It’s no accident that the Baltimore Jewish Council scheduled its program “18 Days Exploring Racial Justice – The Baltimore Jewish Community Learns Together” in the days following the Sukkot holiday, says Sarah Mersky Miicke, the BJC’s deputy director.
Sukkot, she said, tends to be a season when many Jews feel introspective, and “18 Days” – which will be held from Oct. 14 to Nov. 2 – was created to capitalize on that feeling.
“At the BJC, we realized we needed to make a shift in focus to include new programming to change ourselves and the inaccurate and harmful idea that the Jewish community is a white community,” said Mersky Miicke. “We are not. We are a multi-cultural community, and just because Jews have been and are oppressed doesn’t mean they can’t be racist.”
As the political and community relations arm of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, the BJC offers a wide range of programming including interfaith and interethnic lectures, dialogues and community-wide events.
But Mersky Miicke said, “We haven’t really focused on calling out the problems in our own community and within ourselves, especially as it relates to race.”
“18 Days” was conceived by Mersky Miicke and Tracie Guy-Decker, deputy director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The virtual program invites Jewish individuals and communal groups to participate in 18 days of learning and reflection about racial justice.
Participants will receive daily emails featuring articles, videos and/or reflection questions dealing with an aspect or experience of race, racism, anti-Semitism, power or privilege. Participation can take as little as 30 minutes a day.
“Anti-Semitism is something we white-skinned Jews can use as a way of bypassing our own racism,” said Guy-Decker. “We’ll say, ‘But I know what it’s like. I can’t be racist because I’m Jewish and we face anti-Semitism.’ That’s just not true.”
Guy-Decker said the program will approach racism from a variety of perspectives.
“We will feature several sources from Jews of color talking about how they’ve had to deal with racism from white-skinned Jews,” she said. “But we’ll also include a video from MTV’s ‘Decoded’ to talk about why the word ‘privilege’ can make some people uncomfortable; Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’; and [the Hadar Institute’s Rabbi] Avi Killip’s ‘What Studying Talmud Taught Me About Racism in America.’
“We’re looking at the way racism shows up for people, especially Jews, in day-to-day thoughts and encounters,” says Guy-Decker. “The idea is to have participants do some deep introspection about the ways in which racism — which is systemic, not just interpersonal — shows up inside and beyond Jewish spaces.”
Beyond Woody, Jerry and Tevye
To ensure that the perspectives of Jews of color are represented, Guy-Decker recruited Yosef Webb-Cohen, co-founder and senior educator at the Calico Hill Collective, to serve as her co-facilitator for “18 Days.”
The Columbia-based collective provides education about diversity, equality and inclusion.
Guy-Decker and Webb-Cohen will moderate a kick-off event on Oct. 14, community check-ins on Oct. 22 and Oct. 28, and a concluding event on Nov.2.
All scheduled events are optional, although participation in the kick-off and concluding events is strongly encouraged, said Guy-Decker.
All of the events will offer opportunities for Jews of different colors to meet separately.
“It was important to me that this would be useful and meaningful for Jews of color in our community,” said Guy-Decker. “We will have affinity spaces exclusively for Jews of color so they can talk about the specific intersection of being Jewish and of color in Baltimore — the obstacles, the hardships and the joys, I hope.”
Said Webb-Cohen: “Being a Jew of color in the United States is [akin to] being erased. The perception is that all Jews are white. They’re Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Tevye. … Most people don’t realize that 20 percent of Jews are Jews of color. My role in the sessions is to provide space for Jews of color that gives us a chance to be ourselves. To be ourselves is powerful.
“We know from research that white folks are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to seem like bad people,” he said. “But if they don’t ask, the work doesn’t get done.”
Guy-Decker said an objective of “18 Days” is to help white Jews “truly internalize that Jewish does not mean white. The stories that Jews of color have to tell are truly heart-breaking.
“One of the moments when white privilege was laid bare for me was when the mother of a friend who is a Jew of color passed away,” Guy-Decker said. “She wanted to go to shul to say kaddish for her mother, but she felt she couldn’t because she couldn’t bear to be mistaken for one of the custodial staff. That’s something I never would have to worry about. That shouldn’t be true for anyone.”
Mersky Miicke, Guy-Decker and Webb-Cohen said they hope “18 Days” will start an important conversation about race in Baltimore’s Jewish community.
“One thing Tracie and I have learned is that we all have things to learn, even if we think as white Jews we are allies and don’t think we’re racist,” said Mersky Miicke. “I would argue that anyone who’s grown up in the United States is racist though. [But] not being racist isn’t the same as being anti-racist.”
Said Webb-Cohen: “My hope is that this leads to more dialogue. I’m not of the mind that everyone who participates is now going to become a social justice warrior, but I am hoping that people say, ‘Hey, I’ve never thought of this before. No one ever walked me through this before.’ Racism and anti-Semitism are taught, and we can un-teach them.”
To register for “18 Days Exploring Racial Justice — The Baltimore Jewish Community Learns Together,” visit baltjc.org.
For more on the Baltimore Jewish Council’s “18 Days Exploring Racial Justice” program, click here to watch Sarah Mersky Miicke, Tracie Guy-Decker and Yosef Webb-Cohen on “The Upside.”