“He (Moses) said: “If you will listen diligently to the voice of HaShem, your God, and you will do what is just in His eyes, and you will give ear to His commandments and observe all His statues, then any of the diseases that I placed upon Egypt, I will not place upon you, for I am HaShem your Healer (Exodus 16:26).”
When God originally created the world, there was neither order nor disorder, it simply just was. Darkness and light shared the same time and space, the world was filled with chaos, and the physical realm was void of all order (Genesis 1:2). It was then that the Holy One spent the week ahead, a busy workweek it was! defining the boundaries of the universe, creating balance, creating Shabbat.
Man, as commanded by God, was not only given the responsibility to build up and guard the world (2:15), but also to be the master-crafter of each organisms’ fate (2:19), with uprightness and with justice.
Our rabbis tell us that when Adam was in the Garden of Eden, God took Adam on a tour of Eden and pointed to all of God’s creations. God then said to Adam “see to it that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, no one will be after you to fix it (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).” We learn that it was Man’s role to steer the world towards uprightness. But just as quick and twice as subtly, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel explains (Avot 1:18), Adam was also warned that if people’s actions may corrupt and bring the world to a place that is no longer sustainable.
Pharoah did not see the Hebrews, as a people of values that would soon plant the riches of praiseworthy mores for all civilizations to follow. Pharoah knew not (of Joseph) about or the Jewish mission to strike the balance of the spiritual and physical, and so Pharoah committed the greatest injustice against humanity—human enslavement. He threw the world into imbalance.
With the Exodus, came new possibility. At Sinai a new seal and covenant would begin, the seal of responsibility. At the mountain Jews claimed their responsibility to uphold higher moral standards so as to prevent further injustice around the world.
Moshe was shown the tree, the symbol of steadfast balance of sun and water, and the waters sweetened (Exodus 15:25). Reminding the world yet again, that balance can be achieved, and that prejudice, enslavement and human corruption will inevitably crumble.
Jews are about to celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the trees. And this year we are in the seventh and final year of agricultural cycle, Shmeettat Karka’ot. Both Tu Bishvat and the shemitah cycle remind us that the earth’s rest produces for us the greatest results. That by allowing for the world to exist uninterrupted, we create balance and healing. “You may sow your land for six years, and gather its crops, but during the seventh year you must leave it alone and withdraw from it, so the needy of your people will be able to eat (from your fields) just as you do, and whatever is left over will be eaten by wild animals (Exodus 23:10-11),” Stating clearly that harmonious existence of all living things must reign over dysfunction.
When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I’m pretty certain he didn’t have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner’s words still manage to apply.
I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There’s my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There’s my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there’s the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I’ve impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Singing in Yiddish really brought this stuff we all so dismissively call “the past” sharply into focus. I didn’t have to imagine the lives and customs of the Hasidic world my repertoire often describes. I just took a train one Shushan Purim to Brooklyn and experienced it for myself. I didn’t have to pull out a library card to find artists and critics who worked in Yiddish. I just had to stop by a bar to hear Sarah Gordon perform and wait for Rokhl Kafrissen to accept my Facebook friend request. (She totally did, by the way).
Last Slichos, I picked up an old book from a used book sale at a synagogue I was performing at in Irvine, CA. When I first cracked it open, it struck me as a little odd. First the book was in Yiddish. Then it was in English. And then Yiddish again.
The title page read in Yiddish and English, “Key to the Exercises of Ollendorff’s Method by Alexander Harkavy.” The Yiddish inscription differed from the English by stating that it was Ollendorff’s Method “tsulernen english”—”to learn English.” The English stated that it was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1908. In 2014 I took it home and started using it to improve my reading in Yiddish.
I used the book backwards (undoubtedly to the horror of Ollendorff and Harkavy), the English giving way to English words and phrases transliterated into Hebrew letters and then, eventually, instructions on the rudimentary elements of the English language written in Yiddish. It was in this last (first if you read in the other direction) section that the past popped up to declare itself, well…not past. A brown, very fragile scrap of paper was between pages 88 and 89. It had been there so long that the acid from the paper had left dark impressions on the pages. In a beautiful cursive hand, it read: “Mrs. Silberstern 1018 E. 163 St Bronx.”
