Let me ask you a provocative question: What’s it going to take to really move the needle on racial and social justice in this country?
Forget the performative, once-a-year volunteering that some of us do, or the occasional financial donation to a worthy cause. One look at the newspaper or your favorite social media site makes it very clear: When it comes to making real reform that helps America’s Black and Brown communities, the status quo is simply not working.
Here in Cleveland, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of some really exciting initiatives that are making a difference for many underserved individuals and families. I was on the team that founded EDWINS Restaurant, the nation’s premier training program for formerly incarcerated people to learn careers in fine dining; Cleveland Codes, the first software development boot camp in the country specifically created to train low-income adults; MAGNET’s Early College, Early Career program; and other transformative workforce programs.
In each of these endeavors, I’ve been frustrated that my Black friends don’t know my Jewish friends. I see way too much duplication of efforts in our different communities — voter registration drives, literacy initiatives, criminal justice reform programs — and not nearly enough collaboration. We work in parallel, rather than in partnership. At the same time, I see the way extremists are meticulously coordinating attacks on our rights, our bodies, and our communities. My vision became clear: a national network of Black and Jewish changemakers who collaborate to leverage the unique assets and strengths of our communities to fight hate and promote social justice.
I started by researching what Black-Jewish dialogues already exist in this country and, sadly, discovered that nothing out there is intentional, frequent, nationally scalable, and designed to promote collaborative action. I approached Charmaine Rice, a Black friend who is an experienced diversity, equity, and inclusion facilitator, to co-found a new organization with me, Rekindle, with the goal of rekindling the Black-Jewish partnership that truly made a difference during the Civil Rights Movement.
We wanted to draw on that rich history of Black-Jewish collaboration to inspire and empower a new generation of leaders that understand our shared values, concerns, and goals. Through a cohort-based model, we’re developing a network of Rekindle Fellows (or, as Charmaine likes to call them, “Rekindlers”). More specifically, through Rekindle, we are trying to achieve three main goals:
Fellows make valuable connections and develop meaningful new friendships across different faiths and cultures;
Fellows develop a more deep and nuanced understanding of the issues facing one another's communities, including the challenges of racism and antisemitism that continue to plague our country; and
Fellows leave better equipped and more motivated to tackle these issues, with a network of Black and Jewish changemakers they can leverage to make real change in our local communities.
Deuteronomy 16:20 teaches us, Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” We think these three elements are critical to living these words, and tangibly move that proverbial needle toward racial justice.
So in the 18 months since we’ve launched, how are we doing?
Like any startup, we are, as the saying goes, building the plane as we’re flying it. Some of the answers are clear, while others are more challenging. Are Fellows developing new and valuable connections? Absolutely. We’re seeing that impact as they recommend their friends, colleagues, and even their parents (!) to participate. We’ve graduated 41 Fellows, and have 33 more lined up to participate this fall, plus a waiting list for our 2023 cohorts. Are Rekindlers leaving with a deeper understanding of the issues? Also, a clear yes, as our post-Fellowship survey has demonstrated a significant impact on several key personal levels.
I’ll also be the first to admit it, though: real collaborative action has been slower to take place. These are hard, deeply entrenched societal issues, and they can’t be fixed overnight. We have to keep tweaking the program to create the right conditions for long-term engagement. I firmly believe that — through these new relationships, connections, and knowledge of the “other” — we’re planting seeds for future partnerships.
As our Sages said, “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor,” it is not upon us individually to complete the work, but neither are we free to avoid or disengage from it. I welcome the Jewish community, whether locally or nationally, to partner with Rekindle in the critical work of pursuing — and, we pray, one day achieving — racial justice in our country.
Matt Fieldman is the Founder of The Rekindle Fellowship.