One Synagogue’s Experience With a Racial Justice Discussion Group

Fran and Jayme are active members of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). They work together to raise awareness of racial inequities in our society by facilitating programs at Adat Shalom and JUFJ.

As White people around the country are increasingly waking up to their advantage, and the history and persistence of anti-Black racism, there is a desire among many to learn more about the history of systemic and structural racism in the United States. In our home town—the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area—the opportunities to educate ourselves are so numerous as to sometimes be overwhelming: workshops, lectures, podcasts and articles cascade through our inboxes. Yet this is a difficult and complex topic that can be traumatic for people of all racial backgrounds to confront and discuss. As a result, it felt important to us to initiate a discussion group focusing on learning about racial justice at our own synagogue as a way to bring education to a place of comfort to our members, who are majority White but not exclusively so.

The local chapter of the Washington-area grassroots advocacy organization Jews United for Justice had offered a discussion group previously, which one of us had co-facilitated. Our idea was to replicate that series of discussions (attended by very few members of our own synagogue) at our “spiritual home” as a way to draw more of our members into the conversation. And it worked: Approximately 40 people signed up for the five-session series, and 20 to 30 of them attended each.

The Workshop Structure

The series, a Racial Justice Discussion Group, consisted of five monthly sessions of two hours each. Each session was devoted to a specific topic:

Exploring White Privilege and Unconscious or Implicit Bias

History of Racism in the United States

Wealth Disparity

Racial Bias in the U.S. Judicial System

Wrap-Up and Next Steps

Although we did not make it a requirement for participants to attend all of the sessions, it was strongly encouraged.

Each session was facilitated by the two authors: Fran, a social worker, who has   facilitation skills to moderate group discussions; and Jayme, who has research and organizational skills, and worked largely on organizing and compiling the materials for each session.

Setting the Tone

Our first step was to create a “safe container” for the group. We began by introducing ourselves—each sharing our motivation for starting a group like this, and our sense of growing self-awareness about Whiteness and anti-Black racism. This included discussing mistakes we had made. We clarified that we are not experts and would not be “teaching” the group. It was important to us to be authentic about our experience and our commitment to continuing to deepen our own knowledge and self-awareness.

At the first session, we presented guidelines that were revisited at the beginning of each of the sessions. These were:

We all have the right to share as much or as little as we are comfortable sharing.

We use “I” statements and speak from a place of open-hearted authenticity.

We do not engage in “fixing, advising, saving or setting straight” (credited to educator and activist Parker Palmer).

We all give our full attention to the person speaking.

We respect differences, notice judgment arising and practice:


curiosity about your own experience


We all commit to both conventional and “double” confidentiality. Conventional confidentiality means that we do not speak to anyone outside the group about what is shared in this group. “Double” confidentiality means that when a person shares something that we sense makes them feel vulnerable, we do not raise the issue again with that person or with anyone else in the group.

Throughout the sessions, participants were encouraged to share their own responses and not engage in cross talk. We asked that participants notice their own discomfort arising and exercise self-control not to correct, rebut or interrupt others. The thinking behind this practice of contemplative listening is to heighten one’s own self-awareness. Participants are asked to consider several questions: Why do I want to comment, interrupt or correct? What’s going on for me?

Offering Resources

Before each session, participants received a list of materials relevant to the upcoming topic and accessible in a variety of ways, including reading (from short articles to books), viewing (from YouTube videos to feature-length documentaries) and listening (podcasts and TED talks). These sometimes overlapped, offering a variety of ways to engage in the same author’s viewpoints. Participants were encouraged, but not required, to dive into at least some of the materials before the session. All of the resources were then made available to all of the participants on a shared Google document so that everyone would have access to all of the materials, regardless of how many sessions they were able to attend.

The Sessions

Each session began with a short video and/or a quotation that framed the discussion and gave some insight into the topic even for those who didn’t do their “homework.” Then, we posed a question or two designed to have participants reflect on the reading and on how it impacted their views of race and racism.

We ended with a “take-away” quotation or short video for participants to contemplate, in addition to a review and explanation of the list of resources for the following month.

What We’ve Learned

The biggest takeaway from the sessions is the need for extraordinary patience because everyone is on their own journey and timeline; this learning and increasing self- awareness can’t be rushed. It’s an evolving and continuous process for us and for everyone.

