The towns of Fair Lawn, Glen Rock, and Ridgewood are reading Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So You Want to Talk About Race” together — thanks to Rabbi Ronald Roth, rabbi emeritus of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel.
Rabbi Roth of Fair Lawn was appointed to the Fair Lawn Community Relations Advisory Committee when it was set up earlier this year in response to anti-Semitic incidents in town. The committee has 13 members. As the group met, Rabbi Roth brought up an idea he has seen in synagogues and in the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey: A community reading program.
“We were thinking about diversity as a topic,” Rabbi Roth said. “That was a couple of weeks before George Floyd was killed. After George Floyd was killed, we wanted to do a book about racism.”
The project expanded beyond Fair Lawn. Glen Rock’s Community Relation Advocacy Network, a municipal committee, joined the program. Then Ridgewood came on board. And now Rabbi Roth is co-chair of a multi-town community reads committee.
As of the 2010 census, the three towns have a combined population of nearly 70,000, of whom 1,124 people — barely 1.6 percent of the three towns’ residents — were Black.
The committee reviewed several books on racism. “I read three or four,” Rabbi Roth said. “There are a lot of wonderful books out there.
“This one is very wide-ranging and fairly well available,” he said.
The local libraries have stocked up on copies. Local community groups, churches, synagogues, the Fair Lawn chapter of Rotary International, and all three town councils are joining the reading, which began officially on September 1. Discussions of the book are being organized to take place online in October. And plans are being formalized for a concluding speaker in mid-October.
“We’re getting a good reception. It’s really very exciting to see so many people interested,” Rabbi Roth said.
“I learned a great deal from the book and hope many people will read it. It will make a difference in their understanding of all the issues of race in America. The author is African American, and writes of the experiences she has had personally and professionally. There’s a wide variety of issues about race and racism that a lot of people don’t even begin to understand. What does the world look like for people of color? It’s very hard to imagine what that’s like. It’s very important to help people understand that.”
Rabbi Roth hopes the shared reading and discussion of the book will lead to action.
“We will be encouraging the groups who are reading it to find a practical way to see if there is something they can do to try to heal the tremendous racial divide that exists in this country,” he said.