The American Jewish community has a long record of standing up for targeted and marginalized communities. But when our own community is attacked, it can be hard to know how to ask for and accept help. A lively debate exists around vigils, rallies, and the use of tolerance-preaching yard signs and social media hashtags. What is useful and what is appropriate? What do we want and what do we need?
“If it makes people feel better to sit at a communal gathering, that’s fine,” says regional AJC director Regina Sassoon Friedland. “But to actually bring about real change, I don’t think there’s a magic pill.” Alliance-building isn’t easy work, especially when communities have strong points of difference. We need to “humanize [ourselves to others], and vice versa, instead of having grand plans on what this is going to achieve right away,” Friedland says.
“Becoming more informed and familiar is an act of ally-ship in itself,” says Talya Gillman, outreach and education manager at Jewish Family Service. “We all want to be understood on our own terms, and that hinges on the fact that people are experts in their own experiences.”
The differences we discover can be stumbling blocks, but overcoming them is the ultimate test of “ally-ship.” Making efforts to connect with other communities on their terms and to learn about their lived experiences is groundwork that paves the way to being a better ally.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner, of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, agrees. “How do I align my feelings and my intent with what I think is going to best help these folks in a way that they define as helpful?” And listening goes both ways. For example, his temple’s Seattle campus was tagged with Holocaust-denial graffiti in 2017. When a neighbor with good intentions covered it up with a sheet, Weiner countered this display of support by suggesting that people should see the tag and understand what’s at stake for Jews. It’s important to listen to — and respect — a community’s wishes and to take the time to locate ourselves in the situation, he suggests.
The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October of 2018 spurred the Seattle Jewish community to study this question and develop an answer to share with the community at large.
“A challenge we realized we were facing is how anti-Semitism isn’t well understood by members of the non-Jewish community,” says Cassie Garvin, government affairs and community relations associate at the Federation. “We didn’t have a cohesive way to talk about it with non-Jewish folks.”
The Federation partnered with 18 local Jewish organizations and spent six months drafting a statement about anti-Semitism, with the intention of clarifying misinformation and garnering support from civic and elected leaders. That statement was signed by 46 local Jewish organizations and led to the creation of a pledge designed for civic and elected leaders. So far, around 100 leaders have signed the pledge.
So when a string of shocking attacks pulsed through Orthodox Jewish communities in metro New York in December, Seattle’s Jewish community was armed with a call to action.
“We must overcome the complacency of bystanding with the courage of upstanding,” the letter, signed by dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish leaders, stated. “We ask you to join us and stand up, speak out, and be counted. Raise your voice.” A list of resources to guide allies toward appropriate forms of fellowship — including tips to report anti-Semitism, how to advocate, what to read, and which organizations to turn to — followed the letter.
The Federation’s advocacy work meant that, with local Jewish leaders, “we were able to reach out to so many elected [officials] to sign on to the letter after the attacks in New York,” Garvin says. “[It] has been positive and heartening to see elected leaders speak up and sign on as anti-Semitic attacks have, unfortunately, continued to happen.”
Friedland hopes this leads to another important development: Jews breaking down their own denominational borders. “I think that Jews should realize that they might focus more on differences, but to the general world, Jew is Jew.”
“We need to be able to come into alliance even though we may have some ideological differences on certain issues,” says Weiner. “Compromising in the pursuit of common cause is not a compromise in terms of integrity or principle.”
“It really comes down to building bridges,” Friedland says. “You start one person at a time.”
For more information about combatting anti-Semitism and building alliances, visit jewishinseattle.org/community-services/advocacy/antisemitism.