‘Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out’

Rabbi Sandra Lawson smiling big, wearing a tallit, sitting outside in front of a home
Rabbi Sandra Lawson

When it comes to combating systemic racism, everyone has something to learn. 

That’s one reason why faculty members at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College are engaging in a year-long process — one rooted in the Jewish practice of Mussar — to confront anti-Black racism in themselves and the college environment. 

The college — and the organization it is part of, Reconstructing Judaism — is committed to leading “Jewish efforts to dismantle systemic racism, and to advance racial diversity, equity and inclusion within the Reconstructionist movement.

Reconstructing Judaism has taken many steps to that end, including adopting a movement-wide Resolution on Reparations and completing a major scholarly project on Jews and race. 

Confronting unconscious bias within individuals is an important part of this process, one that can be even more difficult than changing policies. RRC’s student body — the future leaders of the Reconstructionist movement — is increasingly racially diverse. This school year, four students identified as Black. At the same time, nearly all faculty members are white, with the notable exception of Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi, Ph.D., RRC vice president for academic affairs. Even with the best of intentions, racial bias still occurs, said Rabbi Sandra Lawson, a 2018 RRC graduate and Reconstructing Judaism’s director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Using Jewish tradition to examine ourselves, to reflect on how we care for and connect with others, is one way to combat systemic racism, and it’s a good one

“When people think about antiracism, they ask, “what is the one thing I am supposed to do?’ But there is no one thing because you’ve got 400-plus years of systemic untangling to do,” said Lawson. “Yet using Jewish tradition to examine ourselves, to reflect on how we care for and connect with others, is one way to combat systemic racism, and it’s a good one.” 

Enter the program and process called “Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out.” The idea is deceptively simple and strongly rooted in Jewish tradition. To change society, individuals must first address their own attitudes, biases and inner lives. The program was developed by Yehudah Webster and Rabbi David Jaffe, author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change and founder of the Kirva Institute, an organization that incorporates Jewish spiritual practice into social justice activism. 

The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, based in Indiana, awarded RRC a $30,000 grant to run the program, specifically for faculty members. “Dismantling Racism” began at the start of the academic year and concludes in August. 

So how does it work? 

The faculty meets roughly twice a month, led by Lawson and Rabbi Alex Weissman, director of mekhinah, and cultural and spiritual life. Not surprisingly, most sessions begin by studying a Jewish text.

A recent meeting began with several passages from the book of Jeremiah. The group examined the text through the lens of a specific Mussar middah or soul trait.

Rabbi Alex Weissman in front of bushes
Rabbi Alex Weissman

In this case, it is the character trait bitachon, which means “faith” or “trust.” Faculty members raised hard questions such as: How can a student of color place trust in God or people in a racist society? When is the right time to place trust and when to push back? 

Then, the hard work begins. Participants are asked to develop a spiritual practice related to bitachon. That practice could relate to God, to another person or to themselves. (It could be as simple as someone telling themselves or another that “I believe in you.) Then the group reconvenes two weeks later, when participants are invited to reflect on their practice and progress and set a new intention. It can be painstaking, emotional work, and discussions have often been raw and personal. 

Having an implicit bias means you might single out some students and not others for care or criticism.

Dismantling racism is never going to be easy, noted Weissman. And “Dismantling Racism” and Mussar provide a detailed framework for going about it. 

“There can be a distorted balance of care shaped by racism,” he said. “Having an implicit bias means you might single out some students and not others for care or criticism. This is about trying to compensate for the racism that all of us have learned in one way or another.” 

“The hope is that there’ll be a difference in the classroom, and in the hallways, and in all interactions between students and faculty,” continued Weissman. “This is one way we can make sure that we’re living up to our values and commitments.” 

How do we know if it works? Measuring changes in people’s hearts and how they behave toward others is never going to be as simple as reporting numbers. Yet Weissman remains confident that the process will have a long-term impact upon the faculty and, ultimately, the students who study with them. 

A waist-up photo of rabbi Rayna Grossman, who stands in front of bushes outside RRC.

Rabbi Rayna Grossman, RRC’s director of field placement, was excited to take part in the process because they’d never undertaken a formal Mussar practice or antiracism program. 

“I really appreciated the opportunity in an intentional and caring space to do antiracist work,” said Grossman. 

Grossman added that in many ways, the process was more revealing and difficult than they had expected. “I had not anticipated how, in this process, I would need to confront not only my learned and internalized racism but also areas of personal struggle, such as personal struggles with anxiety and self-image.” 

Additional Resources

Read about Rabbi Alex Weissman’s course on rabbis in social movements

Learn about our 2023 racial justice pilgrimage

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