Erica Brown

Exclusion On The Menu

Dear Dinner Committee Member,

Thank you in advance for your time. I commend you on your commitment to (fill in the blank with name of your Jewish organization). Every volunteer in the Jewish community is a gift, and organizing a dinner is not an easy thing to do well for our people. The first course is too hot. The entrée underdone. The entertainment dull. We’re not easy to please. And here you are going out to nightly meetings to create a special evening for us. Let me be the first to thank you.

I also apologize. I hope you won’t mind if I share some personal feelings with you. You see, like many of my beloved colleagues, I spend my professional life working on behalf of our people. It’s a mission, a calling and an honor. As part of this picture, I attend many dinners every year. They are beautifully crafted with attention to every detail — every detail except one.

Let me describe what it’s like to go to a dinner sponsored by a Jewish organization where I cannot eat the same meal as everyone else. We’re all busy chatting nicely until the waitress brings over my kosher meal. I should carry a Swiss army knife because the plastic knife usually breaks as I fight with the wrapping. We should protect everything in the U.S. Treasury with the same plastic wrap that seals kosher take-out meals.

Those at the table often look at me with pity or distance; the friendly chatter sometimes changes. Suddenly I am different. I’m a person who keeps kosher. A whole host of unarticulated judgments might follow: Do you think you are better than us? What are you doing here? Too Jewish! The sad neon-yellow pat of margarine next to my rock-hard roll looks sadder. I, too, wonder why I came.

I can imagine what you’re thinking: Kosher catering costs more. It’s inferior in quality. It’s not presented nicely. I ask you respectfully, did you even price it out or give kosher catering a chance? Yesterday’s kosher is not today’s kosher. It’s glatt and gourmet. By the way, I know what you spent on centerpieces so the money card is hard to play. Drop the excuses.

Maybe you don’t want to feel like you’re caving in to the “religious” people. If you make your dinner kosher, what’s next? Mikvah for everyone? Please don’t slide down that slippery slope. What you’re giving up is so much less important than what you gain: a commitment to Jewish unity. You wonder why more traditional Jews don’t support your organization? They’re probably not feeling your love.

At our Shabbat table, we accommodate vegetarians, those with tree-nut allergies and guests who are gluten-free, people who drive and walk. We have Jews and non-Jews and those married to non-Jews and those considering conversion. It’s all the same to us. It’s all about warmth, love and hospitality. Everyone is welcome.

Jewish organizational dinners are extensions of our own tables. Every person at a dinner should feel welcome and important. At 16, one of my sons attended a Jewish summer program committed to diversity. His observation: “I finally understand what pluralism is. It’s Judaism without Orthodoxy.” Ouch.

So here’s how I feel when I go to a non-kosher community dinner: No. 1: hungry. No. 2: frustrated. I’d just like to eat and schmooze without feeling singled out. No. 3: sad. A frequent flier in Jewish life, at such dinners, I’m in economy minus right next to the toilets. I’ve taught you, driven an hour to give a class in your living room, sent greetings on your son’s bar mitzvah and paid a shiva call when you lost your mother. I come to your dinner to support you and your cause, yet I sit at a table with you at a Jewish dinner and feel profoundly alone with my faith.

Dinners are statements about our collective identity. We care about meaning, social justice and spirituality. We’re proud. We’re still here. Maybe we’re still here because for some of us continuity is not an organizational catchword. It’s a way of life that involves joy, sacrifice, and responsibility. It’s yesterday and today and tomorrow. It’s ironic to feel socially penalized by the organized Jewish community for this commitment.

To those many of you who already make your dinners kosher, I thank you. Truly. To those of you who don’t yet, please crack open your minds and hearts a bit more. Reach out to all your Jewish brothers and sisters. Honor a ritual — not because you believe in it — but because a kosher dinner is a symbolic nod to our shared tradition. You are a child of Abraham. The founder of Judaism showed the world what hospitality means — room in our tent for everybody.

Warmly, Erica

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).