Moving Toward True Diversity in the Jewish Community
What do the following famous people have in common?
- Daveed Diggs, the dreadlock bearing actor of the Broadway musical Hamilton fame,
- Alicia Garza, the Oakland based activist and founder of the Black Lives Matter movement
- And, Aubrey Drake Graham, aka Drake, the Canadian based rapper
If you answered they all have both African-American and Jewish roots, you would be right.
More and more, the American Jewish community is made up of a diversity of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Whether it is Rabbi-Cantor extraordinaire, Angela Warnick Buchdal, the Korean born senior rabbi of the Central Synagogue in the Upper West Side, or the new Vice President of Audacious Hospitality for the Reform Movement, a proud African American woman by the name of April Baskin, Jews truly come in all the colors of the rainbow.
Gone are the days when American Jews could be recognized by their Eastern European heritage. Gone, also are the days when diversity in the Jewish community only referred to a good mix of old and young, working class and wealthy, men and women.
But, it was not so long ago that things were a little different.
Let me take you back to the summer of 1997. I was 23 years old a starting a new job at the Hebrew Day School of Central Florida in the suburbs of Orlando. Together with one other recent graduate from the education program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, we were to be the shining stars of a new school year.
My fellow teacher was a woman named Karen originally from Florida, who had converted to Judaism as an undergraduate. She was a bright, talented teacher, very passionate about education and Judaism in general.
Karen also happened to be the first African American to graduate from JTS’s Masters in Jewish Education program.
We were so excited to get started, busily preparing our rooms, getting the boards ready, imagining what our new students would be like. I looked up to Karen. She had much more experience as a teacher and seemed to know what she was doing.
And, then came the first Open House for the new school year. Parent after parent came into Karen’s classroom confused, often assuming she was the assistant teacher, and, regardless wondering out loud how it was possible that their son’s or daughter’s 2nd Grade Judaica teacher was even Jewish. This continued throughout the year, and also the following one, eventually leading to this teacher’s departure not only from the school, but from Judaism as well.
April Baskin describes a similar type of insensitivity occurring to her multiracial family in the Oakland area in the 1990s. She remembers with horror how her 6’3” African American father was asked by someone to move a plant from one room in a synagogue to another, with the assumption that he was part of the maintenance staff. To make matters worse, another member than accused her father of stealing the plant altogether. That was the third synagogue her family had tried to join.
For me the divide between the Jewish community and our African American brothers and sisters is personal.
I grew up with stories from the 1960s of the role Jews played in the Civil Rights movement. Events such as Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma March in 1965 were celebrated and told over and over.
In my Jewish day school we often sang “We shall overcome,” and learned to conduct sit-ins as a way of protest. But in actuality our role is a mixed bag, helping out in important ways, but turning a blind eye in others.
The world of my youth was a divided world – on one hand my family and I resided in West Philadelphia, among an urban, largely African American population.
On the other hand, I attended a Jewish Day School in a largely white suburb of Philadelphia called Merion.
Every day in High School, I would gather my belongings at 6 am or so and walk five blocks from my house to 52nd street to catch the 54 Septa bus, which took me through some of the worst areas of the city, depositing me on City Line Avenue, right on the border between the city and the suburbs.
Much to my grandmother’s chagrin, starting in 11th grade I would wear a kippah on the journey, the only Jew, or white for that matter, on the bus route. On the way to and from school, I would be looked at with curiosity by those that I passed along the way, occasionally having anti-Semetic remarks being whispered behind my back.
At school it was a different matter, as jokes about “schwartzes” were common place in our lunchroom, and the other students often poked fun of where my family and I lived.
I was an anomaly on both sides of the divide. And, yet, I emerged with pride and sensitivity for these two very different worlds. On the one hand, I could say I was from the hood, knowing full well the violence and suffering that lay only a few blocks from my childhood home. On the other hand, I could be part of a Jewish-Jewish environment that would eventually lead to my chosen career path.
Racism is as old as Torah. Take Sarah’s comments to Abraham in this morning’s portion: “drive out this slave woman with her son, for the son of that slave woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.”
