EngagePerspectivesIntegrating Tough Questions about the Intersection of Race, Religion, and Politics
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Integrating Tough Questions about the Intersection of Race, Religion, and Politics

For the SNF Paideia Program course, Jews, Race, and Religion, Steven Weitzman, the Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, designed curriculum and public lectures to address the overarching questions: What is the history of the category of race; how has religious identity been racialized; how do Jews fit into the racialized culture of the U.S.; and what is the history of how immigrants to the U.S. came to embrace whiteness in their self-understanding?

A team of interfaith clergy on June 8, the first night a group of them showed up to minister to protesters in Seattle. From left, they are: the Rev. John Helmiere (arm raised), Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, Unitarian chaplain Justin Almeida, Unitarian minister Beth Chronister and Rabbi Josh Weisman. Photo courtesy of David Basior.

In describing the impetus for taking on an ambitious topic, Weitzman, also a professor in Penn’s Religious Studies department, explains, “The last two years have seen the most violent attack against a synagogue in American history, protests for racial equality across the country, and a resurgence of white nationalism. In the wake of these developments, it became clear to me that many of us—and I put myself in this category—have much yet to learn about the history of race and racism.”

The events of 2020-21 mark what may be a new chapter in the history of race relations in the U.S. and, Weitzman reflects, “as a scholar of religious studies, I could see that religion was an important part of the picture, too, though in less obvious ways. During the Capital insurrection, for example, there were many indications that both racism and religious belief, or rather their combinations, was motivating some of the violence. The study of Jewish experience offered a fascinating case study for how religion and race can interact to shape identity. It offers an opportunity to explore the history of prejudice, the intersectionality implicit in Jewish identity, inter-ethnic relations, and other topics.”

These ideas were unpacked through both student discussions and lectures from outside voices, and presented a way to explore the SNF Paideia Program’s pillar of dialogue across difference, along with citizenship.

Judaism and Politics

The 11 guest lectures, ranging in topics from “Alex Haley’s Roots, Scriptures, and the Race for America, to “Race, Class and Privilege: How Latino Jews Navigate Life in the United States,” were extremely popular, garnering a total of 2,257 attendees. Students in the course were able to meet with the guest speakers in small groups over Zoom for Q&As each week. “What the audience cannot see is the fantastic discussion between the students and the lecturers following the discussion,” says Weitzman.

Students agreed. “The small intimate dialogues create a sense of shared experience for the students, which was very important during a challenging semester of remote learning,” says JJ Gluckman, a first-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences who started the semester at his home in Los Angeles. Gluckman signed up for the class because the subject spoke to his personal interest in the intersection of Judaism and politics. “I was brought up Modern Orthodox but am also incredibly progressive. Since 2016, I’ve really been struggling with what it means to be both [Orthodox and progressive]. My personal relationship with my faith, combined with the events of the past year, led me to think about Jews and race a lot more. The class came along at the perfect time.”

Although Gluckman would have preferred to take the course while on campus, the remote environment has enabled him to include his family in the lectures. “It has become a Shabbat dinner conversation,” he says. “My mother and grandparents both watch the lectures and then at dinner on Friday nights we sit around and talk about the ideas that were brought up. There is always some discourse, everyone came to it with a slightly different perspective and expectations.

As someone who participates in intersectional activism and is engaged in conversations around social justice, I walked in expecting conversations on how the concepts of race affected religion, and vice versa,” Gluckman adds. “My grandparents came at the class with a different understanding of race than I had, and were thus more surprised with the results.

Lilah Katz, a first-year student in the College from Bethesda, Maryland, also invited members of her relatives to join. “My Jewish identity has always been really strong and it’s a core value of my family. Because the lectures are open to the public, my family has been coming. There was one topic that I really hated, but in a good way. It made me think about why I had such a strong emotional reaction, and I was able to have a conversation with my family about it afterwards.”

This student feedback gets to the heart of how the class and lecture series connect to SNF Paideia’s mission of fostering citizenship, service, and wellness through dialogue across difference. “The class and lecture series involve sensitive conversations about public concern—about the role of religion in shaping whiteness, about Black-Jewish relations where there have been long-standing tensions between the two communities, about Christian critique of the State of Israel, and about the marginalization of Jews of color, to name just a few examples,” Weitzman says. “In the class we are trying to model how to approach these subjects in an empathetic and informed way, not to paper over areas of conflict but to approach them with a willingness to listen and learn.”

‘What is Race? What Race am I? What Race do I get to Say That I Am?’

Though she hasn’t declared a major, Katz is interested in history and Jewish studies. She went into the class with three main questions: “What is race? What race am I? and What race do I get to say that I am? To be honest, I knew going in that I was not going to get a concrete answer about any of this. I just wanted to be well-equipped to have that conversation,” she says. “Through the readings, guest lectures, and all of the knowledge Professor Weitzman brings to the discussion, I feel much more equipped in my own identity and also talking about other people’s identities in a more conversational and informed way.”

When asked what she will remember about the course in the future, Olivia Haynie, a first-year College student from Durham, North Carolina says, “I will remember how this class challenged my perception of ethnicity and race. I’ve learned that our assumptions about race and ethnicity are not stable categories. Being comfortable with that fact will help me in the future; I will remember that people can’t be put into boxes like that.”

Expanding the Discussion on Race, Judaism, and Politics

Haynie was prompted to take the class because she is a multiracial Jew. She has been a committee member at her home synagogue that is focused on leading discussions on how the synagogue can be an ally to movements such as Black Lives Matter. “There has been a lot of tension recently looking at our histories of instances of anti-Semitism in the Black Lives Matter movement,” Haynie says. “The readings on the history of Black and Jewish relations in politics and in social movements and the ideas of race around Judaism has really helped my approach to the committee and to the work I’m trying to do there.”

Other students have been integrating the course material beyond their individual and familial circles, utilizing the lessons in their other roles at Penn. Katz and Haynie are in a group working on a Penn Projects for Progress grant proposal to bring anti-racism education to greater Philadelphia area synagogues. Katz says, “The idea is to provide Jewish anti-racism education and I was able to use a synthesis of the information and knowledge gained through the course in the grant proposal.”

Katz, Haynie, and Gluckman are involved with Penn Hillel and have found the course helpful in bringing the conversation around race and religion to the greater Jewish Penn community. “What has also been so gratifying to learn is that some of the audience members have organized their own study groups around the course,” Weitzman says. “We know of at least three synagogues that are doing so. We did not anticipate that.” Weitzman and his co-organizer Mira Wasserman have made the course lectures and readings publicly available on The Center for Jewish Ethics website.

In his course, Wietzman posed a set of challenging enduring questions, well contextualized within the current tumultuous times, to probe carefully the complicated interplay of race and religion in the U.S. through the lens of Judaism. Further, as his students note, he was able to create a framework where students of diverse ideologies and backgrounds could come together and open dialogue about complicated issues.

Finally, the course aligned with the SNF Paideia Program mission, rippling out of the classroom to engage a larger public in discussions, inspiring undergraduate students to involve their own communities towards change, and inviting all to question unexamined assumptions.

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