Jewish community have changed. Our institutions, however, have not adapted as quickly as they should have.

LN: Our vision is of a liberated Jewish community. Not only that the Jewish community is better prepared to support us in our pain, but also support us in our joy and our celebration—to hold us when we’re thriving. That liberation will benefit all Jews; through this work, white Jews will also be able to live with a much fuller sense of Jewish identity.

Rebecca Pierce is a Black and Jewish filmmaker and writer from San Francisco and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. Her writing has been published in The New Republic, The Forward, The Nation, and +972 Magazine.