For years, Jewish community leaders have bemoaned the disintegration of once-storied ties between the black and Jewish communities. Earlier this month, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs convened over 200 people to begin reviving that relationship at a conference on criminal justice reform at UJA-Federation of New York headquarters in Midtown.
According to Melanie Gorelick, JCPA’s senior vice president, an increased interest in criminal justice reform among social justice groups and faith communities across the country offered an opportunity for the Jewish community to re-engage in civil rights advocacy.
“We used to have very strong relationships, especially around the civil rights movement, and we were very prideful about that,” said Gorelick. “But we recognized that we were not working in that space in a comprehensive and significant way … and we also noticed that many diverse communities were working together, but the Jewish community wasn’t at the table.”
At a JCPA conference in 2015, JCRC professionals voted on a resolution to prioritize criminal justice reform in their work across the country. With an initiative launched in 2016 and subsequent campaigns to educate JCRC professionals and lay leaders about criminal justice reform, the conference this month served as a convening for leaders of advocacy organizations and Jewish leaders to meet and develop partnerships. The conference included a large number of participants from New York, which has been an epicenter for the fight for criminal justice reform.
With participants from Jewish Community Relations Councils, UJA-Federation, and the Anti-Defamation League as well as government officials and people working primarily on criminal justice reform, discussions focused on a range of issues from sentencing reform to the role of faith communities in advocating for reform with an emphasis on engaging the Jewish community in advocacy. The conference’s keynote speaker was Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the No. 4 House Democrat, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
“At the height of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on a conference call to a group of rabbis on dealing with the issue and the oppression of Soviet Jews who found themselves behind the Iron Curtain … at a moment when he was trying to deal with African-American disenfranchisement in the South,” said Jeffries. “That’s a tradition that I stand on. We stood together then, we can stand together now.”
A topic that was raised frequently throughout the day was the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill passed in 2018 to enact a number of measures, including reforms of the federal prison system and sentencing laws, and to improve feminine hygiene in prisons. While several participants praised both the bill and President Donald Trump for signing it into law, many emphasized that the bill was, as its name implies, merely a first step.
“Even if it wasn’t perfect, it showed that we could pass criminal justice reform legislation despite having such a divided Congress and a divided nation,” Tammy Gilden, senior policy associate at JCPA, said of the First Step Act. “If we really want to reform the system, we need to change how many people we’re funneling into the system.”
According to Gilden, JCPA is advocating for broad sentencing reforms, including eliminating or greatly reducing mandatory minimum sentences, and making sentencing reforms retroactive. But with budget negotiations expected to occupy Congress over the next several weeks, the first priority for criminal justice reform advocates will be making sure the First Step Act is fully funded this year before they push for broader reforms.
“This was really a pragmatic bill at its heart, and we’re building this coalition slowly over time,” said Gilden.