That said, people are hungry for this education and discussion. Our goal of bringing the discussion to our spiritual home and engaging our fellow congregants was largely met. The sessions successfully elevated conversations around anti-Black racism at our synagogue. Some thoughts on what would we do differently:

White fragility and privilege: We White people are a defensive group, and acknowledging our implicit (and explicit) biases and our White privilege can be difficult, especially in a setting where people self-identify as “liberal” or “progressive” supporters of civil rights. Although we touched upon these issues in our first session, we would devote more time and provide more readings about White privilege and fragility in the first one or two sessions of any future series. Although we wouldn’t expect everyone to adapt after just one or two sessions, these would provide a foundation to build on as we delved into discussions of other topics throughout the series. It would also give us a common language for pointing out when specific “White fragility” behaviors come up.

Addressing micro-aggressions: Inevitably, micro-aggressions arose during discussions, and the “no cross-talk” rule left them unaddressed at first. The facilitators then realized the need to address comments that could offend people of color. Introducing a way to acknowledge and explain a racist comment or misconception is important for future sessions. This concept should be introduced in the first session as part of the guidelines. The facilitators could then explain that the intent of such comments was not the issue. Rather, we would focus on their potential impact.

However, we’re all on this journey together. We were not always aware of the impact of such comments. Facilitators may choose to identify one or two participants who are particularly knowledgeable or aware to speak up when appropriate.

Addressing Anti-Semitism: Given our Jewish setting, conversation sometimes veered into discussions equating antisemitism with anti-Black racism, steering the discussion away from the topic of the historic oppression of Blacks to the historic oppression of Jews. Adding a session up front about the intersection of antisemitism and racism, and our common enemy—White supremacy—could provide a foundation for maintaining the focus on anti-Black racism.

Preparedness and “homework”: Participants engaged in different levels of preparation (including none at all). It would have been helpful to more strongly encourage reading or viewing at least one particular item so that we had a common jumping-off point for discussion. It would also be helpful to identify a subset of participants who are committed to preparing more thoroughly to ensure a rich discussion. We were successful in exposing all participants to a great deal of learning material, and some of those unable to explore all of the resources during the sessions have commented that they continue to refer to our resource list as they engage in additional learning.

Modes of discussion: Contemplative listening can be both frustrating and helpful. It is helpful in that it provides an opportunity for every participant to speak and be heard without interruption or criticism. This can encourage participation and honesty. In addition, those listening may become more aware of their desire to interrupt, and any judgments that arise and allow listeners to experience their own discomfort. On the other hand, as noted above, problems may arise on two fronts: there is the potential of letting inappropriate comments go unchallenged; and for most people, contemplative listening feels very stilted because it is not a conversation. We now think that starting off with contemplative listening is helpful in setting the tone, and that other modes of discussion can be implemented in later sessions. Occasionally breaking into small groups or hevrutah (paired study/discussion), for example, could allow for conversation without trying to engage the entire group. For small group discussions, additional facilitators may be useful.

What’s Next?

Our final session, as well as a sixth that was scheduled by popular demand, was devoted to figuring out what we could do next to further educate ourselves and begin addressing the racial inequities in our community.  

Although there continues to be interest in action, we recognized that continuing to educate ourselves and other White people is perhaps our most effective role. To that end, during the year following the Racial Justice Discussion Group, we partnered with Jews United for Justice to sponsor a workshop titled “Having Difficult Conversations About Race,” and to show three documentaries highlighting contemporary issues, including the wealth gap and challenges to the creation of a Black middle class, juvenile justice and violence interruption in Baltimore. All three movies were followed by panel discussions with experts, including Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who was featured in the first documentary.  

In addition, one of the participants in the original discussion group now organizes and facilitates a monthly book group that focuses on racial justice issues.   

In the coming year, we’re planning several programs to build on what we’ve started and fill in some of the gaps we noted above:

a full-day workshop with Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Graie Hagans, national organizer and training coordinator for Bend the Arc, on the Intersectionality of Racism and Anti-Semitism

two two-hour sessions exploring Whiteness, the development of White identity and White fragility

one two-hour session focusing on the inclusion of Jews of Color in majority White Jewish communal settings; and

a movie and panel discussion on a contemporary racial justice issue.

Finally, we’ve encouraged people to engage with Jews United for Justice to advocate for legislation that promotes racial equity in our local community, including legislation that would require the county government to use a racial-equity lens when making decisions, and drafting and implementing legislation, and to participate in local actions to end racist police practices.

Additional resources:

Agendas for Racial Justice Discussion GroupResource Lists for Racial Justice Discussion Group

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