Orthodox Progressives Finding Their Voices on Racial Justice


It started, like much activism these days, on an internet group chat. But these weren’t your stereotypical social-justice-type Jews.

Miriam Levy-Haim, Maayan Zik and more than a dozen other residents of the Orthodox community of Crown Heights were looking to organize a solidarity rally with their non-Jewish neighbors of color to show support for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in police custody. It was a group chat of like-minded progressive, observant and formerly observant Jews who shared articles, Twitter screenshots and memes.

Ilana Spencer, a group member and organizer, said she hoped such a rally would “normalize being a social-justice activist by being a visibly frum [observant] person.” After all, much of the Orthodox community is politically conservative and not often part of larger, liberal Jewish coalitions with African Americans on issues like race and other issues of social injustice. “This is something to do as a graduate of Bais Rivkah,” a reference to the local Orthodox all-girls school she attended, Spencer said, suggesting there’s no contradiction in being firmly Orthodox in practice and progressive in politics.

On Sunday, June 7, more than 100 members of the Crown Heights Chabad community came together in solidarity to march along Eastern Parkway. Some non-Jewish community members of color joined. It was one of three such rallies held by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Queens that day. The rallies, all organized independently and with slightly varying messages, suggest a change in the way some in the Orthodox community are thinking about issues of racism, social justice and police reform.

In Midwood, Brooklyn, former Assemblyman Dov Hikind — perhaps an unlikely social-justice messenger given his support for hardline policies like stop-and-frisk and a record of behavior some have called racist — arranged a rally that began on Ocean Parkway and Avenue J. The group, more than 200 strong and made up mostly of Orthodox Jews, marched peacefully down Ocean Parkway, blending calls for justice with the teachings of the Torah.

Hikind said, “Being here today is not a choice. We have an obligation to speak up when there’s injustice, in particular when that injustice results in the life of a person being taken.” Other community leaders marched, including Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, a community leader, Rev. Kevin McCall, a civil rights activist, and attorney Sanford Rubenstein.

A marcher at the Midwood rally, Yitzchak Friedman, told The Jewish Week, “I went to that protest because I felt like I had a duty to speak out. First, because I have been waiting my entire adult life for a mainstream figure in the Orthodox community to do something for race relations, and I had a duty to support that.”

But like a number of the marchers, Friedman saw the protests from another angle.

“I am not ready,” he continued, “to ally myself with the entire package of dogmas tacked on to Black Lives Matter if there was another option.” (In its platform, the Movement for Black Lives referred to Israel as a “genocidal” state for its perceived treatment of the Palestinians.)

The mainstream Orthodox groups — the Orthodox Union, National Council of Young Israel and Agudath Israel of America — walked a fine line in statements issued after the Floyd killing. They supported the protestors and spoke out against racism but were careful to praise police and condemn the looting that took place across the country.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, said the Orthodox community’s response to issues of racism is “complex and evolving.” While he said some in the community “ignore structural racism and only discuss ‘bad apples,’” he also sees “countless Orthodox Jews stepping out of their comfort zone to march for black lives … engaging out of a deep belief that the Torah views humans as being created in the image of God and racism must, as a religious commitment, be stamped out.”

Defund or divert?

In Crown Heights, the headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, there has for years been a small group of progressive, social justice-minded Lubavitchers. Menucha Sherman started an online WhatsApp support group after the Democratic presidential primary debates. Zik, a Jew of color, said the WhatsApp group “was an attempt to make sense of this political crisis. How would you respond to family members who talk about touchy subjects in real life and on social media?”

When the protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing began to spread across the country, Zik thought, “What if we made our own protest? Through our social network, we knew that there were like-minded people who wanted to join a protest against social injustice. But they were scared of getting hurt by tear gas and the general violence.”

Amid the pressures of the pandemic, the team members quickly mobilized. Devorah Leah Backman, one of the organizers, sent texts while potty training her child. Others made posters, secured a loudspeaker and bought water bottles, masks and other supplies.

Zik said, “We saw the [Floyd] protests. We asked, ‘What if we march down Eastern Parkway [where Lubavitch headquarters is located]?’ It snowballed from there.” In her opening speech at the Crown Heights rally, she said, “This week and today, the flame of justice is kindled throughout the country. … May we continue to kindle the light of justice [for the black community] until its flame rises and shines bright and true for every single one of us without doubt, worry or heartbreak. At today’s march, our goals are threefold: to show solidarity with the black community, to create awareness amongst our Jewish community about racism and to amplify black voices.”

Other speakers included Edu Hermelyn, the district leader for the 43rd Assembly District, and Jesse Hamilton, a former state senator and a candidate for 43rd Assembly District who has had a warm relationship with the Chabad community.

In introducing Hamilton, Zik noted that he introduced, in 2018, a 911 civil rights bill that would prohibit false race-based calls to the police. “This would protect all of us in Crown Heights, black or Jewish, from people who want to use the police force as a weapon of intimidation,” said Zik.

At the various marches, organizers and participants reflected nuanced opinions on complex debates now taking place about topics like defunding the police.

Ephraim Sherman, one of the Crown Heights organizers, suggested a different kind of police department, and diverting funds to experts better equipped to deal with mental health problems and non-criminal behavior. “Taking those funds and directing them to social workers, teachers and psychologists to respond in non-violent and non-armed ways,” he said.

In the days since the rally, the Crown Heights organizers are looking to capitalize on the momentum. They’re talking about bringing black and Jewish kids together “for productive dialogue.”

And they’ve launched an aspirationally named Instagram page — @Ker_A_Velt — “Turn the world over.”