I instantly went to Google Maps street view in order to look up the address and there it was: an old, pre-war-looking building with three people—a young black boy, a young black girl down the block and, perhaps, their mother, caught in a blur of movement—exiting the building. This was the place where Mrs. Silberstern lived.
Was the book hers? Or somebody who knew her? Was the owner of the book teaching another Yiddish-speaker English, perhaps Mrs. Silberstern? Or maybe Mrs. Silberstern was teaching herself English? And how in the world did the book get from the Bronx to Irvine, CA? How did Mrs. Silberstern get to the Bronx?
I’ll probably never find the answers to these questions. Between this scrap of paper, this book and Faulkner’s statement, I just find more questions.
Is the past ever really past?
There is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!
Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.
When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks. Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited! I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world. I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.
This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia. I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.
So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta. I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it. Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.
I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history. I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.
When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.
In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.
As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.
I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.
Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”
Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties
4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.
During my childhood, I never understood why I found myself needing to adapt differently depending on which parent I was walking with: my black mother, or my white father. But then the stares grew longer, the presumptuous comments and questions never seemed to fall-short of an insult, and well, as a family we learned to know when to guard, deflect or just turn around and walk out the door.
It’s one thing when an individual discriminates against you, but it’s whole other thing when it’s a group or community. When a community, organization or country perpetuate distant values of discrimination, it sticks, and becomes a part of who you are, your DNA.
“And He (Pharoah) said to his nation: ‘behold the nation of the Children of Israel they are larger and stronger than us, come let us devise a plan to outsmart them with trickery and deception.’ (Exodus 1:9)”
This verse always reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous words: “We should never forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal.” King’s letter, written from the Birmingham jail cell during the 1960’s challenges the reader to not only speak up against the individual who displays hateful behavior, but to note that just because an institution does something “legally,” it doesn’t make it right.
When we go to the big picture it is not just Joseph and the sibling strife that led to a cry which still murmurs today. When we shift from the individual to the big picture the power and damage is amplified. That is what happen when a new Pharaoh rose us in Egypt, just 3300 years ago.
It’s the pain of collective estrangement that causes collective enslavement. It is society’s of silence that do not condemn their citizens behavior that cause the breakdown of moral justice and civil liberties. Pharoah tells his entire nation and no one speaks up. Freedom was lost…until someone spoke up.
According to Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (12th Century-Girona, Spain) “he went out to his brothers,” meaning he realized what his household (the home of Pharoah in which Moses grew up) had done, and to which ancestry (Abraham) he truly belonged to. Moses takes stage in the public sphere once it becomes known to him that his home was the center of institutionalized discrimination, and that he was a member of both parties: the oppressors and the oppressed! It was then that the Exodus began. Though this week’s Torah portion shows us reinstilled leadership directed by the elders and the heads of tribes, it was Moses’s simple action to leave his home that brought about physical, spiritual and moral freedom.
Could I have said something when I was a little boy and my ancestry was called into question? Sure, but you could have also. But each of the individual Jews in my community could have been the Moses for us, and you still can be. Learn from Moses. Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King. Speak up, for once you begin to speak, you create the opportunity for even a sea to split.
This week I had the privilege of viewing an early showing of Selma, a movie about the historical events that took place in Alabama during the summer of 1965. The bombing of the 16th St. Church, in which 4 young girls were killed in 1963 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not far from the public consciousness then. And the battle between hate and rights that unfolded that summer in Selma changed the course of American history in profound and essential ways.
There are those who will and have already begun to quibble with the historicity of “Selma” but as a white rabbi who trained as a historian and has devoted the last five years to civil right in the Jewish community through my work at Be’chol Lashon, it is my hope that ALL Americans, no matter race or religion go to see the film.
