Dear HUC-JIR community,
The challenges of the last few months are leaving us bewildered, shocked, and disappointed. Just as Moses in this week’s Torah portion had to see beyond the death of his siblings and his dashed hopes of leading his people to the promised land, for all the darkness of these last many weeks we too must find signs of hope.
The outrageous injustice of the brutal killing of George Floyd galvanized the righteous cries to combat racism and police brutality with a vitality not seen in 50 years or more. Three months of COVID that have killed over 500,000 people globally have raised a renewed understanding of the systemic and institutional inequalities that continue to disproportionately affect Black and Brown people and a recognition of the consequences of ignoring science and public health. The unexpectedly strong affirmation by the U.S. Supreme Court that gay, lesbian, and transgender employees have civil rights protected by law left us celebrating the extension of human rights even as they seem under assault on an almost daily basis. The surprising decision reminded us of our responsibility to resist simplistic explanations for complex social and political phenomena.
These signs of hope in no way justify or compensate for the pain and suffering that caused them. But they have increased our awareness of just how interconnected we are. No matter how pure our hearts, no matter how good our motives, no matter how right our actions, each of us shares a portion of responsibility for the disproportionate and unjust distribution of privileges and burdens in our society.
HUC as an institution is not immune to these challenges because of the sanctity of our mission. Indeed, it is because of our mission, because of our Jewish values, because of our history of leading change in the past, that we must recognize the work we have to do right now.
We begin by aligning ourselves with so many of those “praying with their feet” and affirm that “Black Lives Matter,” because we recognize the significant threats to the material lives and wellbeing of Black and Brown people in particular right now in our society. And this affirmation does not equate all acts of injustice and racism; rather it recognizes that we are each called upon to do different pieces of the work that needs being done.
What will this mean for us? Our commitment to these issues must be long term and it will take some time to form a sustainable approach to fighting racism. We must go into this with deep humility, seeking first to listen in order to understand the experiences of people of color in our community, and raising awareness for ourselves of ways that we may have contributed to the problem, whether or not we were aware of our actions. And as we do the necessary work to be anti-racist, we must continue to support our efforts to combat all abuses of power, bias, and discrimination, including on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as part of our broad commitment to create a safe and respectful environment at the College-Institute.
Four Areas of Focus
While a specific response to support an anti-racist culture has not yet been determined, we will outline four general areas we will be developing to give you more of a sense of the kind of work we will do.
Institutional responsibility. We have a responsibility to ensure that our policies and processes do not use race to differentially distribute important goods and resources in a manner that is unjust. We will continue to audit these policies to ensure that they eliminate unjust bias and reflect best practices in all areas they cover: including setting behavioral expectations for faculty, staff, student, and lay leadership, and building appropriate processes for access to goods within the institution—jobs, student admissions, and board seats, as examples. Similarly, we must recognize the value that comes from a workforce and student body that have perspectival diversity and seek to form a student body, staff, and faculty to achieve those aims. As part of this work we intend to establish public reports about who we are in terms of the race, gender, and other important demographics about students, faculty, and staff.
Individual behavior. Racism and other forms of harassment and discrimination are not just a reflection of discriminatory rules that institutions follow. They are rooted in the consequences of our individual behaviors of which we are sometimes not even aware. We will work with experts in the field to identify the best ways to effectively raise awareness of how our actions can contribute to these problems and learn ways to improve. Anti-bias training or other kinds of education may be deployed based on proven effectiveness and with appropriate input from our community. We will include our faculty, staff, students, and lay leadership in all of these opportunities.
Supporting our community. We must be sensitive to those most at risk and follow an ethic of care for our students, staff, and faculty. To that end, and in partnership with them, we will set up specific approaches to support our students and employees of color in a manner that is most responsive to their requests and concerns. We have already received a petition from students earlier this month with concrete suggestions for change and constructive suggestions from staff, both of which we will follow up on in the coming weeks.
Education as social change. We will also do what we do best to deepen our understanding on these issues—learn and teach. Over the next year, you will see an increase in attention to public talks and seminars designed to deepen our understanding on all manner of topics related to this moment. From public talks on the history of Jewish and Black relations in the United States, to a series of discussions with Jews of Color on living with multiple identities and more, we will address these issues head on.
The process of developing specific plans will be undertaken and overseen by the Presidential Task Force on Safe and Respectful Environments. This task force, established in September 2019, provides an independent representative body reporting directly to President Rehfeld that helps our community navigate issues like these when they arise. Co-chaired by Rabbi Dvora Weisberg and Professor Rich Feldman, the task force is fully empowered to request external assistance and expertise when required. Its members constitute a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni from each campus. (Please see the original announcement of the Task Force here.)
A Final Charge
As we go forth, we acknowledge that we are doing very sensitive work at a time when most public discourse does not value thoughtfulness and encourages promoting people as “good” or “bad” based on the words or ideas they might express, even when working together to achieve common ends. We reject such a view as contrary to the principles of academic excellence and moral decency.
HUC is committed to creating safe and respectful environments in order to support the hard work required of us all. We believe we must treat each other with a generosity of spirit and interpret ideas that are expressed by one another with a presumption of charity and good will. Particularly in our classrooms, we are committed to promoting a diversity of ideas, including those that challenge popular ideology and received wisdom, even when these ideas may cause our students and faculty discomfort. For it is through a serious confrontation with ideas that make us uncomfortable that we strengthen ourselves and express our commitment to struggle with the Divine. Using the still, sacred space of our institution, we can thus build resilience to face any challenges ahead.
So let us go forward, together in common purpose, to demonstrate the very best of who we can be as One HUC: a robust academic community rooted in timeless Jewish values and committed to promoting dignity, meaning, and purpose for all who contribute to the vitality of our College-Institute.
In this way, we will all work to strengthen our community and bring more justice and healing to our world.
Sue Neuman Hochberg
Chair, Board of Governors
Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.