(RNS) — On the cusp of Black History Month, and as the nation continues to mourn for Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after a severe beating by five Black now-former police officers, one small Jewish movement is taking a stand.
Last week, Reconstructing Judaism’s board of governors approved a resolution calling for reparations to descendants of slaves and Indigenous peoples for harms caused by colonization, slavery and white supremacist policies.
The resolution, two years in the making, was already approved by the movement’s congregational and rabbinical associations.
Reconstructing Judaism, a small liberal movement of some 90 U.S. congregations and a handful abroad, is following in the footsteps of the far larger Reform Jewish movement, whose congregational arm passed a resolution in 2019 in support of a federal commission to consider reparations for Black Americans.
The Reconstructing Judaism resolution does not specifically call for financial compensation but rather supports federal legislation, including passage of HR 40, a congressional bill that would develop reparations proposals.
Its main thrust is a call for “deep reflection on the ways in which we have participated in or benefitted from racial injustices in our communities and to answer the call of Torah to pursue justice and practice teshuvah by taking concrete steps to repair the harm.” (Teshuva means repentance in Hebrew.)
The resolution is the work of the denomination’s Tikkun Olam Commission (from the Hebrew for “repairing the world”), which has chosen racial justice as its primary focus.
Calls for reparations to Black Americans have intensified over the past few years with institutions such as Georgetown University and Princeton Theological Seminary atoning for ways they used the sale of enslaved people to pay off debts and fortify their university endowments by granting the descendants of those enslaved people free tuition.
Last year, the state of California formed its first-in-the-nation task force on reparations to help state officials examine how the state should respond to systemic racism.
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The denomination’s racial justice focus extends beyond the resolution. This past October it sent a group of Black Jewish members on a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, to tour the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The denomination now wants five or six of those members to help lead another pilgrimage, of mostly white Jews, to the South.
“We’re a multiracial community,” said Lazora Jordan, a New Jersey-based Reconstructionist Jew who serves on the denomination’s Tikkun Olam Commission and made the pilgrimage to Alabama last fall. “We’re making this verbal commitment and committing to further action.”
Jordan will be one of the leaders of the 200-plus pilgrimage to Georgia and Alabama in March. On Monday, Philadelphia’s Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History will host a virtual conversation about experiences of the first pilgrimage.
The denomination has also commissioned two Black Jewish artists to create visual art about reparations that will be permanently exhibited at its Philadelphia headquarters. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College to develop research papers and lectures on Jewish ethical responses to racism.
In 2021, the denomination hired a Black rabbi to direct its racial diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
“Some of us are Black; many of us aren’t,” said Rabbi Micah Geurin Weiss, a Tikkun Olam specialist for the denomination. “Regardless, racism hurts all of us. We all want to be more fully human and more fully live our values.”
American Jews are overwhelmingly white, with Jews of color representing 12% to 15% of the U.S. Jewish population, according to a meta-analysis undertaken by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
Many white Jews see themselves as targets of white supremacy while many Black Jews see white Jews as having benefited from racism.
The resolution and efforts to engage with racial justice attempt to reckon with history and inequality and take steps to repair the harm.
“It’s important for us to talk as a community about Jewish experiences that live at the intersection of different identities targeted by white supremacy today,” said Jordan, who also chairs a Jews of Color advisory group for the denomination.
Jordan hopes the ongoing focus on racial justice will make the country safer for everyone.
RELATED: Tyre Nichols police beating video prompts faith leaders to react with grief, goals