Starting a Conversation about Race and Racism

This past week, our shul hosted a very important zoom conversation on the topic of race and racism and the orthodox community.  I had the pleasure of dialoguing with Chava Shervington, attorney, advocate and a recognized voice on issues of racial equity.  She is the co-founder of Kamochah, an organization to support black orthodox Jews.  I believe that the conversation was very eye-opening for many in our community and hopefully will be the beginning of further dialogue about race and racism in our community.

We discussed Chava’s experience with racism in her own life and how she feels racism manifests itself in orthodox Jewish communities versus other communities.  I asked her for her definition of systemic racism and whether she thinks it exists in our country and I asked her very pointed questions about concerns that orthodox Jews have about supporting certain black movements because some affiliated with these movements may be anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic.  I also asked her why she thought the experiences of black and Jewish communities have differed to produce disparities in success as it relates to incarceration rates, educational attainment and economic success, despite the fact that both communities have been targets of discrimination.

I hope that those of us who listened to the conversation left with at least the following three messages.  First, I hope we truly understood the depth of racism in this country.  In describing her own experience with racism, Chava told us that she doesn’t remember a time before racism in her life.  Her father was constantly pulled over by the police because he owned a luxury car. Her mother told her when she was a little girl not to be wild in public spaces because her behavior would not be viewed as innocently as her peers.  She was called racial slurs by her peers and some told her to go back to Africa.  She told of a time when she was in elementary school when she was invited to a friend’s house and the family didn’t like blacks.  She had to hide for over an hour in the friend’s backyard after the friend’s father came home before her friend could sneak her out of the house so that the father wouldn’t know she was there.  She remembers being frequently followed on her way home by police after she got off the school bus because her family was the only black family in the neighborhood.  Every male in her family has been harassed by the police, and her cousin was almost killed three times by the police even though he is a PhD with a family and a good job.   Unfortunately, her experience is not atypical for black people in America and black people totally feel that they are in crisis mode.

Second, just because we as Jews may experience racism in the form of antisemitism does not mean that we have the right to ignore the plight of others like blacks who suffer from racism.  Not all forms of racism are equal.  It is true that we as Jews have experienced discrimination and yet we have as a whole been more successful than the black community in this country who have experienced discrimination.  At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the discrimination against Jews and blacks is equal and it doesn’t mean that blacks are to blame for their predicament.  Chava pointed out that if you look at statistics and compare blacks and whites with equal levels of education and skills, white people are privileged and have far greater opportunities than blacks.  I would hope that the Torah’s command to remember our experience in Egypt and to care for the stranger, widow and orphan countless times in the Torah would instill in our minds and hearts the compassion and empathy for anyone who suffers from racism and discrimination.  To say that we’ve been discriminated against and we’ve overcome it so why can’t you do the same does not reflect a very fundamental Torah ethic.

Finally, our community needs greater engagement with the black community for a number of reasons.  First, she pointed out that there is a lack of sensitivity in the orthodox Jewish community to perceived racism simply because orthodox Jews are far more sheltered than the broader society and therefore have not interacted with blacks.  This, unfortunately, results in more stereotypes about the black community.  Additionally, Chava argued that greater engagement with the black community will make us realize that there are many thought leaders in the black community who are not anti-Semitic and are not anti-Israel.  We tend to live in our own echo chambers and think that certain blacks who may have expressed anti-Semitic or anti-Israel comments represent the black community.  We may not be exposed to many thought leaders in the black community who do not share these views.  Additionally, just like some Jews may not be educated sufficiently about the black community which results in certain stereotypes about blacks, perhaps some members of the black community may not be educated sufficiently about the Jewish community which results in certain stereotypes about Jews or Israel.  By engaging the black community, we can also help eradicate those stereotypes.

I hope that the next steps for our community include engaging the black community, perhaps by exposing ourselves to certain thought leaders within the black community that may truly reflect the thinking of this community. Additionally, perhaps we must all take a deeper dive into further understanding racism in America against blacks and seriously reflect on our own micro-aggressions and biases.  I thank Chava Shervington for providing the opportunity for our community to begin a conversation that is long overdue.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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