That woman she calls a “slave woman” is of course Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant whose power threatens her own. Sarah, a proud Mesopotamian, seeks to expel her African usurper, as well as Hagar’s son Ishmael.
And, while God is kind to Hagar and Ishmael, rescuing them from their suffering and promising them a great nation, the effects of Sarah’s anger linger long after the portion.
We see it come up again in the Torah when Moses, the most powerful man in all of Jewish history is accused by his siblings Miriam and Aaron of marrying a “Kushite” woman. Moses’ wife Zipporah was originally from the region we now call Ethiopia.
Amazingly, more than ten percent of American Jewish society is now multiracial; a big change in just a few decades. The Jewish Multiracial Network, a group April Baskin was once president, now boasts over 2000 members. As Dillon sings, times are indeed a changing.
This is important on a number of different fronts, not the least of which an easing of the tension I felt when I was growing up, and that Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar feel in Torah.
One – Our diversity will lead to more sensitivity on both sides. We live in a world where hatred of “the other” threatens to boil over any minute. Just a few weeks ago, I was horrified to learn that it was a Jewish man who set fire to the mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida.
In this current environment, we must “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Police shootings, mass incarceration, and urban blight, are not just problems in the African-American community, they are our problem as well.
Two – Our diversity will lead to more acceptance of minorities in our communities. And I don’t only mean racial minorities. Increasingly, we live in a multi-hyphen society, where Judaism is only one of many markers people Jews attribute toward their identities. Black-Jewish-Asian-Atheist-Buddhist-Gay are often used together in describing a person.
(Remember when the question in the Jewish community was just whether you were more of an American Jew or a Jewish American?)
We, as a community, must be responsive to this group. Identity today, especially for the younger generation is fluid and transitory. The more welcoming we are as a community, the more pathways we will allow these lost souls to enter.
As Baskin was quoted in the URJ website “The work of audacious hospitality is about outreach and inclusion; if we do audacious hospitality well, we will be contributing to our other core priorities and values, by helping foster and sustain vibrant, welcoming congregations, and by leveraging the collective power of our diverse community to make the world more just.”
Which leads us to number three, my last point – diversity can and should leads to justice.
For thousands of years, we have tried to make the world more just. Values such as Tzedukah (charity), Gemulut Hasidim (Bestowing loving kindness), Hachnasat Orchim (welcoming the stranger), Bikur Holim (visiting the sick), and the more modern iteration of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), have set the standard for how people should treat one another.
Whether it is Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Pricilla Chan’s, pledge of 99% of their Facebook shares to charity, roughly 44 Billion dollars. Or how about Michael Twitty, a self-described Black-Jewish-Gay man, who cooks rabbit over an open fire to teach visitors about the food slaves used at Thomas Jefferson’s old estate, Montecillo in Virginia. Or, actor Jeffrey Tambor’s role as Maury Pfefferman, a trans woman, on Amazon’s series Transparent.
Locally, I could not be more proud of Jewish Family Services, led by Marlene Schillinger, who are one of the central agencies in Buffalo in charge of resettling refugees. In recent years, JFS has given homes and provided guidance to hundreds of refugees, none of whom are Jewish.
When thousands of years ago we crossed the Sea into freedom, the Torah states we were an erev rav, a mixed multitude. This was a sign of strength as we joined hands with others not of our background, with a purpose of creating a better world in the years ahead. To a large extent, Jews have fulfilled that early vision, settling throughout the world, and incorporating the customs of all of those environments into the tapestry we now call Judaism.
It is time for the American Jewish community, to return to our roots, forgetting the fears generated by the Holocaust and other traumatic events, and instead focusing on a Judaism full of “audacious hospitality,” where all of those who come through our doors are celebrated with love.
I’ll leave you with words voiced by April Baskin, “Many people do this work because they are worried about Jews dying off. That’s not where my attention is,” Baskin stresses. Instead, she says, she is “inspired and energized by my Jewish identity, which brought me to this point. Jews have so much to bring to this world”
Indeed we do.
A blessed, healthy, happy and sweet year – A Shanah Tovah U’Metukah