four women and one man toil in a field of dirt
Sharecroppers in Greene County, Georgia, 1941 (Photo/Jack Delano-Library of Congress)

I cried tears of relief when Reform Jews embraced slavery reparations

Sometime during the 1990s, I learned that my grandmother received reparations from Germany, in recognition of the losses our family suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

I was ambivalent about these reparations.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know that Germany acknowledged collective responsibility for the crimes of the previous generation and that they were trying to reckon not only with the trauma but also with the material hardships that could be addressed through reparations.

On the other hand, I questioned whether accepting money implied some kind of even trade, which would be absurd.

But, most gnawingly, the reparations highlighted that so many other people also deserve both acknowledgment and restitution for the lives, labor and land stolen in building the very country to which my people had fled. The lack of public conversation about this (until recently), coupled with the denial that racism is alive and well by so much of our white-dominated culture, has kept me ambivalent about the reparations my own family received.

RELATED: The Jewish case for black reparations

At the December 2019 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, attended by more than 5,000 members and leaders, the movement passed a resolution to “advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to redress the historic and continuing effects of slavery and subsequent systemic racial, societal and economic discrimination against Black Americans …”

Following its passage, I found myself crying tears of relief, as I noted that I sat among thousands of other members of my community who agreed that we must speak against the hollow claim that racism — and, specifically, the impacts of slavery — are over, and who see that the Jewish community has a role to play in advocating for reparations.

Since the convention, every time someone asks how it was, I tell them about this resolution. (There were other important resolutions, as well!)

I find myself standing up straighter, and that those who hear about it do, too — Jews and non-Jews, white people and people of color.

Despite the unsolved details and complexities of how reparations should be implemented, I am unambivalent that it must happen and confident that black people must be considered the primary experts in how it should happen, just as women are the experts on ending sexism and Jews on anti-Semitism, etc.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, speaks at the group's biennial in Chicago about combating racism, Dec. 12, 2019. (Courtesy Union for Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, speaks at the group’s biennial in Chicago about combating racism, Dec. 12, 2019. (Courtesy Union for Reform Judaism)

In addition to advocating for reparations because it is the right thing to do, I think that Jewish communities ought to engage in this effort from an acknowledged position of self-interest. I say this not only to recognize African American Jews and other Jews of color, and not because it isn’t great just to do the right thing.

But there’s something missing if we don’t acknowledge that repairing the damages of racism will also create a safer world for all Jews and for all groups who are used as scapegoats for oppression.

When we do acknowledge this, our solidarity is more honest. We are not only showing up to help but to build the world that we too need.

As we face the choices that are needed to remedy brutal inequalities, threats to our planet, and dangerous social and political divisions, I am profoundly grateful to be part of the URJ, and I am grateful for the leadership that brought us this resolution.

May we use it to move forward into powerful coalitions to win a reckoning with our country’s history that will bring healing of both body and spirit for all.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller
Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller

Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller lives in Berkeley and is the Northern California Senior Organizer for the CA Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC-CA), where she supports congregational social justice teams and builds the network of congregations harnessing a statewide voice for justice as Reform Jews.