Telling the story of a movement set in the context of 200 years of history, in 127 minutes means that inevitably some of the lines between history and myth will be blurred. But do not underestimate the power in the cinemagraphic telling of history. Color returns dimensionality to images that we know only in shades of black and white. Camera angles bring out the intimacies and tensions that go into the small moments that make up epic events. In the rabbinic tradition we call filling in of the official narrative, midrash, or interpretation. And midrash is one of most powerful tools we have to teach us about the past, remind us of our values and focus our actions for the future.
Copyright limitations, for example, mean that the words spoken by the fictional Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not direct quotations. Nonetheless, the power with which David Oyelowo delivers his portrayal of Dr. King provide us not only with the inspirational Moses figure to whom a monument stands in Washington DC but also the flesh and blood man who struggled with frailty and doubt even as he rose to the challenges of leadership. These nuances encourage us to reach beyond our failing and to see the possibilities of action.
Watching, it was hard at times for me to engage with Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal Annie Lee Cooper. In contrast to the real life powerhouse and billionaire Winfrey, Cooper was a middle school dropout and worked in an old age home. Cooper came to fame after her repeated attempts to register to vote led to a confrontation with the county Sheriff and her punching him. On the one hand I was too aware of Winfrey’s sophisticated real world persona to fully embrace the portrayal. But on the other hand, I saw the casting as a tribute to the extraordinary power of the everyday African Americans who, in standing up to Jim Crow white power, were no less regal than the real life Ms. Winfrey.
Within the Jewish community I hope that white Jews will look beyond the desire to have Jewish contributions to the historic Civil Rights movement recognized. Past involvement is no free pass for present day obligations. This movie should inspire white Jews to take a look within our synagogues, schools, picture books, and organization and to consider how to engage with African Americans and other Jews of Color not as the “other” but as members of our own communities. Are white Jews able to say that we do not question their membership? Their right to vote? Or legitimacy? There are many tools and approaches that we can incorporate into daily Jewish life that can and will make a profound difference, now, today and for the future for how Jews think and act around race and ethnicity.
Our sage Hillel, one taught that the entire Torah can be summed up in the maxim, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The rest he assured is commentary, but it is commentary that we are obligated to learn. If the movie Selma does not fulfill all the historical details faithfully, or speak to all of our needs, it does present us with a strong case for the importance how we treat our neighbors. If we walk away inspired to aim higher in creating a more fair and inclusive world, to learn and do more, then we have achieve something momentous.
Before attaining my Master of Social Work, I had the honor of helping many sick people live out their final months comfortable in hospice. Clients passed away, loved ones wailed as the coffin is lowered, and me, the social work intern, was left to support, love, guide, facilitate. Out of all of the things I have learned (so far) in this capacity, the most compelling is that the fragility of life calls to the healthy to breathe deeply, laugh loudly. Let the sobriety of personal grit and ambition keep you sensitive to what life has in store for you.
Easier said than done.
Regardless of age, the thought that lays at the base and forefront of most human consciousness is the uncertainty as to what will become of our existence. A person may be an established teacher, CEO or other sorts of professionals, and may have eloquent and intellectual capacities, and even have the riches of a king but no matter what they achieve, each and every person carries an unknown fate – we do not know when we will die. The billions of eulogies throughout world history cause the same emotional response in the listeners. As the deceased is lowered in the ground, we wonder, “what will become of me?”
In this week’s Torah portion we learn about the death of Jacob and then his son Joseph: the two individuals whose stories engage nearly half the book of Genesis, and whose blood lines ultimately establish the Jewish people as a nation. Jacob’s death was no happenstance. Jacob awaited to see his son Joseph and his brothers, though in a foreign land, together again.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) teaches that before Jacob, there was no illness to indicate death was imminent. Death was sudden. A person would sneeze, and his soul would depart. Jacob prayed for sickness so that there would be a sign for the individual, so s/he could properly prepare a will for his offspring and bid farewell to the physical realm systematically. As the Torah tells us in Genesis 48:1, “And it was, after many things transpired, he said to Joseph ‘behold your father is ill.’ He took his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh with him (to be blessed).” Illness provided Jacob time to say his good byes and bestow blessings.
