Race, Religion and American Judaism:
Cross-Disciplinary Research, Public Scholarship and Curriculum Development

 

Center for Jewish Ethics
Research Fellow Application

The Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is sponsoring new research for a project titled "Race, Religion and American Judaism: Cross-Disciplinary Research, Public Scholarship and Curriculum Development." We are seeking ten scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to serve as research fellows, advancing scholarship on race, religion, and Jewish experience. While specific research questions will be determined by the Fellows, we have identified four broad topics that we hope to address. We view these topics as a jumping off point, and we encourage you to apply even if your interests do not fit neatly into one of these categories:

1) Jewish identity and theories of race and religion
2) Race and the American Jewish experience (including the history of immigration, discrimination, and activism)
3) Racial and cultural diversity in American Jewish life today
4) A Jewish ethical response to racism

1) Please describe your proposed research project. How will your findings contribute to scholarly understanding of Judaism, the American Jewish experience, race, or religion? (750 words)

Turning Points:
A Multi-Sided View of Jews, Race and White Flight


In the years after World War II, white Jews engaged in a decision with lasting ramifications for their place in the U.S. racial hierarchy and their relationships with other Jews and non-Jews: to migrate from multiracial cities to white suburbs. Although some Jewish communities boldly resisted white flight, and Jewish leaders debated extensively about leaving cities, hundreds of thousands of Jews lacked any formal process to acknowledge the communal ethical decision being made.

This project presents a kaleidoscopic view of U.S. Jewish relationships to race, analyzing postwar Jewish white flight with attention to how Black Jewish and Judaic communities, Black non-Jews, Sephardim and Mizrahim shaped, were shaped by, and contested this process. As a 
scholar of race and Jewish identity in the 20th century U.S., with a background in antiracist education and an unusual personal story relating to white flight (see below), I’ve found that narrative helps public audiences process scholarship on race: engaging their curiosity, decreasing defensiveness and building their listening capacity for complex and uncomfortable subjects. This research uses the story of one urban area, North Philadelphia, to open a conversation that Jews nationwide will find meaningful. The resulting materials will help Jewish public audiences 
reconceive key moments in U.S. racial history: not as events which befall us, but as active ethical decision-making processes whose outcomes we shape – historically and today.

Using archival materials from Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center, prior interviews I’ve conducted and new interviews with elder Sephardi and Mizrahi congregants of [local synagogue], I’ll trace turning points in this process: from the vigorous but unsuccessful 1950s campaign by white Jewish neighborhood leaders to prevent white flight, to early 1960s antisemitic hostilities that left many local Jews vulnerable but took a unique toll on Black Jews, who sought to relocate without whites-only subsidies or Jewish communal support, to the uneven effects of mid-1960s urban renewal, which yielded a joyous homecoming for a Sephardi congregation but displacement for Black residents. 

We’ll see how a 1964 Black urban uprising against police brutality viscerally evoked pogroms for North Philadelphia’s white Jewish shopkeepers, how Black neighbors urged those Jews to stay, and how, in the years after white flight, Black Jewish and non-Jewish activists brought calls for reparations and racial accountability to the doorsteps of white Jewish leaders. As Black residents and activists coped with North Philadelphia’s deteriorating conditions in the 1970s, Sephardi and Ashkenazi-led organizations formally departed the neighborhood, with Jewish agencies reaching out individually to encourage remaining white Jews to leave. Yet even as they moved to whiter physical spaces, Sephardim and Mizrahim continued to occupy a shifting racial geography in the Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world; one which opened opportunities for connection with Black and other racialized Jews.

This research builds on work by Lila Corwin Berman (Metropolitan Jews) and Abigail Perkiss (Making Good Neighbors) demonstrating the agency of white Jewish grassroots and communal leaders in guiding or opposing the process of white flight. I expand this frame, documenting the agency of Black Jewish and Judaic communities who were required to carve their own paths, non-Jewish Black communities who called on white Jewish institutions to back their supportive words with action, and Sephardim and Mizrahim whose status shifted as they moved through different racial terrains.

Informed by Devin Naar and Aviva Ben Ur’s insights on U.S. Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews’ complex relationships to whiteness, this work will explore everyday U.S. Sephardi and Mizrahi lives in the postwar era. Founded by colonial-era Sephardim, [synagogue] ultimately became home to Ashkenazim, racialized Sephardim from Ottoman lands and Israelis from Mizrahi communities. By 1963, most congregants lived at the city’s periphery. I will ask how Sephardim and Mizrahim experienced this transition from multiracial cities to all-white spaces.

