I got a new car a couple of months ago. I really enjoy it. The technology throws me a bit. Someone said it’s like driving a computer. The best part of the tech stuff is the Blind Spot Detection System: that beeping alert that sounds when a car comes along in my blind spot and I can’t see it.
We should have a Blind Spot Detection System here at Kol Ami; a device that would sound an alert when there is something urgent we really should be seeing that we’re not seeing.
Kol Ami has had blind spots in the past. Some of them we have managed to identify and fix.
Years ago there were interfaith families that we knew were here, but really weren’t seeing you clearly enough to know how to fully welcome you and include you. We see you more clearly now.
There are our LGBTQ members, who, years ago, we sorta, kinda, quietly welcomed, with open arms – – – but we were way too quiet about it. Hopefully we’re doing better and better.
There was our blind spot to those who were not physically able to come up to the bema, but we kept building our bemas with steep stairs and no railings, and no ramps. Many of you have helped us to do a better job.
We’re far, far from perfect. But in some areas we are striving to always do better.
Recently Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, began to powerfully teach and urge us to open our eyes to the presence and needs and richness of our members who are Jews of Color.
Under his larger umbrella of Audacious Hospitality is this often unrecognized, often misunderstood and sometimes stigmatized part of the Jewish family; Jews who are Asian, part Asian, Latino, African American, North African, Indian and Arab Jews. To name a few.
And too often, you have been in our blind spot.
Please understand that I’m not here on this eve of Rosh Hashanah with answers. But I do want us to start asking questions.
I want us to begin some of the difficult conversations about color and race in our community. I want us to begin identifying and illuminating some of the blind spots.
I apologize in advance for those things I may not express as clearly or as properly as I should. In matters of race I’m sure I don’t fully possess all of the best terminology, or all of the sensitivities I should have. I’m very sorry if anything I say is experienced as hurtful. This is a beginning of conversations.
What we would welcome is your help. Please come after services, or drop by, or send us an email with any helpful thoughts. If you’d like to be involved in any future conversations make sure we know who you are so that you will be included.
There are some really smart people out in the Jewish world today who have started to explore ways for us to ask the tough questions and hopefully move toward some answers.
April Baskin, herself An African American Jewish woman, is one of the senior national leaders of our Reform Movement. Here she gives an example of a young biracial Jew who shared with her what it’s like to have people questioning your identity.
He said, “If there are five Jewish people in a room, all of them white except for one person who’s black, invariably, one of the white people will ask only the black person: ‘So, how are you Jewish?’”
Baskin continued, “Just imagine the damage done by years of so many Jews of color being treated this way. We often don’t feel welcome in the Jewish community.”
Baskin continues, “I am particularly reminded of this every time I hear that, once again, an African-American Jew has been treated like a suspected criminal in a Jewish institution.
Over time, “these experiences are deeply hurtful and push Jews and their loved ones away from our sacred community.
Baskin continues, “The Jewish community is remarkable in so many ways – ways that inspire millions of people to help bring more justice and compassion to our world. And yet, we are not immune to blind spots.
A story of a Kol Ami Blind spot: A good number of years ago we needed a new pamphlet to hand out to folks who were considering becoming part of our community. Some wonderfully talented people with the best of intentions worked very hard to create this beautiful brochure. We wanted to show how inclusive we are at Kol Ami.
The first draft of the brochure was filled with pictures of all types of families; grandparents with grandkids, single parent families, single individuals, same sex couples, a family with an individual in the wheelchair showing how they could get around our facility.
But, and this is embarrassing, weeks into the work it took one individual, with better cultural eyesight than the rest of us, to hold it up in front of the group and ask, “What’s missing?”
The unintended message of the brochure was ‘Kol Ami is so amazingly inclusive of all types of . . . white people’!
Every person in the brochure was white. Of course, that was no one’s conscious intention. Yet what a big blind spot! It shouldn’t have taken us that long to notice the omission. And fix it. And we did fix it. Another Kol Ami blind spot: A handful of years ago I was away on the annual confirmation weekend with our 10th graders. Late on Saturday night about 10 of the kids were sitting around the fire having a conversation.
I forget what she was responding to, but one of the girls said rather casually, “Hey, we’re just a bunch of white Jewish kids from Westchester.”
Two of the girls glanced at each other; one who is part African American and part Puerto Rican, and the other Asian. They gave each other a look that said, “Really? Is that who we all are?”
A blind spot. Some might say, “Isn’t that wonderful. They don’t even notice if someone is a person of color.” But is “not noticing” the ideal? Or ideally should one notice, recognize, but not care and just say, “We’re just a bunch of Jewish kids from Westchester?”
I don’t know.
In recent days and weeks, I reached out to some of you to help me understand. To help fill in some of the spaces in our blind spots.
I spoke with some of you who’ve grown up here from early childhood; and with others who joined the community as adults. You were kind enough to let me share some of my ignorance with you and ask questions. And more importantly you shared your personal stories of being a Jew of color here at Kol Ami. The first clear lesson I learned from talking to some of you about being Jews of Color? There are 1000 different permutations of what it can mean to be a Jew of Color. Just among the few of you with whom I spoke, you are Japanese, Chinese, African American, Indian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican. And each of those has it’s own rich and different, unique stories, and customs and foods and music and accents and histories.
