“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.
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Celebrating Sukkot on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, as I did as a child, was fraught with complications. Evening temperatures often necessitated hats and heaters and our hot soup cooled before it had a chance to warm our insides. But the thrill of the holiday, the opportunity to sit out on nights it did not rain, under the green and the stars made it worthwhile. We lived in a middle-sized city with a small Jewish population but on our block there were two other families who sat in Sukkot. Our differing approaches to religion meant that we rarely shared meals but sitting out in the back yard we could hear each other repeat the same blessings and sing the same tunes and with that, our community felt expansive, our medley of practice seamless, and being Jewish was perfect.
That expansive safe inclusive feeling is essential to Sukkot. The holiday, which follows the hopefulness of Rosh Hashanah and the solemnity Yom Kippur, has us sitting in huts for seven days of ‘our joy,’ as our tradition calls this holiday. Sitting in Sukkot is supposed to remind us of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Though the people of Israel complained pretty much non-stop during the trek, it was in many ways a pretty wonderful time. Despite living in temporary dwellings, throughout, they were guided by God’s presence; they were provided with ample food and drink in a dry, sparse dessert landscape. Outsiders attacked them but God assured their safety. And those who wandered in the wilderness knew God through miracles and revelation. Temporary and rough though it might have been, in many ways it was a time of joy and possibility like no other. Jews of many tribes lived together in peace, they had deep sense of the holy in their midst and their basic needs were more than adequately take care of. Being Jewish was perfect.
As the celebration of Sukkot nears, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a perfect Jewish space—even if only a temporary one. For my daughter that place has been summer camp. For my son, it is his school fall retreat. I’ve been blessed over the years to have many temporary Jewish spaces that capture the expansive, inclusive, joyful feeling that Sukkot is meant to inspire but one that has gained particular meaning for me in the last few years is the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp.
Every fall, Be’chol Lashon organizes a weekend of Jewish learning, living and sharing in the rolling hills just north of San Francisco. Like the Sukkot singing of my childhood, the diversity of this community helps me experience the Jewish world as inclusive and accepting. There are people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, family configurations. Some people come alone, others come with several generations in tow. There are many different kinds of religious Jews and secular Jews too. The scholars-in-residence have ranged over the years from Indian-American artist Siona Benjamin, to chef and Afro-culinary historian Michael Twitty, to this year’s Rabbi Gershom Sizomu from Uganda. This range embodies my belief that there are many ways to be a Jewish leader and help me to see the full vibrancy of modern Jewish life. Black, Asian, Latino and white Jews share meals having serious conversations about race as well as fun and silly discussions about pop culture. It is a safe space and one in which Jewish life is inclusive, expansive and vibrant. And though it is temporary, like Sukkot, the retreat gives me hope and inspires me for the complexities of daily Jewish life.
Literally and figuratively Sukkot are essential for Jewish life. We all need oases where we feel the pure joy of being Jewish in an accepting, inclusive safe environment. Just as the holiday of Sukkot gives us hope during the somber High Holy days, having a Jewish space that lives up to your vision of Jewish community—even if temporary—can fuel the fullness of Jewish life at other times. Creating or finding that space, can be as challenging as wandering in the dessert or sitting in a Sukkah with a space heater, but making the effort is definitely worth your while.
“How did the Jews become a global people?”
“They got pushed around a bunch.”
“They had to go to different places.”
Indeed. Looking at the diversity of faces in the room the global nature of the Jewish community was not in dispute but the process of migration, the economic opportunities, the persecution, the trade that is at the root of Jewish experience needed to be unpacked and understood. And thus began our conversations about the global nature of Jewish life and our adventures at the 2014 session of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jews have always been a people on the move. The word Ivri, Hebrew for a Hebrew person, comes from the word to cross, because the very first words uttered by God to the first Jews, Abraham were “Go forth.” And so migration is the starting point for our exploration of Jewish communities around the world. India, Yemen, Uganda, Spain, Italy, Poland, Bazil and Mexico each of these countries has a unique Jewish experience that adds texture and complexity to the collective Jewish experience. For modern Jewish kids, who have friends of all ethnicities and live in a connected world where travel and news make the distances seem small, the international nature of Jewish life is something they relate to.
