Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!
For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be’chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be’chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun-loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be’chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism-based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied “yes” immediately. The first year of Camp Be’chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by “traveling” to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.
My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month-long Judaism-based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.
However, Ramah and Be’chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.
Across the country next week, Americans of all faiths and ethnicities will remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Be’chol Lashon asked seven African American Jewish leaders, of all ages, backgrounds, religious affiliations, geographic regions and sexual orientations, to share short impressions of what Dr. King’s legacy means to them.
Dr. Lewis Gordon, an international scholar and teacher, is a professor of Africana philosophy, politics and religion at the University of Connecticut. His roots are in Jamaica and he is a frequent social commentator.
Twenty years ago my eldest son and I had a conversation on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I recounted Dr. King’s many great deeds, I mentioned his incarceration in Birmingham where he wrote his famous letter, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
My son was shaken. “Wasn’t Dr. King a good man?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why, then, was he in jail?”
Forced to explain that unjust societies punish people who stand up for what is right, I found myself engaged in one of the great lessons of Torah continued through the ages and illuminated by the courage of Dr. King: the revolutionary idea that ethics is the face of G-d, and dignity demands commitment to that extraordinary responsibility.
I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well.
As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.
Rabbi Capers Funnye is the Rabbi of Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1966 Dr. King came to the Marquette neighborhood where there was vitriolic expressions of hatred as African Americans moved in. Just four blocks from my synagogue was the headquarters of the Nazi Party. Dr. King said, “he had never seen anything so hostile and hateful,” as he did in Chicago. The Rabbi of this shul, Rabbi Schultz, was only 5’3,” but he stood up against the hatred. He let Dr. King know that if there was need to take sanctuary during a planned protest march, Rabbi Schultz would gladly welcome them and provide a safe haven. The violence stopped the march after two blocks. But the circumstance of this synagogue and this rabbi were some of the fantastic elements in the Jewish community that Martin Luther King touched and they reciprocated. I am proud to know men who worked with Dr. King and the representation they gave of Judaism enlivens me every day.
Dr. Denise Davis lives in the Bay Area where she practices medicine. She is a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is yom tov, a holy day reminding me that a prophetic voice can change the world. It is day of awe, recalling both oppression and courage. As a girl I was barred from enrolling in a segregated ballet school, but King’s transcendent oratories, and the principled commitment of Heschel made a change; these heroes are my heroes. I am an African American Jew. On MLK Day, I celebrate the power of transformation, and the resilience of human dignity. I celebrate a man and a movement close to the Divine.
Robin Washington is the editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. Born in Chicago to a family of African American and Jewish civil rights activists, his journalism and activism are nationally acclaimed.
For me, King is an unfinished story; largely because the Civil Rights Movement was over-identified with him to the exclusion of unsung others equally significant. That focus nearly took the movement with him with the widespread belief that it died when he died.
Indeed, no true successor has ever emerged; even President Obama would claim to be more of an inheritor than an architect of social justice.
But I refuse to bury the movement, and maybe that’s King’s legacy: Because he didn’t get there with us, the longing for his Promised Land remains, and his sacrifice demands we strive for it with all our being.
Lindsey Newman lives and works in New York. She is spearheading and leading Be’chol Lashon’s first Birthright Israel trip.
I most admire Martin Luther King, Jr. as a seeker of justice and a lover of humanity. When King says that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I am reminded that I am responsible for the world that I live in, whether I have caused harm or have merely witnessed it. Similarly, when the Torah insists “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue,” it is this pursuit of justice which is at the core of my identity as a Jew and a human being. King embodied this calling in his life and work, and his legacy is a reminder of this eternal struggle.
The most stunning moment of the Civil Rights era to me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Alabama. That iconic image and conversation is part of my spiritual genealogy, they are my ideological ancestors. Their souls were the parchment, the electrifying oratory and moral suasion their ink, their living Torah was a new covenant with the American dream, without which my dreams would be impossible.
