How American Jews Are Beginning to Confront 'White Privilege'

In the era of Black Lives Matter, inner-city rabbis are urging Jews to reaffirm their commitment to social justice.

St. Louis residents and members of the Central Reform Congregation at a protest in Ferguson.
Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block

Most synagogues in St. Louis relocated to the suburbs decades ago, taking their cue from many of the area’s Jewish residents and mirroring the movement of congregations across the country, as part of the "white flight" phenomenon.

Now, the Central Reform Congregation is the only synagogue left within the St. Louis municipal limits. It was founded in 1984 and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Susan Talve, is one of the city’s most vocal advocates for Jewish social action.

“We have a very segregated city. Not just racially. It’s segregated economically,” she told Haaretz in a recent interview. “There was a need for a congregation that was going to address the racism that’s a big part of St. Louis.”

The term “Jewish geography” usually refers to the playful concept that two Jewish strangers who randomly meet will likely know another Jew in common. But for some rabbis, like Talve, Jewish geography is also about politics: Where Jewish communities are located, and how they interact with their neighbors, can have a profound effect on their understanding of, and engagement with, modern civil rights issues.

“When it comes to race relations in America, I feel very privileged to lead a congregation that is in an ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood,” said Rabbi Daniel Burg, who writes about the impact of this proximity on his blog, The Urban Rabbi.

Since 2010, Burg has been senior rabbi at Beth Am, a Conservative congregation in a historically Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore, whose story echoes that of Central Reform in St. Louis.

Beth Am’s nearly century-old building formerly housed the Chizuk Amuno Congregation before that community moved to the suburbs in 1962. Beth Am's declared mission was to “remain in Baltimore City and to be a vital and stabilizing force in its Reservoir Hill neighborhood,” which had been in decline for the latter half of the 20th century and is now slowly recovering.

Burg pointed out that the neighborhood is no utopia, but noted that living in a socioeconomically-mixed area and among communities of color has been a profound experience for him, his family and his congregants – especially at a time when Baltimore, and the country in general, grapple deeply with issues of race.

Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am in Baltimore, second from right, at a local cafe.
Beth Am Synagogue

For one thing, Jewish rituals have become imbued with a new sense of purpose at Beth Am. During the Baltimore riots last April, which followed the death of resident Freddie Gray while in police custody, Burg led Shabbat services outside “to say we’re part of this community and to make a statement that we’re not afraid.”

Before Burg’s arrival, the community had cultivated relationships with local black churches and organizations for decades. So in the aftermath of the riots, “we were able to use relationships we’ve already formed to continue the work and be strategic instead of reactive,” he said.

Similarly, back in St. Louis, Central Reform has been engaged in relationship-building social justice activities since its founding. Indeed, Talve and many of her congregants were quick to join the protests in Ferguson, a suburb located five miles from their synagogue, following the death of Michael Brown in October 2014. They, and many of their co-religionists in the city – and in suburban synagogues – are trying to come to terms with their responsibility as Jews in an area rocked by racial unrest.

One former resident, Sarah Barasch-Hagans, now a rabbinical student in Philadelphia, started a storytelling project call Fargesn (Yiddish for “forgotten”) earlier this year, which documents stories from members of both the black and Jewish communities of Ferguson.

“The complexity of the people I knew was not being reflected in the media coverage,” she explained.

Part of the impetus behind the project was a feeling among progressive Jews that the larger St. Louis communal institutions were too slow to react to various local events.

“There was a lot of disappointment as the Jewish community figured out its role,” Barasch-Hagans admitted.

Congregants from Beth Am, with Rabbi Burg third from right, along with members of Jews United for Justice at a social justice demonstration in Baltimore.
Beth Am Synagogue

For example, it took the Jewish Federation of St. Louis 10 days to release a statement following Brown’s death and the subsequent protests which, for Talve, was too long.

“The white Jewish community was afraid to get involved because it didn’t want to seem anti-police,” she said. “And it kept us from our core values” – a reference to the traditional Jewish commitment to social justice.

Jews and the police

Some St. Louis Jewish institutions have a close relationship with the local police department. The federation has, for instance, organized anti-bias training in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League over the past decade at the city’s Holocaust Museum.

“We have to recognize our partnership role with [the police] and all they’re going through,” said federation director Andrew Rehfeld. “We don’t take a position of ‘us versus them, bad guys and good guys.’”

In terms of the organization’s as-yet cautious responses to the grass-roots Black Lives Matter movement (an international activist organization that campaigns against violence toward black people), Rehfeld acknowledged the need to address the racial tensions and economic disparity in his city.

“We’re in an assessment mode," he noted. "Federations are often criticized for being slow, but taking time also leads to smart decisions in terms of allocating resources.”

Members of the Beth Am congregation in Baltimore, praying outside following protests in the city.
Beth Am Synagogue

More than a year after the events in Ferguson, the St. Louis Jewish community is taking steps to participate in efforts to address the underlying civic issues that the protests illuminated.

Last September, the Ferguson Commission (an independent body that is studying the existing social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest in the wake of Brown's death) released a report detailing recommended actions to improve race relations in St. Louis. In November, a small group of Jewish institutions, including the federation, the ADL and several suburban synagogues, hosted a panel discussion with members of the commission to consider the next steps.

“The Jewish community has come a long way in a year,” said Barasch-Hagans. “I feel like every rabbi I know is wrestling with what it means to be a rabbi in St. Louis now.”

Part of the wrestling at the congregational level involves the initiation of conversations around “white privilege” – a term describing how race affects opportunities for, among other things, education, jobs and housing. The concept has long been used in academic circles and among left-wing activists, but growing recognition of it in Jewish communal spaces marks a bold new effort to face race head-on by naming it.

“We don’t really think about the consequences of our being white,” said Cheryl Greenberg, a history professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, who has written extensively on the relationship between America's black and Jewish communities. “There’s not an understanding of how our whiteness has benefited us, but I think that might be changing.”

For example, in St. Louis, within the framework of local programs like Witnessing Whiteness and Raising up White – which engage participants in difficult conversations around the history and implications of white privilege and institutionalized racism – discussions have been held at half-a-dozen congregations in the city. These gatherings are “a pretty new development, post-Ferguson,” according to Gail Wechsler, the community outreach director of St. Louis’ Jewish Community Relations Council.

'Black America's Kohelet'

During the High Holy Days last fall, hundreds of rabbis across the country, many responding to a call from the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, spoke about white privilege and racial justice in their sermons to thousands of congregants, putting these complex and uncomfortable issues on top of the communal agenda for the coming year.

On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Burg in Baltimore quoted liberally from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning book “Between the World and Me,” which bluntly discusses America’s historic racism, and which Burg calls “Black America’s Kohelet,” referring to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.

“[Coates'] is a very powerful personal cry,” Burg said. “Being a lament, it forces us to confront the fear that black people feel in this country so frequently.”

Listening to such stories, instigating tough public conversations around privilege and responsibility, and moving, as Burg put it, from “acts of mercy” – like one-time visits to soup kitchens and seasonal toy drives – to sustainable, relationship-building social justice is a primary challenge facing Jewish leaders today – regardless of geographic location.