As two white, Ashkenazi Jewish teenagers, it could be easy for us to turn a blind eye to systemic racism. Our privilege has shielded us from ever having to fear the police, being left out of school curricula or feeling alienated in our daily lives.
The easy route would be to look away and pretend not to see. We are unlikely to be personally affected by police aggression and murder or the injustices of mass incarceration.
But that is exactly why we realized we had a responsibility to learn and become upstanders. As leaders in United Synagogue Youth (USY), we understand that it is our responsibility to make sure that our youth movement does not shy away from these difficult conversations.
Many of us struggled—and continue to struggle—with how to become stronger allies in this moment without overstepping. Pirkei Avot 2:16 tells us, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” That is what it means to be an ally: It is not our role to spearhead this movement, but rather, it is our duty to support and amplify the Black voices guiding this conversation.
Israel’s Consul General Dani Dayan is leaving after four years. What has he learned? He talks to editors-in-chief Jodi Rudoren and Andrew Silow-Carroll, of the Forward and the Jewish Week, about American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. Register here to listen in on July 8 at 12 p.m. ET.
While USYers may feel overwhelmed and unequipped to take on the weight of this movement by themselves, USY already has a structure that allows teens to partake in social action initiatives to work together to make real change. Alone, we may not be able to complete the work, but by coming together, we can make a difference.
Like many other leading Jewish organizations, USY initially responded by releasing a statement of solidarity written by youth and staff members. However, we knew that this was only a first step, and that a statement means nothing if not followed by action.
For generations, USY has offered fundraising and philanthropic opportunities for its youth leaders. All year long, USYers raise money for our Tikun Olam fFund. In September of each year, a committee of teens meets to allocate a percentage of the funds raised to numerous charitable organizations — many of which service the Jewish world. Because the structure for allocating charitable funds already existed within our organization, we knew that there was already a clear course of action to take.
Rather than wait until September, USY expedited the allocation of funds from the past year to racial justice organizations, and challenged USYers across North America to maximize our impact as quickly as possible by holding a two-day online fundraiser. To incentivize donations, USY’s leadership matched two dollars for every one dollar donated up to the first $5,000. This meant that a $50 donation would become $150, and so on.
We never expected to hit $5,000 so quickly, but with current and former USYers reposting the fundraiser information and spreading word to both their Jewish and non-Jewish friends, we managed to surpass our goal. USY contributed $10,000 in donation matches, and overall we ended our fundraiser with $21,047.49.
The next step was to host the special allocations meeting with elected and appointed representatives from all 15 USY regions, making up our Tikun Olam Committee. USYers shared personal stories about organizations, discussed the gravity of systemic racism, and debated how we should begin to move forward as allies. After much discussion, the participants voted between five potential destinations for our funds.
The Tikun Olam Committee chose to allocate $14,733.24 (70% of the overall funds available) to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI fights mass incarceration and provides legal representation for those who have been wrongly convicted, incarcerated, and abused. EJI’s founder Bryan Stevenson was also the central force behind the building of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum on racial injustice in the United States and memorial to victims of racial terror lynchings in the United States.
Our USYers chose to allocate $6,314.25 (30% of the overall funds available) to Fair Fight, lawyer and former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams’ advocacy organization for fair elections. We realized that voter suppression and discrimination are growing obstacles that prevent citizens from exercising their constitutional right to vote, as well as policies that protect Black lives from passing on both the local and federal levels. We saw this issue just one day after our allocations meeting, as Georgia experienced many of these issues firsthand.
At the end of our allocations meeting, we brainstormed potential courses of action to take in the future, ranging from a book club celebrating Black authors to guest speakers on Zoom educational sessions. We know that our privilege is part of what enables us to raise this much money in the first place. USY wants to meet the moment in the right way, but more importantly, we recognize that our work on this cause needs to be ongoing in order to truly be meaningful.
Nava Wolfish is the United Synagogue Youth Allocations Chairperson on the International General Board.
Michael Pincus is the United Synagogue Youth International Social Action/Tikun Olam Vice President.