January 13, 2021

Honoring MLK’s Legacy: Educating and Advocating to Promote Racial Justice

Linda Scherzer JCRC Director

As we approach the 38th year marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a day of sacred service and learning, now seems like the right time to reflect on where we, as a Jewish Federation, have come since the racial protests of last summer. As communities, and the country at large, reckon with the knowledge that racism persists, what have we learned about the importance of action in the face of social injustice and — most importantly — what are we doing to bring about change in our country?

Like many Jewish organizations, ours leaned into racial justice work in a purposeful way in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Jr. last summer. The racial protests and unrest that followed that event exposed again the racial disparities in our country in everything from policing to healthcare. The national reckoning forced us at Jewish Federation to explore our own practices and unconscious biases, and to create ways to educate ourselves and our community. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, while we’re not required to complete the task of repairing the world, neither are we free to desist from it.

And so, here are some of the things we’ve been doing in the months since that seminal event:

  • We established a JCRC task force to combat racism and engage in social justice efforts, chaired by two past presidents of our Jewish Federation.
  • Our Federation’s JCRC, Holocaust Council, and JTeen, together with African American partners in Newark, are launching a pilot program bringing together Black and Jewish high school students to deepen their mutual understanding, forge new relationships, and learn about their unique and shared experiences as Blacks and Jews in America. Students selected for this competitive program will participate in a five-part series exploring racism and anti-Semitism, shared connections to Newark, and the history of Black and Jewish alliances formed during the struggle for civil rights.
  • To help our community make MLK Day more meaningful, we are offering a variety of programs and have compiled a webpage listing community-wide events and recommended readings. On Sunday, January 17, Senator Cory Booker and five African Americans will discuss MLK’s legacy and the experience of being Black in America. And on Monday, January 18, two smaller programs – a Torah with Dov session devoted to the Jewish value of tikkun olam and community service and a discussion for community leaders about the pursuit of racial justice.
  • JCRC is also co-sponsoring a three-part film series for MLK Day on the fight for social justice with the JCC of Central Jersey and other Jewish and interfaith partners.
  • Our anti-racism task force is preparing an 18-Day Challenge, in partnership with the YMCA of Newark, to deepen our community’s understanding of systemic racism, white privilege, and the history of Black-Jewish relations in Newark and the surrounding area.
  • We presented three webinars last summer for the general community, and three others for high school students which explored one rabbi’s fight for racial justice; the struggle for inclusion by Jews of Color; and the experience of African Americans fighting systemic racism in the criminal justice, education and healthcare arenas.
  • JCRC is continuing to reach out to Black leaders, clergy, and state and national organizations to help advocate for social change.

Our work has not been only outward faced; in fact, we have turned inward at Jewish Federation, engaging in guided conversations with a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) professional on issues of white privilege, unconscious bias, and the meaning of Juneteenth. We have listened to our Black colleagues to learn more about their own experience as people of color in a mostly white, Jewish staffed non-profit organization. These conversations are difficult, but they are necessary and important.

The Jewish value of b’tzelim elohim, seeing the spark of the Divine in every individual, informs the work of JCRC and our entire Jewish Federation. For this reason, JCRC will continue to provide these kinds of educational experiences and engagement so that we as Jews can continue to stand in the shoes of our fellow humans and pursue the path towards equity and justice.