Talking will only take them so far, so once we set up the framework, we began exploring the music, food, dance and culture of different Jewish communities. The taste of homemade hummus brings to mind the falafel stands of Jerusalem, while the quickly fried chapatti calls forth the tastes of Jewish life in Uganda. The fine metal work of our curiously small menorahs opens up the craftsmanship of Yemenite Jews. The modern Ladino music of Sarah Aroeste reminds us of the value of the many Jewish languages that have been spoken through the years. Making mosaics helps us piece together the complex culture that was Jewish life in the Golden Era of Spain. An exploration of Italian Jewish history brings to life not only the words on the page of Talmud but they way the debates got laid out on the page. Our global activities and crafts help bridge the divide between past and present and across geography. Encountering the other we learn to appreciate the diversity of our community even as we explore points of connection. This is the basis for camp and for the global Jewish curriculum we are developing at Be’chol Lashon.
And after we ran through the timeline of Jewish history from the ancient past to the present, all the campers, counselors and specialists added their own important dates to the chart on the wall. Because ultimately that is what it is all about, writing ourselves into the ongoing history of a storied people. That and of course a swim at the lake!
“I’m Jewish& Black”
“I’m Jewish& Environmental Activist/writer”
“I’m Jewish& a Rabbinical Student”
“I’m Jewish& part Chinese part Catholic”
“I’m Jewish& Indian & a businessman”
“I’m Jewish& Australian, Japanese and American.”
“I’m Jewish& very into rock climbing”
“I’m Jewish& a mom, a lawyer, and too often a chauffeur”
“I’m Jewish& adopted & multiracial”
“I’m Jewish& Irish American and Gay”
“I’m Jewish& Arab”
“I’m Jewish& white and a Zayde”
“I’m Jewish& Proud of it!”
Jewish& is as open-ended as the Jewish people themselves. There is not now, nor has there ever been a single way to be, look or act Jewish. Jews are the original multicultural people, imbued with the varied influences of a history of migration that has taken us to every corner of the earth and back. The faces on this page are just some of the many many way Jews look Jewish. This blog exists to give voice the variety of Jewish identity. It highlights the ways in which Judaism not only coexists, but thrives with complementary identities. This blog explores the ways in which Jews have built and continue to build complex identities. It is a forum that celebrates the ways in which all Jews are Jewish&.
So tell us, what is your Jewish&?
As summer approaches and we gear up for another terrific session of Camp Be’chol Lashon, I keep thinking about all the kids who—regardless of the camp they are heading to— are worried they might not feel like they “belong.” I relate.My own commitment to Jewish camping comes in part from my childhood experience where I was usually the only Black camper at a variety of Jewish camps. As a camp director, I am committed to making sure that all those in my charge feel connected. And recently, I got a real life reminder of just how important reaching out and connecting can be.
This winter I was honored to attend the Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Attending “Leaders” opened my eyes to the vast world of Jewish camping, meeting and greeting numerous Jewish camp professionals invested in the varying interests and needs of our Jewish youth.
As exciting as this was, I once again had that familiar feeling of being on the outside looking in. I am a fairly new West Coast camp director of a small camp with a strong but still budding reputation. I was out on the East Coast by myself and knew only a handful of people heading into this largely regional powerhouse of Jewish camp staff. And, of course, the most superficial reason of all being that I am a man of color who, among his Jewish peers, looks out of place or invites inquiry as to the validity of my Jewish roots.
After our welcome dinner and schmooze time, like many of the participants I headed toward the hotel watering hole for some group reminiscing. Being new, after a round of small talk, I found myself with a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks playing a game of ‘one-on-none’ at the pool table behind the bar.
A gentleman whom I recognized from dinner approached the table.
He had spoken to the entire group in attendance regarding “Leaders,” touching on the overarching theme of the conference; one field, moving forward. He spoke about his previous work with Campbell Soups and how transitioning to the Jewish camp community allowed him to invest in a community that provided so much, not only to him but also to his loved ones. I had shed my name tag but he approached me and with familiarity said “Kenny, it’s great to have you out here from the West Coast. I get your monthly newsletter and enjoy reading it from top to bottom. I love the work you and your organization and camp are doing collectively.” He hung back and played with me for a bit before heading out. As I placed my empty glass on the counter, as newcomers I got the feeling that we shared a sense of being on the outside. Maybe not, but by coming over he had made me feel so welcome.