It is, after all, a question that does not (and probably should not) have a completely rational, logical answer. Religion is not like algebra; it’s not even some sort of complicated spiritual calculus. At the core of it, faith cannot be deduced from a set of rational principles; it requires a leap of the heart.
The problem was that I didn’t feel religious, not for a long time. I had spent years envying my friends who were confident in their Christian belief; I only had doubt to console me. And yet, I was also driven by some need, a quiet longing buried deep, like a song I could not quite hear, a desire for something greater than myself. I wanted to pray and feel like it mattered that I did.
Of course, I felt ridiculous for wanting these things; I felt that it was irrational to think I had any concern for God, or that God had any concern for me.
Once when I was small, I left a plastic purse behind in a restaurant. My grandma patiently took me back, and we found the purse still sitting on the floor where I had left it. Happy to have it back, I told her how lucky I was to have found it. She shook her head: “No, God was watching out for you.”
My grandma’s response sounded reasonable at the time. But as I grew in experience, I slowly came to the realization that God doesn’t rearrange his schedule around my convenience. God doesn’t even let me choose at which times these things will work out to my advantage. And so I prayed: O God, I wouldn’t mind losing now and then, if only I could choose when I win!
When I first started the process of conversion, I really didn’t think that I would ever become a Jew. It was inconceivable to me. As a friend of mine once exclaimed when I told her I was converting “you can’t become Jewish; that’s like saying ‘I want to be Italian” — you can’t just wake up one day and decide to become Italian.” But the truth is, I didn’ t just wake up one day and decide to become Jewish. It was a gradual process that took several years.
I would have to say the day I first considered converting to Judaism was the first time I saw a page of the Talmud. I was talking with my boyfriend (now my ex-husband) about my reason for disliking religion (it’s one of those conversations college students are bound to have) and I told him that I didn’t like the emphasis in religion on having faith in a certain set of beliefs. I felt that my church had not let me have room to doubt or to argue or to disagree. He said that Judaism did not insist on a set of beliefs; in fact, arguing was part of the tradition. I didn’t believe him, so he took me down to a bookstore, pulled out one of the volumes of the Talmud (the illustrated gift set, stored next to the presentation bibles). He was quite proud of himself: “See, this here in the middle is the text, and round the sides are the commentary. They’re arguing about the meaning of the text.” I was immediately intrigued. I could like a people who would write their arguments along the margins of the text.
That day, I started quietly reading about Judaism, hiding the books under my bed. Years later, my husband insisted that I buy just one Jewish book at a time. I was lucky, actually, because I was able to find what I was looking for: a warm religious community at Temple Beth El, and educational opportunities like an Introduction to Judaism, the Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, and the weekly Torah study. Maybe my grandma was right after all: God was watching out for me.
The question is sometimes also asked: Could I have found what I was looking for if I had stayed a Christian? The answer probably would have been yes. But it’s a moot point now. To paraphrase Robert Frost: I have taken the road less traveled, and for me that has made all the difference. Even so, I recognize that conversion is not the answer for everyone. It is a process a person goes through for their own reasons in their own time. It is, after all, a private choice, probably the most private choice of all. No one can make that decision for you.
So, to answer the question, why did I convert: I converted to Judaism because it provided me a way to answer the longing that I felt. Or to put it more poetically: I changed my name to Israel because I was wrestling with God.
If you’re exploring conversion or know people who are, we recommend Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for the Family and Friends.
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Oklahoma City, where I live, has an amazing Jewish community. And, unfortunately, this amazing Jewish community is an expert in dealing with disaster. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the relentless wave of deadly tornadoes that have hit the area, Okie Jews (as we proudly call ourselves) respond with generosity, gumption, and optimism. So when this week our rabbi told us that two relatives of members of the community were in the affected area of Typhoon Haiyan, the community sprung into action. Donations were requested, support for the concerned families was arranged and we decided to help with our prayers by reciting the entire book of Psalms in the coming month (5 Psalms a day covers it all).