Death is inescapable, and happens to each person regardless of financial status, skin-color or political party. We cannot pray for immortality, but there is something worth praying for! We can pray for the gift of time-consciousness, the living reminder to bless, feel blessed, and be blessed. We can pray for that inner voice to remind us periodically, that health is a privilege not a guarantee. We should take the time we have and make the most of it.
“Heal us HaShem and we shall be healed, Save us HaShem and we will be Saved.”
My daughter Maya and I had been walking along 125th Street in Harlem, past the larger-than-life statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor, politician, and Civil Rights activist; the Studio Museum of contemporary African art; and the landmark Apollo Theater that launched so many careers. Somewhere along the way, we saw an enormous American flag, all in red, green, and black, the African American colors.
“Hey wouldn’t it be cool if the stars were six-point stars?” my biracial daughter said as she fingered the silver Jewish Star pendant she always wore.”That would be me.”
Realizing that Maya did not consider herself to be a large rectangular piece of fabric flapping in the wind, I thought about what the colors represent. They come from the flag adopted by the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) in 1920. Red signifies the blood that unites people of Black African ancestry – and that they shed for liberation; black represents the Black people; and green color represents the natural wealth of the continent of Africa.
Combine that with a Magen David, so named because the design adorned King David’s shield when he led the Israelites into battle, and you have an unnecessarily militaristic mash-up. These days, though, both images are really more cultural symbols than anything else.
So when it came time to get a gift for Maya, I thought that a Star of David necklace with the UNIA colors would be perfect.
Easier said than done, though, as it turned out.
I searched a myriad of stores and pawed through countless street hawkers’ tables all over New York City. I waded through innumerable online venues getting seasick by the frightening quantity of options, none of which quite fit the bill. I even considered making a necklace for my kid, but a quick trip to the local crafts store put an end to that whim. I wanted something she would be proud, not embarrassed, to wear.
“There’s such a thing as trying too hard,” a friend told me. But, honestly, I like a good treasure hunt, especially one with nothing serious riding on it; life would go on if Maya didn’t get a necklace that she didn’t even know was out there. Or, perhaps I should say, a necklace that didn’t yet exist.
Then, one evening, I was determinedly scrolling through more online options and saw a vendor who offered Star of David pendants in a variety of pastel shades. Not exactly what I had in mind. But I figured if she could offer different color options, perhaps she could create the design with the hues I had in mind?
I emailed the artist and asked; she was happy to give it a shot. Her first attempt involved a mint green that didn’t quite fit the bill. I sent her a Google image of the Black Liberation Flag – and she came back with two beautiful options. I had it in my hands in just a few days.
When Maya unwrapped her gift, she gasped. (It’s not easy to surprise a teenager.) She took off the silver pendant she’d chosen herself in Jerusalem, put on the mash-up jewelry – and has worn it ever since.
“He was a tall man with broad shoulders, the type we used to call ‘a real goliath,’ powerful and with an unusual personality to boot. Unlike most of the Jews, he had no problem walking to his work, upright and with confidence. Instead of leading the line from the barracks, he insisted on bringing up the rear, and the whole way he would support the backs of those who had trouble walking. Avrum deh pusher (Avram the pusher), Avram deh Shtipper (Avram the booster), they used to call him in Yiddish. With his right hand, he picked up the weak, with his left he straightened the bent, and with his chest he pushed them forward. If he saw one of fellow Jews sway and fall, he would grab him quickly and give him a push so that the man could continue walking on his own. Everyone thought of him as a remarkable figure.”
This story is the eyewitness account of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the youngest survivor of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. It was he, like Judah the Macabbee in ancient time, who helped save lives in the camp with courage and love. During one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, Avram helped those along the way by instilling belief and hope that light can not only be found, but created, in the darkest of times.
