DEI Update—January 2021

We are learning and re-learning that the work of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is slow, iterative, and requires building a relational culture among the BJ staff and the BJ membership. Much of the work in recent months has been for those in leadership roles—mostly white Jews—to intentionally bring a DEI lens to our decision-making. This includes slowing down processes to engage people who are affected by decisions and making sure that their voices are heard; taking the time and effort to invest in relationships; and considering how to direct our resources in ways that are aligned with our vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
 
To date, we have created a committee structure to advance the goals and commitments articulated in our public statement, and are solidifying committee leadership and membership. Bringing a DEI lens to this piece of work has meant that before we roll out strategies and action plans, we are devoting time to building and deepening relationships among all committee members—across board, staff, and community—and to continuing our own collective anti-racism education. View our committee structure, leadership, and membership.
 
Using a DEI lens impacted how we made decisions about our staffing this past spring. When COVID-19 hit New York City and BJ transformed itself into VirtuShul, we had to think considerably about our financial stability, and whether we had the ability to keep staff on payroll in the midst of the shutdown. The DEI lens played a significant role in our decision making during this period: in determining who to furlough and for how long; in our desire to maintain stable income and healthcare for those furloughed; in helping furloughed staff navigate the unemployment system and providing and bridge loans should benefits not come quickly enough; and in taking the time to understand the unique and specific challenges of each staff member and what would be necessary to support them.

Reflections

We invited members of the BJ community—staff, educators, children, and adults—to share what they have learned from participating in our DEI efforts, and what their hopes are as we look forward. Here’s what they said:

Denisha Green

Senior Staff Accountant, DEI Staff Committee member
Serving on the DEI Staff Task Force has helped me tremendously both inside and outside of the workplace. As a Black woman in a predominately Jewish workplace, there are times I feel seen but not heard. The DEI committee is a platform for me to be more vocal about the injustices today and how minorities are viewed in the workplace.

During my work with DEI, I’ve learned that the process of undoing racism doesn’t happen overnight. There is a lot of patience involved and we shouldn’t have expectations to change a person’s mindset with one deep conversation. Also, I’ve learned that the weight of undoing racism, especially in the workplace, shouldn’t be on the shoulders of minorities such as myself.

In our next stage of DEI work, I would like to see more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as members and on staff at B’nai Jeshurun. Many People of Color who work at BJ do not feel seen by our members—either because they play behind the scenes roles, or because they are made to feel invisible. We should strive to have more People of Color on our senior staff, and in lay leadership roles such as the board. While BJ is a Jewish organization, we can be doing more to bring in Jews of Color, and to identify which staff positions can be held by people who are not Jewish.

Shoshana Nambi

4th-grade Teacher, Kadima
Last year I was asked this question by one of my 4th-grade students, “How come all these people are Jews, yet the Torah has pictures of only white people?” My feeling at that moment was that I was exactly where I needed to be. 

Growing up in Uganda, I had opportunities to learn from volunteer teachers from all over the world, from America, Israel, Australia, and others. They taught Hebrew, songs, and about Jewish holidays, prayers, and more. So, as early as I remember, I was aware that Jews came from different backgrounds. At the same time, I was curious about how Jews ended up in those places for the first time. What were their experiences? What is it like for kids growing up as Jews in those places?

My Kadima@BJ 4th-grade New Yorkers were having a similar opportunity to learn at this early age about the diversity and backgrounds of Jewish people, to recognize our differences, our shared values, and the many ways we are connected to one another. Our curriculum starts with learning about Israel’s different narratives as a homeland for the Jews. The learners encounter migration stories of Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and other smaller groups. They learned the contributions and challenges of people from different places and backgrounds to Israeli culture. In the same way, they also learn the narratives of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel.

In the second part of the year, we spend time learning and engaging with Jews around the world through our program of Passport to Peoplehood. The students learn about their unique cultures and the history of Jews worldwide as well as our shared values and connection. 

I’m continuously amazed by the curiosity they have to learn about new cultures. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to share with my students about my community in Uganda and my experience growing up as a Jew in a very far away place.

Racial Justice Havurah

Marisa Harris, Andrea Newman, Fred Endelman, Judith Tractenberg, Nancy Kaufman, Phyllis Sherman, Toby Baldinger

In July 2020, seven BJ members, most of whom had never met before, joined together in a personal and communal journey, exploring the challenging work of advancing racial justice. Our leader, Marisa Harris, because of her professional experience in culture change, was well-suited to guide us through our agreed-upon ground rules: create and maintain a space for exploring themes of race, privilege, and justice with openness, humility, and non-judgment. We all knew that the courage to address conscious and unconscious racism in ourselves required, above all, the promise of a safe space to talk, listen, and share our feelings. 

Once our ground rules were established, together we focused on three pillars of learning that we all could embrace: Study of the History of Racism in the US; Self-Exploration of our personal relationship with issues of Race; and Understanding how our Jewish Identity, Torah, and Values guide our commitment to racial justice.

As a group, we dove into the work of Isabel Wilkerson by reading her book “Caste,” partially inspired by Rabbi Sol’s Yamim Noraim d’var. Each chapter helps us dig deeper into our personal histories and visions for a more fair future; Our self-exploration is guided by the works of Yavilah McCoy and her program “Confessions of the Heart: Antiracism in Practice” which, while a great challenge, is a blessing for us all. Our bi-weekly Zoom get togethers bring us together lovingly, as Jews with a purpose to understand where we came from, where we are and where we can go, as Jewish allies, in the struggle for racial justice.