In Jewish tradition, whenever disaster strikes it is customary to accompany our physical response together with a spiritual response: prayer, action, and tzedakah (charitable deeds) are the Jewish response to tragedy. Traditionally, prayer come from the book of Psalms with its evocative language of raw humanity and hope has been a preferred tool to raise our awareness of the suffering of those affected but also to inspire us to compassion and proactivity.
As part of my work with Be’chol Lashon, I teach Torah online to Spanish speaking Jews and Spanish speakers interested in Judaism. Inspired by the Okie response, that night I invited my Spanish language learning community on Facebook to join us in the recitation of Psalms for the victims.
“Why are you doing this?” some wanted to know. The answers came from the students themselves. A student from Honduras recalled the help they had received when Hurricane Mitch hit this country. A student from Colombia emphasized the responsibility he felt as a human being with any kind of human suffering. A Mexican student quoted the words of Hillel ”If I am only for myself, what am I?” The support was overwhelming. Scores of people volunteered to connect with my brick and mortar community in Oklahoma to reach out in prayer and action for a community halfway across the world.
These feelings of altruism and generosity are not new but what is surprising is the way in which living in a wired world has expanded the breadth of the planet´s capacity for empathy. In this world where no longer are we separated by six degrees (latest studies calculate it at four and plummeting) of separation. A synagogue in Oklahoma might be the vehicle for scores of Latin-Americans to connect with a tragedy halfway around the world and to do so in unmistakably Jewish ways. Tehilim are being said, and donations are being gathered by total strangers for total strangers. For all of its downsides, our global village has allowed the highest forms of tzedakah (in which both the donor and the recipient do so anonymously) to break the barriers of the pushke and the local synagogue and go global.
As part of a gap year between high school and college, I spent six months in Santiago, Chile. I was there partly to improve my Spanish, and partly to study music. I wasn’t expecting to meet any other Jews while in Santiago, Chile—the country is predominantly Catholic, and the Jewish population is vanishingly small compared to that of the US. Through a stroke of luck (and some of those Jewish connections that pop up where you least expect them), I ended up finding a home stay with a Jewish family in Santiago just a few weeks before arriving in Chile – and of course I immediately took the opportunity.
Just a few days after arriving in Chile, I went to my first Shabbat services with my host family, not really knowing what to expect. For Adon Olam the Rabbi sang a mariachi tune (complete with sombreros and guitars), which was by far the weirdest yet most entertaining rendition of Adon Olam that I’ve ever heard. I was fully prepared to accept this as Chilean Judaism, but, as I eventually figured out through my garbled Spanish, the mariachi was just a pre-Purim special. (In general services were much more similar to what I was used to from home, but now I’m starting to wish that home had a special pre-Purim Adon Olam performance too).
Before going to Chile, I’d only ever been a part of the Jewish community that I grew up in, so I can only guess which parts of my experience were uniquely Chilean and which were just a part of Judaism I had yet to see. For example, I suspect that there are not very many Jewish wedding receptions with all-night dancing outside of Chile. (My host mom told me ahead of time that it would be rude to leave much earlier than 3 am). I may be wrong about that, though, since the only other Jewish weddings I’ve been to were as a little kid. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong, since I already found out that Hashkiveinu is not in fact a lullaby unique to Chile. (Imagine my surprise showing up at the my first Shabbat in college only to hear them singing a Chilean melody!)
Having already found this unexpected connection between Judaism in Chile and at home, I’m hopeful I’ll rediscover many of my Jewish experiences from Chile: meeting new friends at every Shabbat dinner; accompanying Shabbat melodies on my violin; celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut el Estadio Israelita (think Chilean JCC); going to the spunky, 100% student-run Chilean branch of Hashomer Hatzair. It’s a fantastic thing to have a thread of shared experience that connects me to others living in a country halfway across the globe, and I’m still discovering just how deep the connection goes.