Adding racism to my personal Al Chet is not enough.
[/pullquote]As we Jews head into the season of spiritual accounting, I recall with a shame that still makes my heart race the time my mom sent me downstairs to borrow something from a neighbor. I could not have been more than eight or nine, and when a Black woman answered the door, I assumed that she was the housekeeper. She called me on it: “you thought I wasn’t Mrs. Cartwright because I am Black, correct?” I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole. I still feel, clearly, that I have some T’shuvah to do, and I can’t say that I have not made similar mistakes since then. But as an adult, I know that adding racism to my personal Al Chet is not enough. A focus solely on my own pain and shame will not build a world in which my children and grandchildren never learn to make those same assumptions.
Real T’Shuvah demands moving from the personal to the systemic, and getting our houses in order – in particular during this season, our houses of worship. It means wrestling with our own racism and opening our eyes to see the Jews of Color in our midst as our sisters and brothers, as both Jews and people of color. And that includes considering the split-second assumptions that we make when we see people of color at synagogue. Even those of us who have taken to the streets over the past few years, chanting against the violence of broken windows policing, may not have considered fully how much we have in common with those white officers who fire without thinking. What kind of firing without thinking are we engaging in as a community?
The horror of these past few weeks has been heartbreakingly predictable, both in the continued drumbeat of police brutality against Black people – 465 fatal shootings in the first six months of 2016 means that more days than not have seen at least one incident – and in the subsequent flood of Facebook-posting, profile-picture-changing, racist-police-bemoaning social media activity. The streets in Charlotte and Tulsa pulse with protest, as have the streets of New York, Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and so many others.
Maybe these recent deaths, combined with years of sustained organizing by racial justice movements, have brought us to a tipping point, when white people can no longer ignore the violence in racist symbols and structures. There are hints of widespread change: whether it’s the South Carolina state house and the Confederate flag, Princeton’s removal of a dining hall mural that has suggested to decades of Black Princetonians that they might not really belong, or Georgetown’s attempt to come clean about the source of their endowment, powerful institutions across the country are facing how their very identities are intertwined with the oppression of people of color. The South Carolina state house or Princeton’s dining halls may not yet affirmatively sing out to Black people ‘you belong’, but at least they are not decorated with images that clearly tell them the opposite.
One in five of the nation’s 6 million Jews could be considered people of color.
[/pullquote]Racism, however, will not be extirpated by taking down one flag or painting over one mural any more than it would by ending Stop and Frisk. As white Jews, we have celebrated our role as allies in the American fight for racial justice. We sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at Seder. We were there at Freedom Summer. Abraham Joshua Heschel marched over the bridge in Selma arm in arm with Dr. King, and our leaders continue to remind us that “in a society where some are oppressed, all are implicated.” But to earn the right to claim Heschel’s legacy, in this moment of spiritual inventory we must do an accounting of less-acknowledged ways that we unthinkingly reproduce racial injustice in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and synagogues.
This winter, at a community organizing training led by Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, the facilitator asked people to step forward if anyone in a Jewish space had ever assumed that they were a member of the maintenance staff. Only Jews of color stepped forward. Then the facilitator called forward those in the room who had been asked how it was that they were Jewish. Again, only Jews of color stepped forward. I’ve never been mistaken for a member of the maintenance staff or asked how I got to be a Jew.
While it’s hard to say exactly how many Jews of color there are in the United States, in New York City one recent study found that 12% of Jews in the eight-county metropolitan area described themselves as biracial, Hispanic, or non-white. In a 2005 study, demographer Gary Tobin reported that one in five of the nation’s 6 million Jews could be considered people of color. So the issue of racial justice is personal for us — what could be more critical for Jewish continuity than ensuring that our family members do not get shot in the streets just because of the color of their skin? To say that we are just allies in this struggle reproduces the fiction of universal Jewish whiteness and separates us from our Jewish brothers and sisters of color.
Jewish engagement in anti-racist work helps us see what we really look like.
Black Jewish leaders organized a powerful series of #Jews4BlackLives actions and vigils in New York in August, and this past May at the recent Jews of Color National Convening hundreds of Jews of color from across the country gathered to tell their stories, build leadership skills, and examine their unique potential to contribute to the struggle for racial justice in America. There are leaders out there, Black like Dr. King and Jewish like Rabbi Heschel, and this is a moment to find those people and follow their voices.
There are leaders out there — Black like Dr. King and Jewish like Rabbi Heschel — and this is a moment to find those people and follow their voices.[/pullquote]To be sure, controversy about the language on Israel in the Movement for Black Lives Platform has rocked America’s progressive Jewish community. Some committed to doubling down on work for racial justice, while others faltered. My take reflects an experience I had with a non-Jewish relative this past summer. He used an anti-Semitic slur, and I felt wounded and angry. I told him how offended I was and asked him to apologize or leave, but I also said that I love him, value him as a family member, and will always welcome him in my home. When you are hurt in a relationship you care about, you stay and talk it through. In that same way, my personal take is that I don’t love that language, but I share the movement’s overall goals, and I’d rather continue in conversation about racial justice, anti-semitism, and how to build a better world than cut myself off from the most vibrant social justice movement this country has seen in my lifetime.
We have work to do personally, politically, and intimately. Seeing and welcoming Jews of color in our congregations is both an internal matter, to be addressed by working on our own racism, and an institutional project which we can shape through activities, programs, and teaching in our congregations. As you wrestle with the Movement for Black Lives Platform, the most comprehensive statement of hope for Black lives published in 50 years, pause for a moment to consider how Black Jews might experience your rejection of it. And in the meantime, all the more reason to embody your commitment to anti-racist social transformation by doing something in your own shul. That means making sure that everyone is greeted warmly when we open our doors for Shabbat and making equally sure that no one at our schools, shuls, and camps is ever told that they don’t ‘look Jewish’. How would our Jewish communities be transformed if everyone felt that they truly belonged?
In the stories we tell ourselves, we are always the good guys, the little engine that could of religions, making it up that hill towards continued existence despite all odds. You’ve heard it: ‘they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat’. The truth, though, is more complex: as Mark Tseng Putterman writes, “the relatively marginalized position of Jews in the United States does not erase the reality of Jewish participation in the processes of white supremacy.” Maybe we’re not retweeting Pepe the Frog, but in that moment when we wonder what a person of color is doing in our shul, we’re on the wrong side of history. So when a Black woman shows up at 6 pm for Hebrew school pick up, don’t assume that she is someone’s nanny, and when a Black man enters the sanctuary, don’t look around for your purse. Offer them a siddur and a smile, just like you would for anyone else. The future of our Jewish community is being written one connection at a time.