Author Archives: Malkie Schwartz

Malkie Schwartz

About Malkie Schwartz

Malkie Schwartz is the Director of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s (ISJL) Department of Community Engagement. Malkie joined the ISJL staff in 2009 to complete the mission of the ISJL by ensuring that in addition to educational, cultural and rabbinic opportunities, the ISJL can be a resource to Southern Jewish communities wishing to elevate the role that service plays in Jewish life. Since the department’s launch, the ISJL has introduced T.A.P. (Talk About the Problems), a conflict resolution/peer mediation program; Read, Lead, Succeed, a cross age reading program; and The Health Express, a peer-to-peer health education program, to schools in the Jackson, Mississippi metro area. In addition, the ISJL recently began partnering with a cohort of congregations to begin replicating these initiatives in their own communities. Malkie’s position at the ISJL was preceded by 5 years of experience serving as the founding executive director of Footsteps, a New York City based non-profit organization that provides educational, vocational, social and emotional assistance to people who are seeking to transition from an ultra-orthodox lifestyle into the mainstream world. Malkie is a graduate of Hunter College and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She is a Repair the World Fellow and currently lives in Jackson, MS. Malkie serves on the board of Jackson 2000, an organization that promotes racial harmony in Jackson.

Checking Your Privilege: It’s a Mitzvah

gold-cardYears ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.

This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.

Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.

His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”

There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.

But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”

My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”

Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.

Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.

I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.

Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.

In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?

I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege. 

What do you think?

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Posted on May 5, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Meet Another Moses

bob moses

Bob Moses

Do you know Mr. Moses? Mr. Bob Moses?

I’ve always associated Bob Moses’s name with civil rights and, specifically, his well-known initiative the “Algebra Project.” The Algebra Project, according to its mission statement, “uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America.”

The more I learn about Mr. Moses, the more impressed I become. Bob Moses was the man the press considered “the mastermind” behind Freedom Summer. He worked with Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Summer to bring over 1,000 college students from out of state to teach in Freedom Schools and register voters.

To many, his last name—Moses—seemed more than appropriate.

And so, as Passover continues, I thought I’d encourage people to learn the story of another Moses: Bob Moses. While he did not split the Red Sea, he led a mission to redeem people who had been prevented from exercising their right to vote and receiving a high quality education. Learning more about Freedom Summer, I have a greater understanding of this modern day Moses. This African American Spiritual has made it into many Haggadot and, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, it seems fit to recognize the heroism of Mr. (Bob) Moses:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,

Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.

Go down( BOB) Moses,

Way down in Mississippi-land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

50 years later, Bob Moses continues to do incredible work. He, along with many Freedom Summer volunteers will be in Mississippi from June 25 through June 29 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this watershed event. The ISJL looks forward to welcoming people to Mississippi to participate in the commemoration, and particularly looks forward to welcoming today’s Jewish activists who can participate in a special summit to learn about the Jewish legacy of Freedom Summer and focus on Jewish social justice activism today. Learn more here!

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Posted on April 18, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Freedom From Passover Is Freedom, Too

The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews).  At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.

matzaDay to day, I see myself as a change-agent, someone who works to combat injustice. Therefore, people who know me think—Passover, that holiday must be right up Malkie’s alley!

However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.

As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.

However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.

Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.

I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.

Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.

My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 31, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy