Though she had practiced Judaism since she was young and belongs to a thriving Jewish community on social media, Ayeola Omolara Kaplan didn’t find a physical space where she could meet others like herself—people who also lived at the intersection of being Jewish, queer, and Black—until about four months ago. The 24-year-old artist recently started attending a reconstructionist congregation in her hometown of Atlanta, but felt a confounding mixture of welcoming and dread when she approached the entrance.
“Every time there’s an event, there’s a police car parked outside with its lights flashing and a cop standing guard every Saturday night so we could go into services,” she said. “At first it was very jarring, and there also was a little bit of anxiety because I was going to this Jewish space as not only as a Jewish person, an openly queer person and as a Black woman.” Seeing law enforcement stationed outside her place of worship made her concerned about being profiled by the very officers tasked with keeping the people inside safe.
The spike in hate crimes against Black Americans, increased violence against LGBT people, and rise in antisemitic verbal and physical attacks on Jewish people have combined to create an environment that require people like Kaplan to practice hypervigilance about their safety. But what some communities define as safe might come into direct conflict with others, possibly even causing them more harm. Individual activists, as well as those at the grassroots and national organizational levels, are all developing ways to practice inclusive safety in order to withstand what they consider the ultimate threat: the white supremecist nationalist movement steadily gaining momentum beyond the far-right.
Kaplan is an abolitionist, and has drawn immense inspiration from Black artists such as Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emery Douglas and African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists co-founder Barbara Jones-Hogu for using their craft to advance political movements. Before she joined her current congregation, its leaders had commissioned her to paint a mural in response to a conversation centered on reparations for Black people, and the role the Jewish community could play in advancing the cause.
Educating marginalized groups on how to practice solidarity is a vital strategy to withstand the threat of white supremacist ideology, according to Jalaya Liles-Dunn, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice program.
“This country was built on a racial bribe,” said Liles-Dunn, who led the development of various training guides aimed at anti-bias and anti-Black racism. “You divide and tell one group that they’re worth more. This group is less. We’ve seen it from Black folk and poor white folk. Now we’re seeing it with anti-Blackness and antisemitism, and we’re hurting each other.”
Only once education is evenly distributed, Liles-Dunn warns, will the project of division be dismantled, and communities can work toward feeling safe around each other.
“Until we learn our shared history, that bribe will breathe life,” she said. “Whether you blame one person or another, they all become part of a system.”
For Graie Hagans, who co-founded the Black Jewish Liberation Collective in 2015, part of constructing new models of safety has to do with practicing self-protection while recognizing the humanity in others working toward change. The collective, which champions Black-Jewish empowerment and community uplift, hosts events like their signature Kwanzakkah and Juneteenth as safe spaces for Black Jews and anyone else interested in honoring both cultures on those holidays.
“What we found was that mostly non-Jewish Black folks show up with a lot of desire to learn and connect in all the ways,” he said. “Some of it has to do with how we treat our curiosity.”
Kaplan recognizes she’s still in the early days of participating in her new Jewish community and doesn’t have an immediate solution to the challenge of ensuring the protection of a group that has faced systemic oppression without involving the police at her congregation. But she does know that part of the work involves showing up, if only to show others that the congregation can be safe for others who look like her and might see her enter.
“It’s important for me to continue going out and being out and proudly Jewish and queer and Black,” she said. “The Jewish temple that I go to now was constructed because they knew that as Jewish people, they needed a place to be themselves. They took that risk so I could take this risk. And me taking this risk helps other people in the future take that risk.”
This article was made possible by a grant from Shine A Light, a national initiative dedicated to raising awareness of modern-day antisemitism and encouraging societal change through a shared sense of communal allyship.