‘We have to act’



June 18, 2020

Robert Taylor, Jr. fell silent after learning of the murder of George Floyd. The brutal killing was just the latest of countless cases of Black citizens dying in police custody.

“I took about a week to gather myself so I could best serve my community and sustain conversations,” said Taylor, who is Afro-Caribbean and works as the senior operations associate at New York University Hillel-Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. “I didn’t want my response to be momentary.”

After intense reflection, Taylor launched the Racial and Economic Justice Salon, a 12-week initiative for Hillel students and stakeholders to virtually grapple with racism in an open forum. Taylor is co-hosting the sessions alongside his colleague Talia Gnessin, an Ezra Experiential Jewish Education Fellow.

The name of the program was inspired by French Enlightenment salons, which provided a space for citizens in the 18th century to engage in political and philosophical discourse. Over the years, they gained momentum in other countries, influencing literary movements and even political revolutions.

For Taylor, who has experience fostering Black and Jewish dialogue at Hillel, the modern-day salon is a means to spark inter-generational conversations about race. Participants will learn to live their Jewish values by sharing knowledge and speaking out against discrimination, he added.

“There’s power in the sheer force of people gathering around one topic,” he said. “This is a space for people to listen, respond and deeply wrestle with these issues.”

While many Hillels remain shuttered because of the coronavirus, Taylor and scores of other Hillel professionals have taken to online platforms to facilitate discussions and inspire activism as well as engagement amid a racial reckoning.

Hillel of Greater MetroWest New Jersey encouraged roughly 50 students and professionals to explore racial injustice with a Hillel@Home panel featuring Black-Jewish activists, including writer Courtney Parker West. Participants learned to speak out against those who dismiss police brutality and elevate the voices of Jews of color, many of whom have endured questions such as, “Are you really Jewish?”

“Advocacy work starts at home,” said Rebekah Adelson, director of Hillel of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. “You have to correct yourself before you can go out and change the world. The first step for our students was to take a look at what they could do in their own communities.”

Another program, organized by University of Kansas Hillel, featured a conversation on race with Evan Traylor, who is a Black Jew and KU Hillel alumnus.

“The event was an opportunity to engage deeply in the most important conversation in our country right now,” Traylor said. “I really appreciated KU Hillel making it a priority to have this kind of conversation, and especially to have it featuring Jews of color and our experiences with racism in the Jewish community and broader society.”

That was especially critical because about 70% of the KU undergraduate student body is white, according to College Factual, and the lack of ethnic diversity extends to the Hillel population, said KU Hillel Assistant Director Ira Kirschner.

“We wanted to provide a learning opportunity for students that wasn’t just coming from the white Ashkenazi Jewish members of our community,” Kirschner said.

Similar to KU, Elon University is roughly 80% white, according to College Factual. To help educate students there on racial discrimination, Elon Hillel organized a Zoom call for those eager to unpack their feelings and ask questions in a judgement-free zone. Many were motivated to begin their activism on a micro-level, disrupting racism one relationship at a time.

“Our students are relying on Hillel to help them through this difficult time because they depend on our community,” said Hillary Zaken, assistant director of Jewish life for development and strategic communications. “We know they need a place to talk about these issues with people they trust, and that’s us.”

Zaken credited her colleague Rabbi Sandra Lawson, the first openly gay, Black female rabbi, with strengthening their Hillel efforts over the past two years to warmly engage Jews of color and bring racism issues to the forefront.

“All of the work we do at Hillel is relationship-based,” Zaken said. “Tackling racism and teaching others about anti-racism comes through the relationships we build.”

Other Hillels have strengthened their ongoing partnerships with diversity and inclusivity centers on campus, including American University Hillel. The Hillel, which has organized dialogues on racism since 2017, is offering a discussion series on the intersection of race, privilege and Jewish identity to help students explore their responsibilities as anti-racist citizens.

The Hillel movement has long prioritized countering racism with open forums such as the annual Black-Jewish Summit and Diversity University. At Hillel International, professionals are taking steps against racism and bigotry by expanding on existing programs, such as MitzVote, a non-partisan campaign to mobilize young voters on campus.

Since 2018, Hillel International has been a part of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, composed of more than 350 partner organizations dedicated to increasing student voters. Hillel is connecting with the partner organizations focused on getting out the vote within Black communities on college campuses.

Dylan Morpurgo, associate director of the Hillel U Center for Community Outreach, said Hillels across the nation will leverage resources, including campus-based spaces and full-time professionals, to help raise up the voices of Black students in the voting process.

“This is a priority for our movement,” Morpurgo said.

Hillel International is also organizing various educational opportunities concerning anti-racism, equity and justice. Some of the offerings include a racial justice workshop series and training for campus professionals to facilitate conversations about racism with students. 

Beyond the existing and new racial justice initiatives, there’s still much to learn and more to do, said Arielle Levy, associate director of the Hillel U Center for Engagement, Inclusion and Wellness. Hillel is determining concrete and lasting ways anti-racism initiatives will be weaved into the movement’s organizational structure and lived set of values, she added.

“We have to listen before we act, but we have to act,” Levy said. “We have a moral responsibility as Jews and as human beings to be catalysts for change.”