Tag Archives: community engagement

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

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Southern Hospitality & Jewish Introverts

introvertAre we doing enough to nurture Jewish introverts?

It’s a fair question. Jewish culture is often depicted as loud, full of debate, everyone cracking a joke or raising their voice to make a point. And here in the South, hospitality is so important – but does Southern Hospitality, and Jewish community, do enough to be genuinely nurturing to the more introverted among us?

Susan Cain is the author of Quiet, a book that challenges cultural biases for and against extroversion and introversion. The term introvert, she points out, denotes a personality style that is often more “reserved, contemplative, and passive” while the term extrovert denotes a personality style that is often associated with “assertiveness, charisma, gregariousness, social dominance.” But, why, she asks, are extroverts viewed as superior to introverts?

My sister sent me this TED talk and—rather than infer whether or not she sent it to me because she thinks that I am an introvert—I have spent some time wondering whether the Jewish community fits Susan Cain’s characterization of many modern day institutions which she suggests are structured for extroverts – including schools, offices and camps. The Jewish community, as a microcosm of the world at large, is made up of similar institutions and places tremendous value on the concept of “community” which seems intrinsically extrovert friendly. (How much more so, those of us working in Community Engagement?!)

Ms. Cain points out that many change-makers would describe themselves as shy, soft-spoken and quiet. She names Ghandi and Rosa Parks as examples. Soft-spoken leaders, she argues, are popular because people know that they are not at the helm because they are craving power and attention. Instead, they are at the helm because they don’t think that they have a choice. They have a mission. She mentions that her grandfather who was a Rabbi—spent a lot of time in solitude. Yet, he led a congregation in Brooklyn and gave sermons in front of large audiences. She shared a suitcase of books written by her grandfather’s favorite authors and talked about how, as a child, reading and wandering off in her own mind, was one of her favorite things to do. When she went to camp, she was encouraged to be more “social.” Ms. Cain acknowledges the importance of being social but believes that the world loses out when introverts are expected to be pretend-extroverts and, like her, are not encouraged to read books at camp. As a girl, she figured out that the suitcase of books she brought with her to camp belonged under her bed.

She ends her talk with three calls to action which made me consider whether there are calls to action that would be particularly appropriate for members of the Jewish community to reflect upon. Here are my calls to action:

-Share ideas on how your Jewish community provides space for people who may be introverts to thrive Jewishly.

-Ask yourself: Does our community make introverts feel guilty for wanting to experience Judaism on their own? If so, how can we change that?

-Ask yourself: What is in your “suitcase?” Why did you put them there? If you are an introvert, on occasion, have the courage to, as Ms. Cain says, speak softly and share your thoughts and wisdom with the community.  If you are an extrovert, share what is in your suitcase and have the courage to recognize the value of the soft-spoken people in your midst.

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Posted on March 10, 2014

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The Legacy of Lee Lorch

“In the Nazi concentration camps of Germany people had seen the end results of racism.”- Lee Lorch to New York Times interviewer William Kelly

As a recently returned WWII veteran, Lee Lorch was in need of a place to live. Like many other veterans, Lorch and his family moved into Stuyvesant Town, a housing development in Manhattan.

Lorch was lucky enough to be a prime housing candidate for this development, as he was recently quoted as saying in a New York Times tribute, “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”

Lorch, who identified as Jewish, joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in many efforts, and even one failed lawsuit, to rectify the wrongs wrought by housing discrimination.

Because of his role as a civil rights activist and his suspected involvement with the Communist party, Lorch was forced to leave three teaching positions at three different academic institutions, two of which were historically black colleges in the South (one in Tennessee and one in Arkansas).

Lorch died recently at ninety-eight, professing his unfaltering belief that he had done the right thing, only wishing he could have done more, until the very end. You can read his obituary in the New York Times here.

As a non-Jew, I find the role his Jewish identity and the role of the American Jewish Congress in fighting housing discrimination based on race fascinating and captivating, particularly because the white Christian community was not particularly involved with this struggle at the time. In fact, many Christian organizations (the Ku Klux Klan comes to mind) actively fought, often times violently, for oppression.

As a person who grew up a white Christian and still ascribes to a particular type of Christian spirituality, I consider it of utmost importance to examine the dark parts of the religion, not only in its history, but also in modern times. As LexRofes mentioned in his most recent blog post, Senate Bill 2681 is being fought for in Mississippi. This bill legalizes discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. As Lex reflects upon how his Jewish identity calls for him to reject this bill due, in particular, to the negative implications it might have for the LGBT community, I would like to call upon how my Christian identity also calls me to do so.

Fundamentalist Christians are notorious for preaching discrimination and oppression for and against people groups they consider different from themselves. Citing ancient and out of context passages from the Bible, they conjure images of fire and brimstone and promise that homosexuality is abhorred by god. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church is almost entirely built upon their motto: “God hates fags.”

I find it incredibly embarrassing that I even in name share a religious identity with this church. My understanding of the teachings of Jesus are so deeply steeped in love that it is completely impossible for me to understand how people can call themselves Christians and yet act so hateful, so un-Christ-like. Coming from a Christian perspective, I beg the leaders in Mississippi government, most of whom identify as Christian, to consider Christianity’s in part discriminatory past and not allow history to repeat itself.

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Posted on March 6, 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

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