It’s been a tumultuous year for my family. Among COVID fear and lockdown, in a point of brightness, our beautiful son was born. He came into this world quite a ways ahead of his intended due date, spending six weeks in the NICU gaining weight and building his strength before he could come home to us.
While we were dealing with our son’s health, daily hospital visits, and a recovery for his strong and resilient mother, the COVID-19 pandemic rageed on and just 10 days after his birth, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought millions into the streets demanding change to systems of policing, justice, and institutional racism.
As I sat in the NICU daily, holding a tiny 3 1/2 pound baby, who will grow up as a visible minority and a Jew of Color, I couldn’t help but be consumed by what all of it meant for his future as a person and a Jew. The horrors of systemic racism don’t end at the Jewish community’s door, our communities susceptible too.
In a recent study, the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative found that 12-15% of Jews in North America identify as Jews of color and the data showed that Jewish households are increasingly multi-racial and younger Jews are more likely to identify as non-white.
I was in a meeting with other CEOs of Canadian Jewish communities when the study was released. There was a substantial amount of skepticism from my peers that the numbers were correct. Indeed, there have been many articles published debating the statistics too. The main rebuttal being that we don’t see these statistics reflected in our community organizations. I understand the reaction. Admitting that Jews of Color are underrepresented in our institutions, is to accept that systemic racism affects our institutions too — that we are not representative of the community that we claim to be.
As Jews who are commanded to repair the world, it is a painful thought. Rather than turning away and denying the reality that is presented to us, Jewish communal organizations must take a hard look at what the lack of representations means. We must stop denying the facts in front of us, wrestle with the barriers we’ve put up, and commit to changing our institutions.
If we speak to and read firsthand accounts of Jews of color, it becomes painfully obvious that systemic racism permeates our communities. In its implicit forms, Jews of color report being stared at during services, interrogated about their Jewishness, and being asked when/why they converted. In its most explicit forms, Jews of color report being told their “one of the good ones”, being subjected to racial slurs from rabbis and fellow congregants, and being told they are “outsiders”. It’s no wonder then that Jews of color are three times more likely to not identify as religiously Jewish or create their own Jewish spaces to express themselves. What is supposed to be a space of refuge and community can too often become a place of pain and discomfort.
Deuteronomy 16:20 begins, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Justice, justice thou shalt pursue), a phrase echoed time and again in the Torah. It fills me with hope that many in our community have committed themselves to protesting systemic racism and ensuring that their voices are heard. Now, we must ensure that our Jewish communal spaces and institutions are free from these very same issues. In fact, it is our holy obligation from the Torah, and black, brown, or white — we are all made in the same image of G-d.
My son is now a year old, and he will grow into an adult soon enough. He will be faced with issues that I cannot imagine based on the color of his skin. It is the responsibility of his mother and I to raise him as a good person — and a good Jew.
On top of everything else we must raise him to understand that people may look at him or speak to him differently because of who he is — a conversation that no parent should have to have with their child. We can only hope and do our part to make sure he doesn’t feel that way in his Jewish community.
This Friday, as we light candles, welcome Shabbat, and think of our son and his future, we will read this invocation by Aurora Levins Morales and the Rimonim Liturgy Project and recommit to fight for an inclusive community for our son and every Jew like him, no matter where they are.
We who have hovered at the edges, with our bundles of silence, our cracked rage, our suitcases full of dispossession, our not rocking the boat for fear of drowning, our letting our white cousins massacre our names, our letting our white cousins ask if we are the help, aching to be known, aching to speak our Jewishness in accents you have never heard before, we who are called indigenous, called Black and of color, we Jews beyond the Ashkenazi pale, will step, hobble, roll into the center, unassimilated, fiercely lovely in our unedited truths, bringing all our ancestors speaking all their languages into this room, saying we are not confusing, singing we Jews are a garment of a thousand threads, a coat of 20 million colors, for the heart of the Jewish world lives equally in every Jew, and no one is exotic, and every one of us is Jewish enough, and however we travel through the world is a Jewish path.
About the Rimonim Liturgy Project:
The Rimonim Liturgy Project is creating new liturgy that is rooted in global diasporic Jewish cultures, fully integrates Jews of Color, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews into the center of Jewish practice, not the margins, is joyous and richly blends the depth of meaning we find in words repeated for thousands of years with the spiritual and moral needs of this moment, in which we either dismantle the systemic injustices that drive the destruction of our ecosystem or we watch our world crumble away.