When I light my menorah, I let the whole world know that sometimes I cannot see, and I really need you, my fellow-being, to show me the way, to lift me up, to push me forward and to enrouage me to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The curse of exile and the dread of being lost and confused, “like a blind man,” leaves me not knowing where to go, how to live–even on a day with the clearest skies.
“Rabbi Yosee said: ‘All my life I was unable to understand the verse (Deuteronomy 28:29) that says: ‘And you will fumble in the afternoon just as a blind man gropes during in the darkness’ (he asks) why should it make a difference whether the blind walks in darkness or light?! But then this one time I was walking in the pitch black of night and darkness, and I saw a blind man, and he was walking on the way with a torch in his hand. I said to him ‘my son, this torch, what is its purpose for you?’ and the blind man responded ‘whenever I have this torch in my hand, other people can see me, and rescue me from the openings, thorns and lightning. Talmud: Tractate-Megillah 24b
The blind man engages in the seemingly unnecessary act of holding a candle in the dark, so the rest of the world could support him At times we get caught up in our daily activities and our own misfortunes that I may pass someone who is holding a flame, and be so consumed, to never even see the menorah burning on the windowsill. As our sages tell us (Orach Chayim 672:1-2) that the time to light the menorah is when most people leave the market place to go home at the day’s end so that all can see the light permeating from your home.
In the words of Shlomo Carlebach, when we light the candles, I may be saying: “I don’t know where You are, but You better come get me.” We see a tremendous need today for light, but we must begin to realize, that if I don’t help my brother or sister stand, death would be imminent, if I don’t stop to appreciate the light in someone else’s home, then I’ll be afraid to admit that I sometimes am in need of light. Like Avrum deh shtipper, he lifted up those in need, because if he didn’t, no one else would.
Black Lives Matter, on the first night of Hanukkah and also on the second night, the third night and every other night and day of the year.
On the first light of Hanukkah, some in the Jewish community are taking the opportunity to express the sentiment that “Black Lives Matter.” We at Be’chol Lashon could not agree more. We dedicate ourselves to making the Jewish commitment to racial equality part of the everyday fabric of American Jewish life.
We believe strongly in society’s potential for transformation, but simultaneously know that protests alone are not enough. Real change requires long-term day-to-day work in the streets as well as in our synagogues, schools, camps and organizations.
First and foremost, as Jews we need to recognize that when we talk about Black lives, we are not talking about “them.” Studies show that 20% of the Jewish community identifies as something other than white or Askenazi. Unfortunately, our organizations, our narrative and the boundaries of our community do not always reflect this reality.
In order to affect change at the American societal level, we must begin at home. Be’chol Lashon has identified sustainable options to help the Jewish community be the change they wish to see in America.
First person stories and exposure are essential to helping people understand unfamiliar points of view. It is important to open ourselves to the plurality of voices and experiences that exist in the Jewish community. Jews of color, like all Jews, have a range of experiences and points of view. Be’chol Lashon’s media and speakers, such as recent documentary Little White Lie, are powerful tools to engage in discussions about race, identity and family. Get to know these stories, bring them to your communities to encourage proactive, positive conversations about race with Americans of all backgrounds.
Combating prejudice and racism starts with teaching children to
connect across differences, navigating diverse cultures with curiosity, sensitivity and confidence. Our curriculum—Passport to Peoplehood—expands children’s awareness of themselves in relation to the racial diversity of Jews and others around the world. Partnering with camps, JCCs, and schools we foster an understanding of the historic and contemporary reality of the Jewish people. Youth readily internalize new patterns of thinking and race and diversity must play a core part of Jewish education at every level.
Most people struggle when it comes to talking about race but true progress lies in our ability to broaden discussions beyond events such as Ferguson. The Race Project provides trainings to actively engage in crucial conversations and unravel race as a social construct. Just as we have come to realize that conversations about Israel are more productive when people are trained to listen or have facilitators assist the process, so too when it comes to race.
Outrage is understandable, but it is not a solution. Sustainable change needs time, work and commitment. Be’chol Lashon is devoted to bringing these kinds of opportunities to the Jewish community, because black lives matter both within and beyond the Jewish community.