Rabbi Joshua Lesser writes frankly about leadership, representation and making assumptions about Jews of Color in spaces dominated by white Jews.
Shortly after Congregation Bet Haverim moved into our new building, a member brought a painting to a meeting with me.
“I brought you a Jewish painting that I thought we might hang somewhere in the building,” she said.
This was not the first time that a well-meaning congregant had brought in some artwork, so I had a feeling what Jewish meant.
“Before you unwrap it,” I asked, “is it by any chance a picture of a white man with a beard?”
She looked at me, puzzled. “If you put it that way, well, yes. But why do you ask?”
I began to explain gently that in our new building, we wanted to be intentional with the art that we display. In a progressive community committed to reconstructing Judaism, we needed to be thoughtfully aware of how we communicate what Jewish looks like. Too often, white men in beards dominate our vision of what is authentically Jewish, thus perpetuating a worldview that is neither inclusive nor accurate.
Jewish Narratives Shaped by Whiteness
In overt and in subtle ways, so many of our Jewish institutions and communities have let dominant narratives dictate who is a Jew. Reconstructionist communities in the United States want to guide Jews about how to live thoughtfully in two civilizations. To do so with integrity, we must examine how both the Jewish and U.S. civilizations are shaped by whiteness.
Too often, Jews of Color enter Jewish space that has been shaped by assumptions of whiteness that transform safe, communal and warm spaces into places that are fraught with undue curiosity, exoticization, invisibility and discrimination. When white Ashkenazi Judaism is the accepted unexamined beacon of who a Jew is in our communities, we inadvertently (assuming the best) prevent many Jews and their families from being able to fully participate in Jewish life with comfort. Not only do we render these Jews and their family members invisible—or worse, unwelcome—we are also not able to address adequately their needs or their spiritual yearnings.
This is both a justice and an equity issue, but in our contemporary Jewish world, it is more than that. Choosing to become aware, addressing inclusion and embracing Jews of varied races and ethnicities is also about our survival and our thriving as a people. We all benefit from shifting the dominant narrative. There are those of us who benefit on the surface from the dominant narrative; yet we, too, have an interest in making this change. We need one another, and when there is greater inclusion, our communities are enriched and vibrant. We are more authentic in our diversity, and that has tremendous cultural and spiritual benefits for all of us.
Redefining Who We Are
Too often, even the well-intentioned desire to “become more inclusive” is framed in ways that feel charitable or altruistic. This perspective treats Jews of Color and multiple ethnicities—whether by birth or choice—as separate or other, as if they are either in need of our acceptance and should be grateful for it. The framework we need to adopt is that there are multiple Jewish identities and origins, all of which are components of Jewish peoplehood.
When we work to welcome them, it becomes a “project” seeking to establish criteria for welcoming behavior and checking items off a list. Checklists are easy because they are concrete and can be completed. While they can be helpful, they are not effective in changing a community’s culture unless the community is open to an ongoing self-examination about which Jewish norms we want to valorize. Furthermore, no one wants to feel like a project or that being welcome depends on it. Communities require internal leadership to provide ongoing education about the integration of these identities across the life of the community for the well-being of the community. It means that we must become literate about how to address issues of race and its intersection with Jewish life, including history, conversion and values. This means that to begin with, Jews of white Ashkenazi descent and those Jews who claim some form of white identity or privilege must listen to Jews of different races and ethnicities.
An Ongoing Process
Our communities are never static, so this must be a continuing process. As Reconstructionists, we understand the evolving nature of cultures, language and identity. Therefore, as a regular commitment to what it means to be a Jewish community, we must address the issue of race and privilege, as well as how we can expand and value multiple narratives of who is a Jew. Making this shift requires that we embrace the premise that there is no clear, final point at which a community is no longer racist. As new people join in, and as those in our communities undergo their own evolutions, there is always more work to be done—more listening, more sensitive conversations, more self-examination. We live in a culture built on a foundation of racial oppression, and no single community can escape that fundamental reality. Nevertheless, we also can take pride when we engage more voices and commit to greater awareness, attentiveness, listening and having an impact on the culture of our communities.
I wish I could say that at Congregation Bet Haverim, we have reached some ideal state—that we are a model of a thoughtful Jewish community that is committed to disrupting normative narratives about what it means to be Jewish and who is a Jew. In fact, we are addressing some of the same tensions that we have addressed in the past and are engaging some new ones. What I can offer is that we have been looking at these issues for almost two decades. Because of that, we have made some progress.
As a synagogue founded by gays and lesbians, we recognized the limitations of an approach of “welcoming.” We sought to establish an integrated holistic framework, so that our intersecting identities would be a source of strength. We began from a place where everyone was included in solving the challenge and in benefiting from the results.
The Truth of the Diversity of Jewish Identities
Our community has benefitted from a Reconstructionist understanding of Judaism as a civilization. As the rabbi, I have sought to deepen our awareness of the vast richness of Jewish civilization that extends beyond Eastern Europe. We began to learn from the global Jewish community and to incorporate an array of Jewish lore, rituals, music and prayer forms into our worship services, and our family and adult education. We sought to understand the contexts and history of these parts of our collective heritage, thus educating ourselves and connecting to and honoring our wide Jewish sense of family. This global approach disrupts an overemphasis of the normative Jewish narrative and makes visible a commitment to recognizing the truth of the diversity of who is a Jew. On a practical level, it has created entry points for Jews of different ethnicities to feel welcomed and represented. For example, a bar mitzvah of Indian and Jewish heritage requested that we incorporate the piyyut Ahot Ketanah, which emerged from the Indian Jewish community at his bar mitzvah. He had experienced it as part of our High Holiday ritual and remembered that we thus honored his heritage, and he felt affirmed.
