The University of Michigan Hillel, the Black Student Union and NOiR fashion runway hosted an open Shabbat dinner Friday evening, followed by a conversation about intersectionality and activism facilitated by Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Jewish activist and educator. This event was a follow up to Thursday evening’s event, where McCoy spoke on similar topics.

Hillel’s weekly Shabbat dinners are normally attended by several hundred students, most of whom are Jewish, each Friday. During this event, about 20 non-Jewish students in leadership positions in BSU and NOiR joined them, sitting at round tables with Jewish student leaders in the center of the dining room.

The conversation McCoy facilitated focused on developing relationship-building skills and how these depended on an honest communication of personal truths.

Making the connection to the current political climate, McCoy expressed the importance of communicating personal truths — like the ones found in religious tradition — as key to outreach in difficult times.

“Tonight when we go into the secondary room together, we’re going to talk about what is it that we’re enduring right now,” McCoy said. “What is at stake in this current storm that we’re in? Who are you? What do you bring? How can you feel centered not just in yourself, but in what about you preaches outward? A stand I have as an activist is not just what does our tradition say, but does it preach?”

She also explained the truth of Judaism was to stand up for racial equity and justice, and to speak out against xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia. At the end of the dinner, McCoy talked about how her Jewish identity informed her activism in the form of finding truth and justice in the world.

“My lived experience as a Jew is equity and justice,” she said. “That means that when I think of Torah — which is our Jewish tradition, our system of law — I define Torah as the way we understand what it means to go out into the world and stand for what is true.”

LSA sophomore Alona Henig said McCoy gave her a new perspective on the connection between Judaism and activism.

“I do think about my Jewish identity, but not in terms of when I’m doing social justice work,” Henig said. “But that was a new way of seeing it, with tradition and culture and community, in a way that I haven’t seen in Hillel before.”

In the workshop following the dinner, students answered prompts asking what emotions they felt most and least comfortable expressing in the contexts of home and social justice by standing next to posters in the room labeled with what McCoy called “core emotions” such as sad, mad, joyful, powerful and peaceful.

The workshop was confidential, though about 40 students attended, some of whom were Jewish, and demonstrated a diverse array of emotions and perspectives when it came to their home lives and to activism.

Some of these students said they felt anger needed to be suppressed when approaching activism situations, while others felt that it was an appropriate reaction to injustice and a useful tool.

Another feeling dissected by the workshop was students feeling joy while working for social justice causes, while others felt discomforted at the idea, since they felt it was disrespectful to the injustices they are working to correct.

During the workshop, McCoy drove home the point there was no single correct way to approach social justice work, and thus all perspectives were valid.

LSA sophomore Ali Rosenblatt felt that this was the most important thing she had learned from the workshop.

“If we don’t let people join in social justice given their own approach, then we are ostracizing people from movements that should seek more rather than less support,” Rosenblatt wrote in an email.

The event was the second in a series, aimed at establishing a coalition between Black and Jewish students on campus and creating an effective coalition for combating discrimination, explained LSA sophomore Jesse Love, who is also a member of BSU, Thursday evening.

“We want to start building coalitions so we can have a more unified attack when we come to administration with demands of things we want to get done on campus,” Love said. “We feel like this is a good starting place for that.”

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