Black Jewish Activist Implores All Jews to Show Up
Racial justice champion April Aviva Baskin wants her fellow Jews to emulate Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and take active, concrete steps to rectify some of the wrongs that have been done to people of color in America, including Jews of color. Heschel, whom Baskin cites as one of her lodestars, sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in June 1963, the day before the president was to meet with religious leaders.
“The Negro problem [is] like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it,” Heschel wrote. “We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church and synagogue have failed.” He urged the president to ask “religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary to Negro housing and education…. Mr. President, propose a state of moral emergency…. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
The mainstream American Jewish community must feel the same sense of urgent imperative about racial discrimination, said Baskin, the racial justice director at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, an umbrella group of 64 organizations.
She developed the roundtable’s Racial Justice Framework with 10 principles connected to the middot, or values, laid out in Pirkei Avot, Baskin explained from Dakar, Senegal, where she has lived for the past year. They include approaching racial justice issues from a “both/and” (elu v’elu) perspective, that “multiple priorities and seemingly conflicting truths can exist simultaneously,” and from a commitment that “we all belong and are valuable leaders in this work” (from hishtarshut, or rootedness).
Baskin, 36, grew up in Sacramento with an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and an African American and Native American father, who became a Jew by choice. Through the roundtable and through her coaching and consulting practice, Joyous Justice, she is focused on helping Jewish organizations approach racial issues and become more inclusive of Jews of color. Since George Floyd’s killing by police in May, Baskin has been deluged with requests from Jewish groups wanting her immediate help with responding to the current moment and implementing internal change. Floyd’s death has spurred what appears to be a national awakening, with many Jews among those demanding police reform and the end to systemic racism.
“This is an active new moment where many people are deeply engaging and showing up powerfully, and elements of the Jewish community are speaking up” in ways they have not before, noted Baskin. “Seeing people who have never reached out to me before is thrilling.” But she also wonders if their interest will continue. Though she is currently living in Dakar, Baskin said she is in constant contact with friends and clients involved in the racial justice protests and has been watching them livestreamed. She also wrote a protest prayer. “I am 100 percent there in spirit,” she said.
White Jews need to work on two issues, she said. One is seeing Jews of color as part of the Jewish people without condition. “Not as a separate phenomenon, not an anomaly, but that we begin to see ourselves collectively as a multiracial Jewish people,” Baskin said, adding that sermons and educational materials for Hebrew and day schools should reflect that reality. Within Jewish spaces, she said, “get into the habit of practicing saying, ‘Black lives matter.’ On your social media, in gatherings or in conversations where racism comes up, build up the courage to be able to say that black lives matter, with no exceptions or buts.”
Jews and Jewish groups also need to make a serious, long-term commitment to making concrete changes that will help correct systemic wrongs done to people of color in the United States. She cited leadership development as one example. “Segregation in broader American society impacted the Jewish community,” she said, and as a result, “Jews of color have been systematically and chronically left behind. It’s important, for those who have the means, to support a leadership pipeline to begin to diversify Jewish leadership and Jewish voices.”
“As someone on the inside of this conversation, I need my fellow Jews to show up,” Baskin added. “In honor of Jews across history who have been doing this work, in honor of Heschel, I implore you to attach some of that urgency and commitment to something that is going to live beyond this moment.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a journalist and essayist as well as Jewish Insider’s philanthropy correspondent. She lives in New York City.