Toward a Co-Created Liberatory Jewish Future

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director

A large group of SVARA-niks are standing in a wood-paneled bet midrash. Many of them have their hands up.

“When we honor our commitment to each other then our communities will flourish with rain at its proper time, grain, wine, oil, and grass in our fields. When we do not fully commit, we risk the future of our very community. So we call in our community to re-imagine our sacred covenant to one another and to our collective future.”  (from Not Free to Desist, Re-imagining Our Collective Jewish Covenant)

SVARA has, at our core, always been a project that centers the experiences of queer folks in order to create players and leaders of a liberatory Jewish future. And we know that the liberated Jewish future will come not only when the queer folk are at its center but when all the folks that are now marginalized are at the center, co-creating new ways of expressing our tradition.  As we look inward to the ways in which we, as an organization, encounter the discomfort of being newer to the work of prioritizing racial justice, we draw strength from the learning and practice we’ve gained from holding the core value of dismantling oppression since we first began. 

One year ago, we made commitments to be in this work as we answered the call put out in Not Free to Desist, an open letter to the broader Jewish community published by a group of Jewish communal professionals, lay leaders, and board members who are Black Jews of Color, Non-Black Jews of Color, and allies to the Jew of Color (JOC) community. The letter called on Jewish organizations to commit to at least four of seven obligations it outlined within a year and all seven by 2023. 

It was a call that reverberated loudly against the backdrop of racial reckoning in America that was long overdue and highlighted the pervasive anti-Black racism that sits underneath so much of our lives and practices. Answering the call felt obvious for us, as we know that our liberation is intricately tied with the liberation of all people who hold experiences of oppression. And while we recognize the limitations of our work in this arena as an all-white staff and board, we are committed to shifting this make-up so that our leadership and our community reflect the most liberatory vision of Jewish life that we possibly can. 

We know that change-work is purposeful and slow, and that to truly live into our values takes hard work and dedication. At the first meeting with our Justice and Equity committee this spring, one member shared how gratifying it is to be part of this work when it is proactive, rather than reactive. Another shared that they were ready to take on the discomfort that comes from being a white person in a predominantly white organization committed to collective liberation. Both are right. This work is big and sticky. This discomfort is part of our DNA as a community committed to democratizing our tradition. 

We have much to do. As part of our accountability process, we will share updates about where we are in this work periodically and we always invite your reflections and questions. Here are some examples of what we’ve done this year:

  • We developed community norms, which explicitly address our commitment to racial justice as a central pillar of our justice and equity work.
  • We launched a Justice and Equity Committee, tasked with creating goals and objectives for the board and staff, assessing SVARA’s work to reach these goals, and pushing the organization forward.
  • Through our participation in Whiteness Havruta, our staff and board have interrogated the ways in which white supremacy shows up in our work. 
  • We give 1% of our earned income to Black-led and POC-led queer and trans organizations including SONG, MASK, and The Sylvia Rivera Law Project
  • We waive tuition in our Teaching Kollel and other teacher training initiatives for Black and Indigenous People. 
  • We prioritize the participation of People of Color, Black People, and Indigenous People in our learning spaces as a core part of the relational work of building a strong, intersectional community that celebrates each person for who they are. 

For many years, we have been nurturing a community of queer folks to be in deep, change-making relationship with Jewish tradition. To envision a Jewish future that not only offers inclusion but is shaped and designed by the experiences that can only be born in the margins. As we mark Juneteenth this year, we are reflecting on how we lived into this work and the ways in which we’re still growing since we answered the call. We are here to reaffirm our commitment to centering racial justice. We are here for the repair and the stretching. We are here for the discomfort and for the authentic relationships that emerge. We are here for an expansive liberatory future. One that lifts up each unique experience of marginalization and moves us collectively forward to the olam haba that we dream of in the bet midrash. And if we all do the work, in our own places, we know that work will reverberate ultimately in a more just, healed world.

Read More