Class, Racism and Oppression

by Cherie Brown

In 1984, I founded the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), a non-profit organization that trains leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion skills.  I was a consultant to the National Affairs staff at the American Jewish Committee, leading workshops on East Coast campuses for Blacks and Jews. The director, Irving Levine, thought we needed an organization that wasn’t rooted in the Jewish community, the Black community or other ethnic communities to train leaders in coalition building skills.  I launched NCBI. Today, we have affiliates on 30 college campuses, in dozens of K-12 schools, with chapters in four countries. We institutionalize programs in organizations, schools, and campuses, training teams to lead workshops on equity, diversity, and inclusion. This fits into Proposition 1 of Rabbi Sid’s essay, with training programs for multi faith leaders and activists.  Jews have always been a strong part of this work.

For most of my professional life I have also been an active member and leader in Re-Evaluation Counseling (Co-Counseling), an international peer movement that teaches people how to listen to each other and  heal the harmful effects of oppression. Since 1976, I have held a leadership role: The International Jewish Liberation Reference person. In this role, I have led over 250 weekend workshops with Jews all over the world, to claim full pride in being Jewish, work on internalized oppression, build unity amongst Jews, and take on Jewish activism. This work probably fits into all four of Rabbi Sid’s propositions.  I have counseled hundreds of mixed heritage Jews, who are looking to find their Jewishness in a multi-faith/multi-cultural contexts. I have made social justice activism a core of these workshops and thousands of Jewish co-counselors have participated in Jewish activist projects from Middle East peace work to Jewish racial justice activism. The Jewish work in RC embodies Jewish social justice commitments but can also be a strong example of community/kehilla— building non-hierarchical, peer-led work and learning.

For several years, I was an adjunct faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The courses I taught were: Conflict Resolution Skills for Rabbis; Rabbis and the Israel-Palestine Conflict; and A Progressive Understanding of Anti-Semitism.  Teaching these courses was part of my passion for raising up a new generation of Jewish leaders to integrate work on racism, diversity and inclusion into their Jewish leadership. This connects to several of the propositions, particularly social justice and multiple awareness/chochma.

Five years ago, I was leading anti-racism workshops for young adult Jewish social justice organizations.  I noticed that these young adults had no trouble making a commitment to anti-racism work but they didn’t understand themselves as Jews or how to ‘show up’ as Jews in their anti-racism work.  I reached out to a Jewish young adult (Dove Kent) and invited her to partner with me to lead weekend workshops for young Jews in their 20’s and 30’s on anti-Semitism, internalized anti-Semitism, and the intersection of anti-Semitism and Racism. We also connected this to Israel/Palestine peace work.  To date we have led five weekend retreats in New York, Boston, Philly, DC, and Chicago. This work is helping young Jews committed to social justice work find an awareness of themselves as Jews as they interact in mixed group settings.

To the extent that Kenissa is trying to map out critical issues for the American Jewish community, I want to suggest several additional topics that need addressing.

I was struck that the word “racism” did not come up in the proposition on social justice.  The work on racial equity has been adopted by the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable as key to their work.  Increasingly, Jews of Color are taking the lead in asking White Ashkenazi led Jewish organizations to consider a more diverse led Jewish world.  Young adult Jews are wanting us to look at issues of White privilege and to increase diversity in Jewish life. As a White Ashkenazi Jewish woman, I continue to learn how much I grew up thinking something was ‘Jewish’ when it turns out it was Eastern European Jewish. I now know that is not necessarily reflective of all Jewish experience. To attract younger Jews, incorporating a racial equity lens in all of our work is necessary.

For 47 years in Co-Counseling I have been helping Jews heal from our history of two thousand years of oppression. That trauma has been internalized in deep ways. Increasingly, Jewish activists are wanting to understand the impact of internalized oppression on their activism. Any effective training of Jewish leaders should include an understanding of Jewish internalized oppression.

The class divisions in the Jewish community and the upward mobility of Jews often remains a silent but pivotal issue.  Many of the young adult Jews I work with grew up in upper middle-class Jewish homes. They are searching for how, in a greed-based world (Rabbi Sid’s 4th proposition) they can still live principled lives.  Without seeing the Jewish community raise class issues, young adult Jews turn away from the Jewish world. Are we prepared to ask the disquieting question that upward mobility could be contradictory to practicing tikkun olam?

I lead campus workshops on anti-Semitism, helping Jewish students navigate coalition work, particularly in light of the increasing activity of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on campus. The Birthright program has been a significant tool to link young Jews to a love of Israel.   But in my work with groups like If Not Now, I find that many are disappointed that Birthright doesn’t include any awareness about Palestinians or the Occupation.  If we want young Jews to be fully proud of being Jewish, especially about Israel, there needs to be a more honest wrestling with a host of issues, that include current policies of the Israeli government and of the organized Jewish community.

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Cherie Brown is the founder and executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI). Cherie leads workshops around the world on anti-Semitism and the intersection of anti- Semitism and Racism. She has been an adjunct faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College teaching courses on diversity, conflict resolution, and a progressive understanding of anti-Semitism.

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