Finally, my research adds to our understanding of “Black-Jewish relations,” shifting the timeline, and expanding the picture to include Black Jews. Many works emphasize the mid-1960s as a breaking point between white Jews and Black non-Jews; citing, for example, white Jewish Northerners who reoriented their Southern activism in response to Black Power. Yet younger white Civil Rights workers were members of the first U.S. Jewish generation to grow up largely in white suburbs. The decisive break between these communities occurred long before those Jews journeyed south. Black/Jewish relations literature also tends to sequester research on Black Jews into its own subgenre. I counter this, showing the integral role that self-identified Black Jewish communities played in urban space as these conflicts evolved. 

2) Please share some reflections on what brings you into this research. You might discuss ways your training, experiences, or identities inform your scholarship, or tell us what excites you about this project? (250 words) *

My interest in race and Jewish identity arises from my unusual upbringing as a white Jew in a poor and working-class Black neighborhood. As a child, I studied white Jewish communities with an outsider’s eye, and listened to wide-ranging Black communal conversations about, and memories of interactions with, white Jews. My life has been about making sense of that 
experience – from my early activism on race and criminal justice to my graduate work in Jewish Studies.

As a scholar, my goal is to make history accessible and empowering to public audiences. I’m best known for writing about liberatory approaches to antisemitism (The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, The Washington Post, Haaretz). In 2020, I piloted my newest antiracism workshop with young white Jewish communal leaders. Informed by Mizrahi and Sephardi scholars Aziza Khazzoom, Ella Shohat and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, I offer an anti-essentialist reading of white supremacy and Ashkenazi dominance in U.S. Jewish communities, teasing apart forms of domination to be dismantled from ancestral Ashkenazi culture to be cherished.

My current activism [details, details]. My current scholarship is a book-length history of intimate ties between white Jewish Red Scare veterans and young Black Panthers in late-1960s Philadelphia.

3) We've identified four broad themes and also recognize that there is important interdisciplinary research that might not fit neatly into these categories. Please explain how your proposed research relates to one or two of these themes. If there is not a good fit, please explain how your work will advance understanding of race, racism, and Jewish life in other ways. (500 words) *

This research touches on all four themes. Although my project functions by sharing a history of race and the American Jewish experience (#2), my pedagogical goal is to help audiences reflect on how to both equitably address racial and cultural diversity within American Jewish life today (#3) and implement a Jewish ethical response to racism in our wider society (#4). 

Threaded through this work is the theme of Jewish identity and theories of race and religion (#1). Many major Jewish institutions in the 1950s were outspoken against racism. Yet the same Jewish organizations which spearheaded local and national efforts in favor of fair housing and integration also assigned staff to treat Black Jews as subjects of surveillance, trading notes about North Philadelphia’s Black Jewish leaders with the assumption that Black people who identified as Jews were at best eccentrics, and at worst threats to Jewish communal safety. White Jewish leaders guiding Jewish migration out of cities did not think to ask how their departure might impact Jews who were not white, because by and large they could not conceive of racialized people as Jews – a fallacy which shaped Ashkenazi communities’ treatment of Ottoman Sephardim and Mizrahim, as well.

At the heart of this project is an inquiry into Jewish ethical responses to racism (#4). Specifically, I believe that North Philadelphia’s white Jewish leaders, who were deeply committed to opposing racism, were caught in a contradiction of liberalism (an understanding I derive from Lila Corwin Berman’s work on Detroit). Liberal ideals enhanced these leaders’ fights for the freedom of Black people to seek individual betterment, enter previously white neighborhoods and pursue opportunities for their families. But liberalism’s emphasis on individual choice precluded these leaders from issuing mandates for Jewish homeowners to stay. White Jewish leaders sought to persuade their fellow Jews to stay in North Philadelphia, but they could not, as liberals, argue against the freedom of individual white Jews to pursue the opportunities that beckoned in suburban life. 