I finished my second round of libations and billiards on the solo and made my way to my sleeping quarters. I soon realized I forgot to pay for my drink, and to remove any potential stigma of the Jew of color not covering his bill, I headed back only to find that my tab was covered. I suspected my new friend had something to do with this and went to find him in the program.
It turned out that the same gentlemen who went out of his way to check in and give kudos for the work I do is none other than Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. He is one of the greater movers and shakers in the field of Jewish camping.
The following morning at breakfast I sat with one of my former campers who now directs Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley, California. As Zach and I sat among a few familiar faces, I felt a gentle pat on my shoulder followed by “’Morning Ken, it was great talking with you last night!” from Jeremy as he headed to his table up front. Zach’s look of bewilderment, as he questioned how on earth the Foundation for Jewish Camping CEO and I were on a first name basis so quickly, if at all made me realize that now I was an insider. Even though they say it’s lonely at the top, one could argue the same on the side or down through to the bottom
Experiences like this remind me that in today’s Jewish community we each have a responsibility to advocate for one another, take interest in happenings beyond our initial scope, and welcome the idea of making new connections. Diversity and inclusion was more than a topic of conversation or presentation. It is at the heart of what we build as programmers, lay-leaders, directors, staff and campers. We build life-long memories and experiences, where each member leaves camp eager to return the following year and often with companions eager to engage and become members too.
Young Jews today are growing up in a hyper-connected, globalized world. That means they must contend with challenging viewpoints, contrary experiences and differing values. They must not only deal with the multitude of identities to which they are exposed, they must deal with the fact that they, themselves, are developing multiple identities. No Jew is “Just Jewish.” Jews sport all sorts of identities, the ways they express and identify are countless; all Jews are “Jewish&”—hyphenated identities are the norm.
But this is nothing new. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. The center of Jewish life has shifted through massive migrations—the Crusades, Inquisition, the Holocaust and other persecutions. Not only is Jewish practice compelling and relevant, Jews are also skilled at adapting to changing circumstances.
Today, Jewish communities are highly dispersed. Even in communities with significant Jewish populations, people are more likely to be scattered among the general population than in previous generations. Jews act like other Americans. And whether through birth, intermarriage, conversion or adoption, we are more diverse than many assume. Approximately 20% of American Jews identify as either non-white or non-Ashkenazi. Race and ethnicity are important elements in shaping Jewish identity and expression.
My son Jonah is a high school student, the youngest of six siblings; he is an avid lacrosse player, who likes to skateboard and hang out with friends & he is African American. When my husband Gary Tobin, of blessed memory, and I adopted Jonah we wanted to find other African American Jewish role models for our son. What started as a research project became Be’chol Lashon, an internationally active growing organization dedicated to celebrating the historic and contemporary diversity that is the global Jewish community.
Young Jews develop and embrace global identities and diverse friendship circles. Diversity and inclusion are important components of the value system of most young people today, and a key lens through which they make choices about engagement in Jewish life. Cultural competence, the ability to interact with, learn from, navigate and incorporate different cultures, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Like Jonah, many Jews simply do not fit into single categories. And this isn’t new. Many of us never have. Peoplehood involves taking seriously the diversity of Jews and the complexity of our history. Jewish& provides an enriched understanding of the many rivers, as Langston Hughes put it, flowing through our veins and into our family’s collective memory. My son Jonah has many elements to his identity, he is Jewish&. In launching this blog, Be’chol Lashon hopes to share some of the many stories and takes on what it means to be Jewish.
More than at any time in the past, we live in a global world. Judaism looks different in different places. We know that there are many Jewish tales to tell and in telling them we will learn and grow together. Stay tuned as we meet Jews who live around the corner and around the world. Join us as we explore the challenges of building an inclusive Jewish community. Take some time to get to know Be’chol Lashon and the work we do. Let us know if you have a story idea, an issue to cover, or a Jewish& experience to share.