The Transformative Work of JFREJ’s Jews of Color Caucus

Eleanor J. Bader: When and why did you become involved in JFREJ’s Jews of Color Caucus?

Shoshana Brown: I’ve been a member for about two years. For several years before I joined, people tried to recruit me, but I wasn’t interested. Although I’d done social justice work for a decade, I’d always done so in groups that were not rooted in the Jewish community. At first, when I was approached to join JFREJ, I resisted. I simply did not want to be in a mostly white space. It was not where I wanted to put my efforts, so I declined to have anything to do with the organization. But I ended up getting involved because of Leo Ferguson. I knew him through family and JFREJ had hired him to organize Jews of color. I met with him a number of times before I even agreed to go to a meeting. I hesitated because I knew how hard it would be to work in a majority white organization. I did not feel particularly trusting. I mean, I wondered if I could trust other Jews when so many people in the Jewish community had delegitimized me and Jews of color in the past. You have to understand that this work of organizing Jews of color is not easy.

Part of my resistance came from my background: As one of two non-white kids attending Yeshiva as a child, I’d faced a lot of discrimination. While some people embraced me, there were also a lot of assumptions made about me and my relationship to Judaism. For many of the white Jews I grew up with, the only people of color they knew were their babysitters or the shul janitor.  I wasn’t sure I wanted face these challenges again.

EJB:  But you did!

SB: The work the Jews of Color Caucus does within JFREJ is extraordinary and it has been personally transformative for me to come out as a Jew in my political work. As I said earlier, I’d done a lot of political work in progressive circles before I joined JFREJ but had never used my identity as a Jewish woman as the entry point.

My first work with the group was as a mentor to another Jew of color, a woman who had received the Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship. I enjoyed it.

EJB: Can you say a little more about the Caucus and its members? How diverse is the group? And what projects have you gotten involved in?

SB: I’d say there are 25 to 30 Caucus members: People from the Caribbean; Chinese Americans; Haitians; Japanese Americans; and people from different parts of South America.  Thanks to them, I’ve gotten to know the diversity of Jewish experience.

Last March, March 2016, we organized the first ever National Convening of Jews of Color. It was a huge project and was an exciting starting point. Since the Convening, we’ve been having conversations to develop demands, but the Convening was more of a chance to connect with each other and share our roles—and the ways we operate—within the Jewish community.  

The Convening also highlighted some deficits and identified some needs. Right now, there are no nonprofit organizations that are exclusively for Jews of color, run by us, created by us.  Instead, we exist in spaces that are majority white. JFREJ is nice, but the work the organization does will never be enough for me. Don’t get me wrong: The work is necessary. It’s important and valid, but I think we need our own organizational voice, not as a Caucus in a majority white organization, but as Jews of color, period. This is the only way to hold the wider Jewish community accountable and call out racism when it occurs. A group run by Jews of color would also be a place for white Jews to go for guidance in developing models of restorative justice.

EJB: Can you make this a bit more concrete, walk me through a restorative justice scenario.  How, exactly, might this work?

SB: Here’s an example. Right after the election, a photo of a student at Yeshiva University [YU] wearing a Confederate flag at a party went viral. He took it off when someone called him out, but before he removed it someone took a picture and sent it out on social media.

I live in Washington Heights, near the YU campus, so I felt this personally. I was shocked that this child could be so ignorant not to know that the Confederacy hated Jews almost as much as they hated people of color. I was appalled that this man had bought into white supremacy and presumably did not know even what that means historically.

I was also angered by the YU’s inadequate response. The administration sent out an email to the student body condemning the incident and some professors reportedly addressed the student directly, but as far as I know YU did not reach out to alumni of color or to Jews of color more broadly. For me as a Jew of color, it seemed like the student only got a slap on the wrist. He was told that what he did was wrong, but the issue could have been addressed differently. YU should have reached out to Jews of color in the institutional spaces where we are represented. They should have made more of an effort to be sure they did right by Jews of color. Sending out one email was obviously not enough. Had there been the kind of organization I described, it might have found a more meaningful way to deepen the conversation about race, racism, anti-Semitism, and Jewish complicity in bigotry. It felt like a huge missed opportunity.

EJB: Is the Caucus working to build such an organization?

SB: Not directly. Members of the Caucus are involved in ongoing national conversations among Jews of color that extend beyond JFREJ.

Our immediate agenda is more local. In New York City, where JFREJ is based, we’re working to get The Right to Know Act passed by the City Council. The Act would require cops to identify themselves and the reason for their interaction as well as protect against illegal searches.

In addition, we’re working in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. There was a great deal of controversy in the Jewish community over whether or not to support the Vision Statement issued by Black Lives Matter several months ago. There was actually a whitelash within the Jewish community over one part of the Statement that called on the US government to divest from Israel and redirect the money to domestic needs like education and healthcare. A lot of the predominantly white Jewish organizations bristled at the divestment demand and pulled their support for Black Lives Matter. We organized immediately and told these groups not to do this; it’s our contention that majority white organizations do not have the right to dictate the Black Lives Matter agenda. To us, getting up and leaving means supporting the status quo and is absolutely not okay. As people of color we don’t have the choice of getting up from the table or leaving the conversation. We have no choice but to engage. These discussions are still happening, so I don’t know how they will resolve or if they will resolve.

When it comes to the bigger agenda—how to organize Jews of color and frame demands—the Caucus is still figuring stuff out. What we know is this: We want to come together as Jews of color and navigate our differences while remaining thoughtful and considerate of one another. We want to create more spaces for our brothers and sisters to feel supported, whether they converted to Judaism or were raised Jewish, and regardless of racial background, sexuality, or gender identity. Let me say it again to be clear: The Jews of Color Caucus has a great relationship with JFREJ, but there are times when things get a bit sticky. What makes the relationship work is that JFREJ is committed to staying in the conversation. They want to build leadership and uplift all voices. They are hiring more Jews of color and putting money behind their anti-racist statements.

Still, as important as it is to work within the Jewish community, the Jews of Color Caucus is also in coalition with a wide range of organizations—secular, Muslim, Christian, progressive—on jail justice, immigrant issues, and police accountability.  These are our priority areas for 2017.

Being part of the Caucus has been transformative for me. I’m Orthodox and go to the Old Broadway Synagogue in Harlem and the Beis Community in Washington Heights. Being part of the Caucus has helped me to deepen my own spirituality and honor my dual Ashkenazi and African American heritage. But I still have questions about when it’s best to organize as a Jew of color in a mixed race group and when it’s best to work solely with people of color. I believe there is a time for both.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.