We cannot know what might have been if a large enough group of white Jews in the 1950s had responded to the GI Bill by agreeing upon some communally binding moral course of action, such as choosing collectively to remain in cities until Black Americans had free and equal access to homes and financing everywhere. Such a campaign would have been difficult to achieve for leaders from any political perspective. In the modern era, affiliation with Jewish communities rests on individual choice, and few Jewish authorities in diaspora have the power to enforce communal behavior. Today, however – despite our freedom to act as individuals and the communal divisions between Jews – American Jews collectively face a new level of risk; a risk we share with non-Jewish Black, Muslim, immigrant and other communities targeted by white nationalism. Our ability now to organize our community against racism will have consequences for others and for ourselves. To be a Jew in the 21st century is to be offered an ethical puzzle – and an organizing dilemma.

4) Among our overarching goals for this project is to address problems of racism in Jewish communities and in the larger world. If you had the chance to share your scholarship with a broad public, what are some key insights or pieces of knowledge you would want to convey? How would you want this knowledge to make a difference? (250 words) *

I want Jewish audiences to know that short-term choices for Jewish security can ultimately leave Jewish communities at heightened risk. In the postwar era, white Jews were able to shield themselves from some risk and gain meaningful advantages by migrating to white suburbs – a fact keenly observed by Black Jews and non-Jews who could not access such protection or advantages. The chasm this created had lasting effects on coalition efforts. Today, with the rise of white nationalism, all of our communities face clear risk. White flight was a temporary solution benefiting some Jews. In the long term, it left all Jews more vulnerable, leaving unrepaired a vital relationship that Jews need now in order to organize for safety in coalition.

I’d like to use this history to open discussion of today’s ethical turning points. What decisions do American Jews face today, whose ethical implications for racial justice and collective wellbeing might only become clear decades from now? For instance, what will be the impact if Jewish communities embrace reliance on police- and anti-terrorism models for synagogue protection, at a time when Jews of color voice concerns about their own safety around police, and many in Black, immigrant and other communities see their safety in defunding police and investing in communities instead? I’d like to help Jews ask: What solutions seemed inconceivable to Jews in the 1950s? What interventions would it have taken to change the course of this story? What inconceivable choices today might ultimately prove to be sound solutions?

5) This fellowship joins support for individual research with a framework for collaboration and cooperation. What would you hope to gain through conversation and collaboration with other researchers? What strengths and skills do you bring to collaborative efforts? (250 words) *

I love people. I like to foster group atmospheres that bring out the best in each person so that we can be as effective as possible in addressing the high-stakes problems we face. I cultivate a practice of interrupting and redirecting oppressive comments or dynamics without shaming people.

Although I’m young as a scholar, I have almost thirty years’ experience organizing and building community, in particular around issues of race and in multiracial spaces. This gives me a degree of calm that my fellow scholars find useful. People turn to me for support in figuring out how to say things they feel nervous about or advance ideas that are new. I especially like supporting people to reach for accessible language, so that they can express complicated ideas to a broader audience than just our colleagues. 

Ideally, I’d like to use this fellowship to build a lasting community of scholars with shared interests who can continue to support each other. As an independent scholar and writer, my work is solitary, and the Covid years have reduced my opportunities for getting to know fellow scholars through in-person conferences and shared physical classrooms. Given the specifics of what I study, the fellows in this program will likely be one of the best groups I could find in terms of intellectual overlap. I’d like to build enough rapport together that when the fellowship is complete, we can maintain relationships and keep sparking new directions in each other’s thought.

6) We will be holding two convenings that will be required for all participating fellows, in March and August. What would make these convenings most valuable and compelling for you? Do you have any specific suggestions for how we use our time together? (250 words) *

I suspect that some of the scholars drawn to this fellowship are attracted to it because of their own interest in curriculum design and translating their work for public use. I’d love to see the first convening be about helping our small group of scholars build community together and familiarize ourselves with each other’s work, and the second convening operate as a transitional gathering, where the Phase 2 curriculum design experts are invited to join us, hear in person about what we’ve studied and our hopes for how this could serve public audiences, and trade notes about how to put these ideas into action.

As a scholar whose research grows out of work with the public, my mind tends to go to how each concept could be made useful for broad audiences. For instance, I can picture holding events in different cities, where North Philadelphia’s story is used as a jumping-off point for panel discussions on the specifics of how white flight played out locally, followed by audience break-out discussions with prompts to help people reflect on white flight in their family’s or synagogue’s history, how it impacts their recent experiences, such as navigating gentrification, and what racial justice choices today’s Jewish communities face which may carry lasting ethical weight. Getting to discuss ideas like this with experts from Phase 2 would enable me to confidently close my research and entrust it to the next people who will shape it.