Co-Written by Etta Heisler and Gillian Jackson
“If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.” Deuteronomy 15:12-18
Generational trauma and persecution is a theme in Jewish liturgy and culture that runs deep in the roots of our cultural identity. As long as the Jews have been in diaspora, there have been lessons passed down through the generations about preserving our culture and standing up to oppression. There are myriad stories that describe ways various oppressors attempted to marginalize or harm the Jewish people and we survived (i.e. Purim, Hanukkah, Passover to name a few). It stands to reason that Jewish institutions are increasingly sensitive to the generational trauma inflicted on People of Color in the United States. At the same time, generations of white Jews have largely benefitted from the economic, legal, and social systems founded upon both the enslavement of Africans and Black folks, and on the genocide of indigenous people in the United States. Predominantly white Jewish institutions have often perpetuated biases against BIPOC community members – Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Reconciling with this narrative in which we are the oppressors and the oppressed is the work of B’tzelem Elohim, Teshuvah, Tzedek, and Tikkun Olam. All people are created in the image of God and it is our job as Jews to create a world where everyone is treated as such.
In acknowledgement of this shared responsibility for those facing enslavement and disenfranchisement in our country, the Reconstructing Judaism movement has written and passed a Resolution on Reparations. The reparations resolution commits the Reconstructionist movement to a series of advocacy measures that will aid in building momentum for nationwide reparations. The beginning of the resolution acknowledges that people of European ancestry have benefited from black oppression and enslavement. It adds that other BIPOC populations have been affected by white nationalism throughout US history. The resolution then promises to acknowledge and support BIPOC led initiatives that address racism. It lays intentions to educate members or Reconstructionist Congregations on this issue. Finally the resolution commits to supporting House Bill 40, a bill that funds research into how the US can make reparations to the descendants of black slaves.
In further discussion of reparations, Reconstructing Judaism states, “Reparations can mean many things. It is policy, theology, a moral obligation, history, and a demand for truth and reconciliation. The National African-American Commission on Reparations (NAACR) defines reparations as, “a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights.” Ta-Nehisi Coates understands reparations as an ethical orientation — “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” There is no Hebrew term that fully encompasses the range of meanings that are associated with the English word, reparations. Is it both teshuvah — the Jewish process of public accountability, apology, mending, and returning to right relationship, and tzedek — the ethical demands of material and legal justice.” You can read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ full article on reparations here.
Before this most recent resolution on reparations, Reconstructing Judaism committed to dozens of anti-racist initiatives that include diversifying the Reconstructionist movement and college, developing improved communications around their anti-racist work, supporting liturgy that teaches about racism and is taught in multiple languages, participating in larger movements, and reviewing internal systems that contribute to biased policy. A wise friend of mine once told me that real social change can be defined by this image: unjust systems will continue to move forward like an airport escalator endlessly cycling forward. It’s not enough to turn around and stand against it, we need to walk the opposite direction and walk fast enough to move the other way. The passage from Deuteronomy seems to acknowledge this idea as well – it is not enough simply to free an enslaved person, one must also give them means to live a fulfilled life. Reparations is one way of “walking down the escalator” in acknowledgment of the centuries of discrimination that have continued since slavery was abolished. Participating in this conversation and activism around anti-racist work is essential to the success of the movement. We should be proud of Reconstructing Judaism’s commitment to this work and have the hard conversations necessary to move it forward.
Some members of our congregation have begun a conversation about participating in the educational modules provided by Reconstructing Judaism to educate ourselves about the work of reparations and anti-racism. If you would like to participate in planning these events, please email us!