Leah Koenig
Empowering Jewish Progressives:
An Interview with JFREJ Director Dara Silverman, p.2

LK: Do you have a favorite success story from that campaign or the other immigrant justice campaigns you've worked on during your time at JFREJ?

DS: I think my favorite success story since I started was when we got a call from the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn. They were starting a campaign to organize undocumented grocery store workers. Some of the family members of those workers came out [to New York] for a baptism. They took a flight from Los Angeles and in Newark they got detained. It started out with 46 but turned out that about 125 Mexican Nationals were detained at the Newark airport for over a week. So the Fifth Avenue Committee called us and we were the core groups that led a rally in front of what used to the INS [Immigrant Naturalization Services] and is now called ICE. [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. It got a ton of press and coverage because they had just gotten detained two days before. It was a really quick response that said, "It's not ok to detain people in the United States who are here for work… Even with the Patriot Act, you're not supposed to detain people just because they took a cross country flight."

So we did a lot of media work with the Spanish press, and I think it was really important just to have another view of what Jews are. To put out there that there are Jews who are fighting for racial and economic justice. A lot of our members really took the lead in organizing it really quickly-writing chants, calling the media, supporting the Fifth Avenue Committee leaders-both doing solidarity and also using it to build the leadership of our members.

LK: Does JFREJ view its work as filling a niche or void in the Jewish community, either in New York or nationally?

DS: That's a good question. I think in New York there's a real need for a couple of different things. One is that New York is sort of a different political place than the rest of the United States for Jews because historically there's been such a large Jewish population. Jews are the biggest white ethnic group in New York. There are very few statistics about how many Jews of Color there are in New York, but we know that it's pretty large as well. There are Jews who are in visible political positions, and it's the base for a lot of established Jewish communal organization. But there are also a lot of issues-and this is sort of the reason that JFREJ was founded-there are these historical ethnic and racial tensions in New York. So having Jews saying, "We stand with the people who are being targeted by the police and by immigration services. And while we have cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that might be the same to other Jews in New York, what we stand for is our belief in economic, racial, and social justice."

"There are tons of Jews doing political work who aren't out as Jews..." I think in terms of a niche in New York, a lot of Jews have a real hungering for a Jewish place to do their political work. There are tons of Jews doing political work who aren't out as Jews. So for a lot of Jews the idea of doing something where they get to say that they're Jews is really exciting. And I think also for a lot of Jews who don't have a religious practice, they want to be in a Jewish community. JFREJ sort of serves a synagogue in the streets-a place to be explicitly Jewish and political, and to be able to bring your full self. I think that's the main reason why we incorporate a lot of Jewish ritual and different types of Jewish cultures-to acknowledge that we come from these different places, but that it all connects to the political work that we do. That they're inextricably linked.

LK: That's an important point-throughout the 20th century Jews have been a considerable presence within progressive social action movements, but they haven't always had a unified voice. In a book called, Jewish Radicals and Radical Jews, Percy S. Cohen makes an interesting distinction between progressive Jewish individuals who view their social justice work as consistent with or even arising from Jewish tradition and Jewish values, and Jews who don't necessarily make that connection. Where would you place JFREJ on that larger spectrum?

DS: I think at JFREJ we try to be a place where we can encompass both of those. We are explicitly Jewish-it's in our name, it's on everything that we do, we're Jews who are here doing this work. But I think it's also a different political moment than it was fourteen years ago. There's not the same need in terms of the politics of New York to always be in solidarity with other groups, but there is a need to be organizing directly affected Jews-to be building power and creating change in communities where Jews are struggling with the same issues as other groups. I think the perception of the rise of antisemitism in the United States and worldwide offers a real opportunity in Jewish communities to talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, and different types of oppression and how they connect to antisemitism. In non-Jewish communities, it's an opportunity to talk about the silencing of Jews and the need to build a more complex analysis that includes anti-Jewish oppression.

LK: American Jews do seem to be caught in a power dynamic where on the one hand we have a significant standing in politics and in our larger communities, but on the other hand, we identify with other minority and oppressed groups of people.

DS: I talk a lot about the perceived oppression that a lot of Jews have. We hear that we're oppressed in the United States, and we learn the history of being oppressed…from our family, our culture, and even from the larger world about the ways Jews are treated. But for Jews who have privilege in the United States, there's also the privilege of being a primarily white ethnic group that has been assimilated in the United States but has stayed organized and has a certain amount of political and financial power. How do you balance out those different areas of experience where you've learned that you're an oppressed group and that you're different, but for a lot of white middle class Jews there's also lived experience of assimilation and acceptance?

I think that's one of the things that has come up for us in terms of building relationships with other groups. I met with this group, Families for Freedom, that works with family members of people who have been detained or deported. I was talking with them about wanting to do more work with antisemitism and anti-Jewish oppression on the left. And they said, "We would love to host a workshop like that. We're mostly South Asian on staff, but we work with a lot of Haitians and Dominicans and there's a lot of antisemitism that comes up that we don't know how to address. But what we hear is very similar to the racism that is targeted at South Asians."

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October 2004

Empowering Jewish Progressives
Leah Koenig

Deconstructing Zell Miller (and Reconstructing Kerry)
Jay Michaelson

A Demonstration in Words
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Where Left and Right Collide
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Dan Friedman

Art at War
Bara Sapir

Jews and Bush
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Belly of the Beast
Cullen Goldblatt

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From previous issues:

Mourning in America
Samuel Hayim Brody

The Red-Green Alliance
Dave Hyde

Some things have changed, some have stayed the same
Jay Michaelson