It is important to incorporate prayers from Yemen, Uganda or India, and to learn about those Jewish communities. That learning, however, doesn’t always shift how people in our communities are actually treated. How does the community represent itself? Who are the community’s leaders? Who takes an active part in communal ritual life? Who serves on the board? Who are the people giving sermons, singing in the chorus, teaching our children? How are Jews represented visually in the collateral materials of the community and on the walls? If there is a lack of diversity, it must be recognized and addressed.
Walking Into the Building
We also must think about how people are treated when they walk into the building. There are still ways that Jews of color and multiple ethnicities are ignored, mislabeled and subjected to inappropriate assumptions or questions. It is important to be overt with the congregation.
We have regularly sent out to our community communications with these five guidelines:
1. Avoid making assumptions about gender identity, sexual orientation, religious identity, Jewish background, race or reasons for joining us.
2. Respect a person’s identity and self-label, and respect a person’s chosen name and pronouns. Do not comment about whether a name sounds Jewish or not.
3. Do not comment on whether someone looks Jewish or not.
4. Do not assume people want to only speak about their identity, particularly when their identity is different from yours. Engage them in conversation and get to know them. Be engaging rather than curious.
5. Do not expect a guest to immediately become your resource on understanding their identity.
These guidelines make explicit how to counteract many of the unpleasant and challenging behaviors that many Jews of Color encounter. Alongside this, we have a handful of people who are committed to being allies when these behaviors occur, so more people feel responsible for supporting the culture of a welcoming community and do not always expect Jews of Color to do the work.
Having representation matters. It matters internally. When we had more than one Jewish person of color sit on the board, the issues of narratives, communal practices and issues pertaining to race within the congregation were addressed organically. Everyone’s awareness was engaged in a natural and relational way. More challenging and complex conversations emerged, and were able to be addressed. It also helped to shift the “who is a Jew” narrative without always needing to be explicit. Recently, a black Jewish teenager told me that when he was a child, it was meaningful for him to see a black Jewish woman have an aliyah. Not only did it help him envision having a bar mitzvah in an organic way, but it encouraged him to learn how to become a gabbai rishon in our community years later.
It also matters externally. For instance, when our first vice president, a Jew of Color, represented the synagogue at a memorial service for Coretta Scott King, other Jews of Color noticed, and people of color interested in Judaism took note and showed up at the synagogue understanding that they would likely be more welcome. By having Jews of Color in visible leadership positions, Congregation Bet Haverim was able to participate in forums that were largely for People of Color. We were often the only Jewish voice represented in those important spaces.
Not all leadership experiences are easy. I learned a great deal from a Jewish man of color who sat on our board. He pointed out to me how our culture for disagreement felt privileged. He noted that he had to be restrained in his disagreements out of fear that he would be perceived as “an angry black man.” He was also late for nearly every meeting. I saw how this frustrated other board members and often led them to discount the value of his participation. When I examined this with him, I learned how our relationship to time is also a cultural value, and that this clash was an example of assumptions about our cultures that can be hard to bridge. At the most recent convening of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, we had this very conversation about how our relationship to time can be used to control. While there may not be a definitive rule here, these conversations point to how important it is to understand and examine our community culture, our assumptions and our expectations as a community, as well as the barriers that they may create.
Justice Work Around Racial Equity
It also makes a difference if our communities are involved in justice issues around racial equity. Many of our communities avoid the issue of race because of a fear of communal discord and the challenges involved in examining the white privilege that is a part of some of our Jewish experience. And it is important when we do so because it strengthens our families, our fellow community members and our fellow Jews. The leadership of communities must also be versed on how to address the issues of race without letting fear or inexperience get in the way. We will make mistakes. Even in this article, I expect that there are things worth exploring and challenging.
I have learned from other white Jewish allies like Rabbi Ruth Abusch Magder, in her piece “When White Rabbis Talk About Race,” that even those of us who have worked for racial justice for many years must be wary of our own expertise. I agree with her that my greatest ongoing learning is to deepen my connections with my friends, my community members and colleagues of other races. We white Jews must commit to educating ourselves while making sure that Jews of Color are taking the lead. At Bet Haverim, we have a Black Lives Matter affinity group that works on issues of educating the congregation about justice issues within our community, and that also organizes our community to participate in justice causes in our city and nation. We are a group of Jews of Color, white Jews and Jews who are in multiracial and multiethnic families.
For Jewish leaders who have worked on issues of racial justice, I have noticed that some of us have a tendency to distance ourselves from Jews who have less experience in challenging racism, white supremacy and Jewish “norms.” We can be frustrated and even dismissive of Jews of white Ashkenazi descent or “white” Jews who are reluctant to examine their privilege. We may want to make a distinction between us and them. I strongly believe that this is the work in which we must engage. If we are not willing to hang in there and lead the difficult conversations, then we leave the burden to the Jewish community of color. As challenging as we find the reluctance in our communities, it does not compare to the resistance and burdens that Jews of Color face regularly. We must cultivate patience, listening and a way to speak of these issues that is encouraging and helpful, rather than shaming. These conversations require respect, a willingness to feel discomfort, an openness to education and a desire to listen.
There is a great deal of ground to cover, and it can feel daunting. Yet this work is essential, and it is also rewarding. The more these values, principles and approaches become part of our communities, the more authentic and whole we become. By challenging limited narratives, expanding our awareness and honoring the richness of our Jewish people, we move closer to the truth of who we have been and who we are. Being open to change as a community is an important first step. While it can feel like (and I believe it is) a substantial investment of attention and change, so many of these skills serve as a hallmark of healthy, vital communities. A commitment to shift the culture around race will result in benefits that radiate well beyond race. This approach is a sacred obligation, and I believe it is a key both to our survival and how we will thrive.