When White Rabbis Talk About Race

White rabbis are talking about race. Over the last few years, sermons about race and racial issues have come to me occasionally but on the first work day after Rosh Hashanah this year, my social network signaled a shift. From coast to coast, in big and small congregations, in big and small cities, across denominations, white rabbis were talking about race.

But talking about race is hard. Studies show most white people generally don’t talk about race. So for a white rabbi to stand in front of a congregation, that is overwhelmingly white, and discuss race on the most important day of the Jewish year, signals the willingness of these leaders to do just that, lead.

I am a white rabbi who has been working on issues of race and ethnicity as the Rabbi-in-Residence and Director of Education for Be’chol Lashon for over five years, and know just how complex talking about race in Jewish settings can be. So I am grateful to the colleagues and friends who shared many sermons with me. They took a chance, addressing an issue so large and critical that cannot be fully addressed in one brief sharing. I also know that these white rabbis, and many other clergy, will return to the subject of race in other sermons this year. What follows is a list of observations drawn from the collection  and suggestions for how to tackle this crucial but not easy subject. While there is no single way to address race or racism, there are elements to consider that can help us lead well.

Diversity and justice are Jewish issues. As is to be expected, rabbinic sermons while often including contemporary stories, personal recollections, academic wisdom also drew heavily on traditional Jewish texts. There is wisdom on empathy, on connecting with others who are not like ourselves.  We have much in our tradition that can and should guide us in our thinking and actions. Addressing race and racism is not a fad; it is a deeply Jewish value.

Do not assume or foster the assumption that no Jews are Black. As well intentioned as my colleagues are, very few made space in the paradigms they set up for the existence of African-American Jews. Studies, including those done by Be’chol Lashon and the most recent New York Jewish population survey, show that 20 percent of Jews are either not-white or non-Ashkenazi. I’ve had many white rabbis tell me that there are no African Americans in their communities so there is no need to talk about African-American Jews. Unfortunately, the lack of open conversation about diversity helps foster the sense in the Jewish community that African Americans are not welcome. Even when we do not “see” race, it may be hidden in our communities; cousins, grandchildren, step-parents or even siblings may not be the same race as the person in front of you. In order to change Jewish attitudes about race we cannot ignore the racism within our own communities.

Complicate Blackness. The #BlackLivesMatter has done a great service in shining a spotlight on the injustices of racism as did these sermons.  These are many, highly troubling and in need of addressing. But in addressing the harm of racism, we need beware of perpetuating the very stereotyping we abhor. White Jewish leaders should be careful not to talk about all Black people as in need our help or rescue. If the only frame our white young people have with Blacks comes through participation in Tikkun Olam, then they may well be at a loss when they encounter a Black college roommate of a more privileged economic status or a Black bar mitzvah tutor more skilled at teaching trope than the white rabbi.

Complicate race. Few rabbis expanded their discussion of race beyond the focus on the African-American experience. The history of slavery and civil right in the United States is a central organizing element of American society and culture. And given the focus on this year’s most troubling events the focus on #BlackLivesMatter this is understandable. However, African Americans are only one of many racial minorities in the United States. Complexity around how different groups interact with each other grows in importance as we move towards 2042, the year that demographers project that there will no longer be a white majority in the United States. As demographic shifts continue to take place, we need to expand our thinking about race beyond Black and white. This pertains not only to the general population but to our own communities as well. Just as there are African-American Jews, there are also Arab, Mizrachi, Sephardi, Asian, Latino and mixed-race Jews.

READ: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi Jews — Jewish Ethnic Diversity

Complicate whiteness. Several white rabbis addressed the understanding of whiteness as its own as a category of identity and in relationship to power. Whiteness is a complicated modifier for Jews. Drawing on the work of historian Karen Brodkin, these rabbis unpacked the route by which only in the last century or so did lighter-skinned Jews come to be considered white and how that identification is tied to Jewish success at assimilation. Claiming whiteness means owning our power within the dynamics of American life, which can feel uncomfortable for Jews whose memories and experiences of Anti-Semitism make them uneasy. But how we see ourselves is only part of the puzzle. As Rabbi David Spinrad shared, “With the vital exception of Jews of color, the vast and overwhelming majority of us are white. We are Jews but we are white. We are seen by others first as white. Our whiteness is the natural outcome of our acceptance and assimilation into American society and we are the beneficiaries of a meritocracy that favors the perceived color of our skin.” And while this may make some of us uncomfortable, it is a reality nonetheless.

The historical Jewish connection to Civil Rights is just a starting point. One of the strengths of the array of sermons I read and listened to was the treatment of the historic Jewish involvement in Civil Rights. I suspect that there is a strong correlation between those who participated in the NAACP’s Journey to Justice and those who sought to challenge Jews to think not just of historic Jewish involvement but of our contemporary obligation to engage with issues of race and racism. It is not enough to idealize the past.

Personal connection makes a difference. In addition to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the participation of rabbis in the NAACP’s Journey to Justice clearly had an impact in raising awareness and sense of urgency around issues of racial justice. Racial injustice is not a new problem in America. There are white rabbis who work in non-profits and organizations that daily fight for racial justice. But the broad sense of immediacy is new for many white rabbis.  Over the period of the march, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism organized Jewish participation with over 200 rabbis in various legs of the walk from Selma to Washington DC. What rabbis experienced and heard changed them. The power of these personal experiences really does make a difference. Many sermons spoke of the power of listening to others and their stories. If we want change to happen we need to foster personal connections.

Be wary your own expertise. While I applaud the desire of many Jewish leaders and communities to address racism, I encourage individuals and institutions to be wary of their ability to become “experts” on how to talk about race or create inclusion. After five years of working in this field, I still make mis-steps, I still consult with a wide array of people to help me shape my work. I also know there are no shortcuts. The complex intersection of Jewish and American experience ensures that there is no simple way for me to move myself or our community forward. Checking off a to do list of things to make a synagogue inclusive will not fix racism, not even in our sacred spaces. Taking this on means ongoing learning, reflection, work and dialogue.

Let Jews who live daily with racism and its complexity speak. The High Holy Days are like the Oscars of Jewish life, most rabbis do not want to give up their critical air time. But Rabbi Joshua Lesser did just that. While he has spoken about racial justice in the past, this year he invited a white mother to speak of her experiences raising an African American child. The personal nature of her words has already sparked action and organizing within the congregation. One of the key ways to make change happen is to model the change ourselves.

If all of this seems like a great deal to take in, it is. The topic of race and racial justice is broad and encompassing, complex and challenging. But shying away from addressing race is not a Jewish option. I am grateful for a growing awareness among rabbis and other Jewish leaders for the need to talk about race. For those interested in continuing the conversation, I encourage you to be in touch with me at Be’chol Lashon or to join our Rabbinic Circle. I encourage you to talk with each other, with others in your community. I encourage you to read and to listen. This is not a journey to be travelled alone but together as Jews and as leaders.

Photo credit: Camp Be’chol Lashon 

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