The religion editor at The Atlantic, Sigal Samuel, gave a sense of the rich and countless possibilities that some of you shared with me when she recently wrote: “Am I a person of color? You’d think there would be a straightforward answer to a question like that. And for a while, I thought there was. I thought the answer was yes.
“When I look at my grandparents — four Mizrahim, or Jews from Arab lands — I see people who were born in India and Iraq and Morocco, my grandparents, who grew up speaking Hindi and Arabic. When I stand in Sephora buying makeup, the shade I choose is closer to “ebony” than to “petal.”
When I walk down the street, perfect strangers routinely stop me to ask: “Where are you from? Are you Persian? Indian? Arab? Latina?” When I go through airport security, I always — always — get “randomly selected” for additional screening.
“I was pretty sure all this made me a person of color.
And then an acquaintance, who is Jewish and African-American, told me in the course of a casual conversation that no, actually, I don’t count.
“This was news to me. At first, I admit, the statement got my hackles up. Who gave this person the right to police my identity?
“But then I started to wonder: Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co- opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?
“To find out, I spent weeks talking to people in the black, biracial and Mizrahi communities. What I learned surprised me. Turns out, nobody quite knows how to categorize Mizrahi Jews.
My family doesn’t know.
My HR department doesn’t know.
Even the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t know.”
It was good to hear from young adults who grew up at Kol Ami, that, for the most part, they felt quite comfortable in the synagogue. Many said that they felt “fully included”. A few said some version of, “My looks are kind of ambiguous since I am a Jewish person of mixed race. Therefore, people often wouldn’t notice.”
Others described experiences of being asked in religious school, or at social events, “Where are you from?”, or some version of, “How are you Jewish?” Depending on the situation, your experiences of those encounters ranged from a bit amusing, all the way to quite painful and rude.
It was very impressive to hear of our young people’s ability to differentiate between their Jewishness and their race. People seem to have a pretty clear understanding of that very important difference: knowing that being a Jew, being 100% Jewish is not in conflict with your being 50% Japanese, 25% Scandinavian, 100% Black, 25% Chinese or 75% Arab.
Ancestry.com may be able to tell you that you are 2% Native American,
9% Welsch; but what they’re measuring cannot tell you that you are anything but 100% Jewish.
One of our college grads said to me, “When I identify as a Japanese Jew, I identify not as the intersection of the two, but as the union. Like I have two full worlds of culture and lessons to learn from.”
Now, the hard part for many of us: How about the role played by those of us who are not Jews of Color? Or, as Singer put it, those of us who are “Ashke-normative” in our American setting?
We heard described the experience of the one black Jew sitting in the room with four white Jews.
We hear about the kids of color in our own Hebrew school who are inevitably asked,” How are you Jewish?”
We hear of the Asian Jewish mom standing in the Hebrew School Lobby, while other mothers make clear their assumption that this woman is “other”. Not one of them.
We hear of the experience of the Jewish man of color in a new synagogue being stared at suspiciously – if not menacingly – by other Jews.
Rosh Hashanah challenges us, demands of us: As part of our introspection during these holy days, those of us on the other side of these encounters have to ask ourselves some very hard questions:
Have I ever been one of the four white Jews wondering why the one black man was in the room was?
Have any of us ever looked at a child in our religious school and questioned whether or not that child was Jewish because of the color of their skin?
Have I ever been one of the parents in the Hebrew school lobby assuming that the mom or dad of color standing near us certainly wouldn’t understand our conversation about our recipes for Rosh Hashanah dinner?
Admitting these things inside our own heads can be awkward. Admitting them things out loud can be really uncomfortable.
Our hope is that in the months and years to come we can create good healthy opportunities to share the uncomfortable conversations, to more fully understand our own misconceptions and confusion about who we are.
So much exciting and hard work to be done!
Hard conversations; joyous ones; the sharing of stories; building familiarity with what was once unfamiliar. We will begin that work.
And one of the ways to build that familiarity is with visibility. Just getting to know the people in the seats right next to us, or up at the lectern leading and teaching you.
One of our 11th graders said that “learning about Black Jews from Ethiopia and now in Israel was a cool thing. It felt good to hear about them.” He was seeing something of himself in those other Jews.
When our Executive Director’s husband is a proud Catholic – active in our community; when the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis is a lesbian; when the senior rabbi of one of the most prominent congregations in the country is an Asian woman . . . All of these people are filling in our blind spots, making what was once, for some, an uncomfortable difference – now a welcome and beautiful part of who we already are as a Jewish community.
May we have the strength to do the work.
And may we have the heart to take complete joy in each other’s presence.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl is the Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Besides being a very talented rabbi, Angela happens to be Korean. How cool is it that hundreds and hundreds of little children are growing up at central synagogue looking up at the bimah taking for granted and being absolutely nonplussed by the fact that their rabbi happens to be Korean. And how cool is it that for all of the little Asian Jewish children of central synagogue, they are seeing themselves on the bema.
How cool that a little kid from central synagogue might someday come to services here at Kol Ami, look up at Shira on the bema with puzzlement, thinking to themselves, “They say she’s the rabbi, but she’s not Korean.”
Here are four things you can do to alleviate “perpetual stranger status” in your community: