Rachel Faulkner, community organizer, social justice advocate, and anti-racist educator, joined the National Council of Jewish Women staff as its director of national campaigns and partnerships in January 2023. She recently joined Sixth&I for their MLK Shabbat to deliver a touching sermon on identity, interpersonal racism, and antisemitism. We’ve shared the recording and full transcript below.
Thank you for being here. I just feel so grateful to be in this space, honoring and remembering the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.
I want to start by telling you a little bit about myself. I’m doing this because, by the time I finish, I will have posed a challenge to you. I’m about to ask you to move a little differently in the world, to make a change. And as you ponder that change, I want you to remember my face, my story, my life. I’m doing this because the stakes are high, so high, in fact, that I believe that our collective lives as Jews, as black people, as women, as queer people, and as people with all marginalized identities, our actual lives depend on this challenge I’m going to pose to you in a moment.
So, I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, raised by a dad that was active in the Civil Rights movement in his youth, so active, in fact, that he took this picture of Dr. King on a Sunday morning after a softball game on the south side of Chicago. I actually have never shown this to anyone. It sits right next to my desk, and I use this opportunity to show the world. I don’t know if that was for me or for you, but I hope we both enjoy. Back to my story. I went to a school that many would consider to be failing. It was predominantly black students who lived below the poverty line. And then, in the afternoons, I would go to my synagogue. My synagogue’s membership was almost exclusively white.
I grew up in one of the wealthiest states, and the membership also included some of the wealthiest families in that state. Because of that experience of just walking, day-to-day from my synagogue to my school, from my school to my synagogue, I experienced systemic racism firsthand. I know what it’s like to walk from a community that has little resources, little opportunity, and is struggling to meet their basic needs, to a community where there is an opportunity for everyone, where privilege abounds. I lived that, day-to-day.
I also experienced my share of interpersonal racism and antisemitism earlier than most. I know what it’s like to have black folks assume my level of wealth based on my religion. I know what it’s like to be told I’m going to hell because I refuse to be saved. I know what it’s like to be kicked out of class in first grade for refusing to make a Christmas ornament. I know what it’s like for a teacher, who’s teaching physics, of all things, to call Jews, “Dirty” as a part of the lesson. I know what it’s like to be held accountable for the actions of Israel in black social justice spaces. Similarly, I know what it’s like to be at a Jewish sleepover and to be told that black people will name their kids anything. That I am, “Different” than the rest of the black people because I can speak like I’m speaking to you today. That I can’t really be Jewish or that I have to go through extra security measures to be Jewish, or that as a Jew of color, I don’t even exist, because how could Jews of color exist?
And while this has been my day-to-day experience, basically since I was born, all of a sudden, we’re seeing much of this confusion, ignorance, intolerance, anger, distrust, and maybe it’s not too far to call some of it hate, in the public eye and in the media, from Kanye West to Kyrie Irving, Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump. The list could go on and on, but I’m not sure there’s a point in letting it. I don’t actually want to spend much time talking about these incidents, except to name that, if anything, I see them as a call for coalition, for unity, because white supremacy is frighteningly influential in all of them. I see them as a call to build relationship across difference, potentially across challenge, to get past the way in which white supremacy teaches us that there are puppets and puppet masters, to see that this theory that there is someone just pulling the strings, puts the puppets and puppet masters at odd, while the theater owner sits back and collects money from the tickets people are buying to watch the show.
As black folks, as Jews, as folks with other marginalized identities, our ability to stand in coalition, in partnership, in relationship, and in unity, is essential to taking down the entire theater, the system itself. So it’s simple, in some ways, actually, my challenge to you. One way we can all, regardless of our identity, honor Dr. King, is by building more relationships across difference. Real relationships. Not where you are the boss or the customer or the landlord or the teacher, or where there is some other power difference. I also don’t mean necessarily finding the person who has the most opposite voting record from you, or who you see as the most ideologically different. Who are your allies? Who can you call the next time an antisemitic or racist headline is in the news? And do you even actually know them? Do you know their story?
One thing that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was remarkable at was pressing pause and being deeply in the moment, whether it was while riding one of the first integrated buses in Montgomery, or crossing the bridge into Selma on Bloody Sunday, our world moved so fast. Paycheck to paycheck, task to task, bill to bill. I want us to build these relationships and press pause. I want us to be deeply present in them, listening, learning, sharing. I want you to know this person’s story, dreams, challenges. Another thing that Dr. King was remarkable at was sticking with it through challenge. When you inevitably disagree, when you are offended, when you get uncomfortable, when you are challenged, stick with it. I want you to stay in that challenge and listen and take it as a chance to grow and to deepen.
I begin with a little bit about myself so that you would remember my face and my story as you go into the world and build relationships across difference. The other reason I shared a bit about myself is that I know from personal experience that not enough of these relationships exist. If my Jewish friend, who told me that black people would name their kids anything, had spent more time in black communities, she would’ve known that we don’t just name our kids anything, but we do give our kids unique, beautiful, cultural names, many of which, at least in my family, have roots back to Africa that we could not even trace.
And if my black peers had spent more time in Jewish communities, maybe she wouldn’t have been so surprised to hear that my family didn’t own a house when I was growing up, and that I had to raise money for my softball uniform, just like everyone else on the team. The reality, though, is that this isn’t about me or my lived experience. It’s about changing the entire narrative in our country about who is in relationship with, who is in coalition, who is in unity, and to what end. It’s about shifting the power and changing the whole system. It’s not about getting caught up in what a rapper or professional athlete or a talk show host said.
In close, I want to quote a speech of Dr. King’s. And while he quotes Christ, Jews will be very familiar with the theme. He says, “I’m very glad Christ tells us to love our neighbor and not like our neighbor, because it’s hard to like someone threatening your children and throwing firebombs through your window, but he asked us to love them, and that I can do.” He asks us to love them and that I can do. If Dr. King can love through threats and firebombs, I feel confident every single person in this room can find someone different than them to like, to engage in deep relationship with, across difference. Shabbat Shalom.
Director of National Campaigns and Partnerships
National Council of Jewish Women
Rachel Faulkner is a community organizer, a social justice advocate, and an anti-racist educator. She most recently served as the Director of Community Investments for SRE Network, where she oversaw learning programs, grantmaking, and research in the Jewish gender justice and harassment space. She has also held roles at Reading Partners, City Year, Community Builders, Match Education, and Citizens of the World Elementary School.
Additionally, Rachel served as the National Organizer for #JWOCMarching, organizing the largest contingent of Jewish Women of Color on record at the Women’s March. She is an alum of Bend the Arc’s Selah program, and is a current Tiyuv Program Evaluators Fellow. Some of her most favorite work includes serving on the Board of Directors for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the Jewish Studio Project, and the Jewish Multiracial Network.
Rachel grew up in Hartford, CT and is a proud alum of Hartford Public Schools. She attended college at the University of Connecticut as an Alliance for Academic Achievement Scholar, where she received her Bachelors in Sociology and Human Rights.
A writer by passion, Rachel has been published by Lilith Magazine, Blavity, and in Keshet’s blog. When she’s not working or writing she enjoys taking long walks around our nation’s capital, making expert LEGO builds, and riding the “choo-choo” train with her 2.5 year-old Ori Justice.