The Jewish people were dispersed and have lived all over. In the dozens of expulsions and exoduses of Jews over the centuries, we have become a people among all peoples who reflect vast diversity. But here in our world today, we have all but forgotten this truth. And that’s not good.
We see this absence of presence in organized Jewish life. For example, there are no major Jewish American organizations that I am aware of that have Black Jews on their boards or in leadership or influential roles. It has been painful to see groups purporting to advance tikkun olam (repairing the world) issuing statements or creating events to address how Jews can help fight racism – and do not themselves include Black Jews. The act of describing how Jewish and Black communities ought to come together by definition pointedly and conspicuously omits the universe of Black Jews.
We see this too in the way Jewish culture is typified in America. For example, Yiddish words and Ashkenazi foods do not represent the diversity within the Mizrahi Jewish presence in the US. JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) recognizes the difficulty in gathering demographic data but we know that Sephardic Jews were among the country’s earliest Jewish settlers. For the last number of decades pockets of Syrian Jews have lived in Los Angeles and other cities, Iranian Jews on the north shore of Long Island and elsewhere, and more and more communities have Israeli Jews who come from all backgrounds. They all too find themselves in a world centered around Eastern European Jewish culture, which too, conspicuously omits the universe of those born in the Middle East or North Africa.
And what about Asian Jews? One Jewish organization promoted ways to help Chinese Americans who’ve been suffering from COVID-19-driven bias…but never mentions this country’s Asian Jewish community. (Did you know that Jews have lived in China since before the first synagogue was built there in 1163?)
This past year has also seen a Native American-Jewish woman sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in Washington State and a Maori Jewish director win an Oscar.
The point is we are Am Echad (one people), we are everywhere and it is arrogant to assume that if someone doesn’t look like any one of us, that he or she couldn’t possibly be Jewish. It is also arrogant to belong to an organization – any organization – and not see why actively engaging now in bringing more representative voices to the table is crucial.
We cannot claim to be pursuing justice when we are blind to the injustices we are allowing to happen within our own world.
What I wrote a few weeks ago in a blog on social justice applies within Jewish spaces too:
… look at those organizations, educational institutions, and companies you belong to or interact with. Check out their websites. What do you see? Are their boards of directors a sea of white faces?…What about their senior management? Do those who make decisions about product lines and marketing reflect only a white point of view? If they are educational, do their faculty include Black and Brown teachers and administrators? Next, check out their Inclusion and Diversity pages. If they speak about recruiting, is it only on an entry level? Do they also offer programs for mentoring and actively promoting employees of color? If you are not seeing diverse faces among those who lead these organizations, contact them and let them know that you expect more.
We can only come together as a people when we remember we are a people. Not always easily identifiable, not always on the same page when it comes to foods or customs or music or anything, but always the same people. This means not questioning people who look different in Jewish spaces. And even more importantly, ensuring that the institutions that represent us – actually do represent who we are as a people.
Just as the fringes of the tizitzit which represent the four directions where G-D is are brought together and kissed, so must we embrace our people who come from all four corners of the earth.