As committed as many of our synagogues are to social justice, recognition of black history if often restricted to a Shabbat service or mitzvah project near Martin Luther King Jr Day. It’s past time for Jewish organizations to formally celebrate Black History Month.
Our observance shouldn’t be limited to studying Jewish involvement in the Civil Right Movement (we see you, Freedom Riders). Black History Month isn’t about patting “white saviors” on the back but rather about raising the profile of African-American accomplishment.
Here are some ideas for celebrating Black History Month with your synagogue or other Jewish organization:
- Hold a tzedakah fair of black-led organizations in your community. Invite your congregation to learn about their missions, sign up to volunteer, and yes, donate money.
- Read a book by Julius Lester, an African-American Jew by choice most famous for writing The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. For classrooms or bedtime stories, try When the Beginning Began or Why Heaven is Far Away. For adult book clubs, Pharaoh’s Daughter and The Autobiography of God are intriguing selections.
- Gather a group to attend a local Black History Month event. Often, we don’t attend cultural events outside of our personal identity groups because we’re uncomfortable; many of us aren’t used to being in a space that’s not predominantly white. Here’s a great way to work through that discomfort. Important note: Black-only spaces are sacred and necessary. Please be sure the event you are attending is open to the general public. Local universities and museums are a great place to start.
- Audit your synagogue’s racial inclusiveness. Get some volunteers together to inventory your congregation’s advertising, artwork, and library. Are Jews of diverse ethnic backgrounds represented? What messages are you sending to Jews of color who walk through your door? Present your findings at a Board meeting, along with a plan for improvement.
- Organize a family story time with books that intertwine Jewish and African-American history, such as Mrs. Katz and Tush, by Patricia Polacco. Bonus: This book was featured in a fantastic episode of Reading Rainbow that includes LeVar Burton learning how to braid challah.
- Connect with a local Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Synagogues frequently form relationships with local colleges – inviting professors to be guest speakers, hiring students to work in the office or run babysitting during Shabbat, and partnering for service projects. During Black History Month, make an effort to reach out to an HBCU in your community.
- Share stories and quotes from famous African-Americans on your synagogue’s social media, your weekly email, and your Shabbat bulletin throughout the month. Remember that Black History Month isn’t just about Civil Rights; celebrate black inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists of all kinds.
- Host a Soul Food Shabbat dinner, but don’t make the food yourself: find a local black-owned restaurant (or food truck) that can cater, and invite the chef to speak about why these dishes are significant to the black community. [I recognize this can be a kashrut issue for some.]
- Go to a black church. Yes, really. You will be inspired.