Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content


Thursday Newsletter 3/23/2023

Dear Reader,

Today’s newsletter is a report by Arielle Isack on the organizers working to build power among Jews of color. The piece traces the history of the term “Jews of color” and disentangles complex debates: Should non-white Jews push for inclusion within mainstream, majority-white institutions or form their own spaces instead? Does the best organizing strategy involve starting from shared identity or foregrounding shared politics? Nearly three years after many mainstream Jewish institutions adopted new anti-racism commitments amid the George Floyd uprising, Isack finds that little of the proposed work has been done—and that JOC organizers are responding by experimenting with new approaches.

—The Editors

What Comes Next for Jews of Color Activism?
As Jewish institutions neglect the diversity commitments they made in 2020, anti-racism organizers experiment with new approaches.
Arielle Isack

IN 2020, after millions took to the streets to protest George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, institutions across the US faced calls to address their role in upholding white supremacy. These included organizations in the Jewish community. In June 2020, a group of nonwhite Jews penned an open letter that they titled “Not Free to Desist,” which called upon Jewish institutions to adopt specific diversity guidelines and funding procedures in order to counter anti-Black racism. The letter asked these groups to commit, among other things, to ensuring that at least 20% of their workforces and senior leadership teams consisted of Jews of color (JOC) and other people of color, and devoting 20% of their total funding to initiatives led by JOC and POC. The demands came with a timeline: The group recommended that Jewish organizations commit to fulfilling at least four of the seven listed obligations within a year, and all seven within three years. Hundreds of Jewish organizations—mostly progressive groups like Avodah, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and Brooklyn synagogue Kolot Chayeinu, along with some establishment stalwarts like the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Union for Reform Judaism—signed on.

As that final three-year deadline approaches, however, the letter writers are unable to confirm whether any of the signatories are on track to fulfill the funding or hiring recommendations. Lindsey Newman, director of community engagement at the progressive Jewish organization Bechol Lashon and one of the three organizers who wrote the letter, said in an interview that the demands had helped give rise to “new and innovative initiatives” at a number of organizations, but acknowledged, that the letter organizers “don’t have specific data on the progress of individual organizations in achieving the change outlined in the seven pillars.” Graie Hagans, an anti-racism facilitator and organizer at Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish advocacy group, observed that “there’s a big list of all of these organizations that have said they want to do these things” but “by and large, they haven’t.”

Jews of color who have organized to make Jewish spaces more attentive to the needs of their nonwhite members say that those efforts have lost some momentum since reaching a peak in 2020. “When things blow up, there is pressure to do a lot of reconciliation around racism,” said Hagans. They added that such moments often give way to periods of confusion and produce little follow-through. While the letter was “a good organizing tool to get people on the record saying they are committed to all these things,” Hagans said, its authors “don’t actually have anything to leverage that change.” Others were more critical of organizing that focuses on increasing JOC representation within existing, flawed institutions. “Groups wholly dedicated to representational diversity are not effective or useful in any way, nor do I see any real demand for that from Jews of color,” said Shoshanna Brown, who co-founded the Black Jewish Liberation Collective (BJLC), a national organization of Black Jews, in 2015. Organizers noted their frustration with institutional inactivity and their skepticism with some existing JOC programming. “A majority of the offerings [housed in mainstream institutions] have not been made or designed by Jews of Color, or they’re designed by JOC who have no substantial training in anti-racist movement building,” said Brown. “The only benefit is that all these white people who run the organization get to pat themselves on the back.”