Pittsburgh book clubs confront racism
EducationReading about racism

Pittsburgh book clubs confront racism

"By reading, by learning together and then by acting together, we fulfill our mandate to partner with God to make this world a better place," said Rabbi Aaron Meyer.

Photo by freedom007/iStockphoto.com.
Photo by freedom007/iStockphoto.com.

Amid an international push for greater education on race relations, book clubs and discussions have cropped up around the U.S. – including in Pittsburgh – to provide avenues for deep examination of the topic.

Temple Emanuel of South Hills offers one. While the congregation has long provided opportunities to read and discuss various books, its book club is currently focusing on racism with Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”

“I think that continued learning is an important part and the necessary precursor to any lasting change,” said Rabbi Aaron Meyer, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi. “Until more people are willing to recognize and confront issues of racial injustice first in themselves and then in the broader world, it will be hard to move the needle. And Robin DiAngelo’s book is designed to do exactly that.”

Thirty or so families meet over Zoom once or twice a week to discuss two chapters at a time. Before the sessions, Meyer picks three quotes to begin a dialogue. But the conversations transcend the text as congregants incorporate personal experiences and interpretations into the discussion.

Education organization Classrooms Without Borders offers a similar program. It tripled up on book clubs this summer, adding middle school and high school book clubs to its preexisting schedule of a weekly adult book club.

“The idea is really to bring people from diverse backgrounds and frameworks together and be able to have really important conversations that can lead to change in the classroom and in our communities and in our homes,” said Melissa Haviv, the organization’s assistant director.

While Classrooms Without Borders focuses on Holocaust education and anti-Semitism, Haviv notes that “You can’t teach that without caring about everybody else in the world at the same time.”

The high school book club in particular focuses on racism. A dozen or so high schoolers signed up for the weekly discussion of Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” led by Classrooms Without Borders’ resident teaching artist, Susan Stein.

The Jamaican-born author’s storytelling in “Citizen,” which describes U.S. race relations, breaks convention.

“Citizen is unlike every book I’ve ever read,” she said. “The book sometimes feels like journal entries, sometimes feels like essays, sometimes feels like poetry and sometimes feels like a collage. It’s a lot of different things.

“Right now, at this moment in American history, thinking about who we are as citizens and who we want to be as citizens is an interesting and personal question, and worth thinking about in a moment where our larger community and society is grappling with that,” Stein added.

Classrooms Without Borders is still accepting applications for its book clubs. The high school book club will meet every Wednesday in July at 4 p.m.

Like Temple Emanuel and Classrooms Without Borders, Rodef Shalom Congregation is offering race-related educational events including a discussion of Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” and another on “Just Mercy,” a film adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s book. The latter was hosted by Women of Rodef Shalom.

Andi Kaufman, vice president of programming for Women of Rodef Shalom, considers discussing and standing up to racism a reflection of Jewish values.

“It’s our job to stand up in the front, not to take a back seat,” she said. “That’s what our education, Reform Judaism, means.”

Women of Rodef Shalom plans to host more social justice events in the next couple of months including a conversation about police defunding and two programs on voting.

Temple Emanuel’s book club is considering titles like “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” and “How to Be an Antiracist” for its next read.

“Jewish tradition was never meant to be lived in an ivory tower,” said Meyer. “We come together as people of shared faith and shared values and look for ways those values can have a meaningful, tangible impact on the world in which we live. So by reading, by learning together and then by acting together, we fulfill our mandate to partner with God to make this world a better place.”

Reading about racism is just a start, according to the rabbi.

“Certainly, study needs to be met with action,” he said. “There’s more learning and reflection to do even as we step beyond the page.” PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at ksteinberg@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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