On the second night of Chanukah, about 40 people gathered in the community room of the Park Heights JCC. While prayers were sung and menorahs were lit, the occasion was not to celebrate Chanukah, but to use the holiday to address and understand racism and oppression.
“During Chanukah, we’re encouraged to place a menorah in our window to be visible as Jews and to visibly be displaying our hope and our belief that a society characterized by racial justice and equity is possible and our commitment to playing a role in manifesting that vision,” the evening’s facilitator, Jo Kent Katz, told the group.
Katz guided the group through open-ended discussions about racism, oppression and privilege that had participants think about how they had been beneficiaries or victims of privilege and racism. The multigenerational and multiracial crowd engaged in discussions in large groups, small groups and one-on-one conversations at the event, which was presented by the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jews United for Justice.
Attendees were asked to walk up to someone they didn’t know and discuss why they attended the event and why they think racial justice is important.
Joel Simon, chair of the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Jewish-African American Dialogue, elaborated on the importance of the event.
“I’m a big believer in creating relationships when you don’t need them because you can create meaningful conversations when you do [need them],” he said.
In the larger group, participants discussed what they heard as they spoke to other people. One man said he heard the word schwartza a lot while growing up in 1950s Baltimore and felt it was his duty to confront racism in his contemporaries. A younger man shared that he thinks Jews hold a unique place in America as those who have benefited from and been hurt by white privilege and therefore can perpetuate or disrupt racism.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about their experiences with white privilege in a way I’m appreciating,” Katz said. “People [are] being really humble about it and asking questions that are questions I am asking about how to navigate being a Jew and holding white privilege, how to navigate the fact that you’re aware that racism is coming into play but you’re not quite sure what to do or how to step in.”
Those in attendance would be asked several more times to go speak to others in the room. One exercise was to speak with someone of a different age. Later, attendees would discuss in small groups how they can move this conversation into their extended families, schools, workplaces and elsewhere.
Molly Amster, JUFJ’s Baltimore director, was excited by what she heard when people were talking about why they were there.
“They’re concerned by the lack of compassion and understanding that they think should exist in our community, given what’s going on,” she said. “We’re very much focused on continuing to learn together as a community.”
Rosalind Griffin, an African-American, thought the discussions and the event were important given the historic relationship between Baltimore’s Jewish and African-American communities.
“I think this is a reigniting of the history because [of the] older generation during the height of the civil rights era,” she said. “There were individuals who were the civil rights leaders then in the Jewish community who came together to try and foster and build up the relationship. But as the economic as well as housing divide has occurred and both groups have become more isolated, there has been more tension.”
Attendee Gregory Friedman, who is a part of JUFJ’s Jeremiah Fellowship, said he was excited that the BJC sponsored an event that appealed to a crowd outside of its usual target audience.
“I’m used to being around a certain group of people that are all progressive types, hippie types my age. I think it’s so great that we’re bringing it to the broader community and the Baltimore Jewish Council has decided to sponsor this,” he said. “It’s something that’s really amazing, and I hope it can start something. I think it’s been really great.”
Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the BJC, said that part of fulfilling the BJC’s mission to represent advocacy for the entire Jewish community is recognizing the need to address racial issues in Baltimore and having discussions about those issues.
“A lot of members of the Jewish community are ready to step up and be better allies to our African-American partners here in Baltimore,” Suggs said.
“We’ve heard the call to action after everything that’s been happening, and we want to know how we can help and how we can be better as allies.”