An Orthodox community focuses on racism in America

Beth Sholom Congregation (Photo courtesy of Beth Sholom)

In the midst of what many are referring to as a “racial reckoning,”

in Potomac plans to host a community conversation, “How inclusive are we? Shabbaton focused on Black Jewish Experience.”

Beth Sholom has invited Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, Yolanda Savage-Narva and Daphne Lazar Price to speak following kiddush on Nov. 6. Their conversation will be a part of broader educational programming designed to confront how many congregants are “part of a system that perpetuates racial inequities,” says Racial Equity and Inclusion Committeeperson Emma Hofman, 24.

“Beth Sholom’s [Racial Equity and Inclusion] Committee was born out of a need and interest…to think about and work through ways that we engage in a system that is inherently racist,” Hofman says. “We thought the most important part of doing this kind of work would be to bring it home and back into [our] communities.”

Beth Sholom’s SeniorRabbi Nissan Antine has been supportive of this effort since its inception. “A bunch of young members of our shul really wanted to see some education and learning around the issue of racism in America and especially the experiences of Jews of color,” he says. “The Racial Equity and Inclusion Committee that was formed in response is now one of the most active committees in the synagogue, he says.

“[The committee] has done a bunch of programs — [mostly on Zoom due to] the pandemic… this is really our first, big, in person Shabbaton,” says Antine. “The Shabbaton will be on racism in the Jewish community — especially the Orthodox community — and what the Black Jewish experience is like.”

The committee was started in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, which sparked movements for racial equity, police reform and unrest around the United States throughout 2020.

Several of Hofman’s childhood friends from Beth Sholom discussed how they could improve the Orthodox community’s understanding for the experiences of people of color in the wake of these murders, says Hofman. “We were talking about how no one [in the Orthodox community] was having this conversation in public…I am sure people were talking about it at their Shabbat dinner tables…but it was not brought into synagogue spaces or public spaces.”

Hofman was one of four co-authors who penned an open letter to the Beth Sholom Clergy and Board of Directors in the summer of 2020, addressing “anti-Black violence, police brutality, and institutionalized racism” and calling for the establishment of a synagogue committee dedicated to racial justice. The letter received 141 co-signatories, including both active and former members of the synagogue and Beth Sholom Board members.

Even though many want to help, they do not know how, says Hofman. Congregants are often left wondering, “‘how am I relevant? How is my community relevant to the situation?’” she says.

Hofman says that it is only by analyzing the racial dynamics within the Jewish community that they can reach the “self-reflection that is required for a deeper and more meaningful cultural change”.

Beki Bahar-Engler is the chairperson of the committee and said it has three goals. “[Our first goal is to] increase awareness, within the community, of the experiences of people of color…the second goal is to build relationships across community lines within Montgomery County, [and third], to take actions that inspire us to make a difference regarding racial equity issues.”

It is that final goal that the committee is finally beginning to address, Hofman says. “At this point we are trying to figure out how to take this education and move it into the realm of action,” she says.

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