by Rabbi Jared H. Saks
At the recent Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, I attended a session titled Antiracism: Doing the Work Within Our Own Communities. The three presenters, Deitra Reiser, Yolanda Savage-Navra, and Bryant Heinzelman, addressed issues of racism within Jewish life both as Jews of color and as people of color in the Jewish community. Attendees of the session were presumably like me: well-intentioned white people who want to engage in the work of dismantling racism in our country and, in particular, within our own Jewish communities. In spite of my engagement with anti-racism since my pilgrimage in August to Montgomery and Selma, I was surprised by the amount of racism that people of color, especially Jews of color, face within our own Jewish communities.
I think it would be fair to say that the vast majority of Reform Jews, and Reform Judaism as a whole, would not define ourselves as racists, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. We don’t use racial epithets. We aim to treat people equally. We speak about the divine spark that exists within each and every person. Still, we live in a culture teeming with implicit bias and sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, we succumb to racism not in the big ways, but by microaggressions and turning a blind eye to the racism that Jews of color face in our communities.
I was surprised to learn that Jews of color make up about 12% of the North American Jewish population. In few places in our country do we see that statistic represented in Jewish communal life. There’s a clear reason for this. Jews of color do not feel welcome in mainstream Jewish communities. One of the presenters asked us, “Do the issues that matter to Jews of color really matter to you? Do the issues that matter to Jews of color matter to your leadership?” He went on to say, “If you don’t know these issues, I’m going to let you sit with that, because you should know some of the issues that affect people who look like me in the community.” We then sat in silent discomfort for the next 10-15 seconds contemplating these questions. Ask yourself these questions now and ponder them silently for a moment.
Another presenter shared her thoughts on the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism. While the two are certainly separate issues worthy of our attention, our experience with anti-Semitism gives us the tools to understand racism better and to work towards becoming an anti-racist community. She said, “Anti-Semitism is something that has compelled our people to act towards racism in a way that we want to make sure it’s eradicated, just as we do with anti-Semitism.” The question is how, as a Jewish people, do we build anti-racist communities? Finding the connections between anti-Semitism and racism will help us in our antiracist work. But we also need to separate anti-Semitism from racism and understand that they are two very oppressive things that are happening to our people. Most of us though, do not know the racism that Jews of color face in our communities.
So, what is an anti-racist? According to Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, an anti-racist is someone who expresses the idea that racial groups are equals and no racial group needs developing. Being anti-racist not only means that you are expressing equality among all races, but you also understand and express that any problems that appear to be racial are rooted in power and policies, not in the racial groups. Being anti-racist means you are confronting inequality, inequities, and pressing for change.
In the Talmud (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), we learn that all people are descended from a single person so that no person can say, “My ancestor is greater than yours.” In the midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, we read that God created humanity from the four corners of the earth, yellow clay and white sand, black loam and red soil. Therefore, the earth can declare to no part of humanity that it does not belong here, that this soil is not their rightful home. But when we survey the scene of Jewish communal life, we do not see these values at play. Instead, we see Jews of color and people of color in our Jewish communities being treated differently than the rest of us.
Racism does not stop at the doors of our synagogues. Most often it appears as microaggressions. Here are some of the microaggressions that Jews of color face in the Jewish community:
- Coming into the synagogue door and being asked, “Where are the paper towels?” or being told, “We’re out of toilet paper.”
- Being asked, “How are you Jewish?” or “When did you convert?”
Immediately, these people, who have come to the synagogue to learn or pray, to express their Jewish identity, are being “othered;” that is, they are being told that they do not belong in our community in the same way that white Jews do. We call these microaggressions, but this is a misnomer. They profoundly affect the way a person feels about their place in the community. This is why Kendi calls these not microaggressions, but racist abuse.
In the days after Biennial, I was shocked to learn that not one but multiple presenters, Jews of color, faced this kind of racism at the Biennial convention. Marra Gad, author of The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl was a presenter at Biennial on Shabbat afternoon. “When I went to pick up my credentials,” she documents in a post on Facebook, “I was told that the real Marra Gad needed to pick up her badge. And when I replied that I was the real Marra Gad, I did not receive an apology. Instead, the person behind the desk said, ‘Really!?’” More than once, in spite of wearing a bright orange presenter’s badge, she was assumed to be hotel staff and was asked to get room service orders out more quickly. Other Jews of color faced the same racism at our most recent convention of Reform Judaism.
We are better than this. Throughout the coming months, our congregation will continue to engage in the work of becoming an anti-racist community, not only for people of color outside our walls, but also for Jews of color, many of whom do not feel comfortable within our walls.
I hope that you’ll join me on Sunday, February 2, at 9:45 a.m. to discuss Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. You may also consider seeing the film by the same name which will be released on January 10, 2020, or the documentary by HBO on Bryan Stevenson titled True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality.