Meet Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

This is a new series featuring the incredible work of some of the most groundbreaking rabbis in the Jewish world.

Meet Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Director of Education for Be’chol Lashon, an organization devoted to promoting diversity in Jewish spaces.

It is because of her valuable point of view, and the importance Rabbis Without Borders places on diversity that Rabbi Abusch Magder was chosen to be part of our rabbinical network.  Recently, Rabbis Without Borders was able to sit down with Rabbi Abusch Magder to get to know more about her work.

Rabbi Abusch Magder’s Work

As Director of Education for Be’chol Lashon, Rabbi Abusch Magder’s job has become an essential one for the Jewish world in this day and age: not just teaching people about the value of diversity, but what diversity even means to Jews.

As she puts it,

This is a new and emerging area in the Jewish world in America, even though Jewish diversity is global and historic and goes back to ancient times. So I’m creating new materials for holidays, for learning about Jews around the world.

We also do a lot of training. We help people think about how to talk about race and how to engage with their students who come from different backgrounds and come from different points of view, so that everybody in the Jewish community has a better understanding of diversity and the value of diversity as it relates to the Jewish world.

Such a massive undertaking was actually inspired by Rabbi Abusch Magder’s own experience before she decided to make this her life’s work. Despite a world-class Jewish studies education, Rabbi Abusch Magder pointed out that almost everything she learned about Jews came from the perspective of a very specific group of Jews: those of European descent.

As she put it,

I received an undergraduate degree in Jewish Studies, a Ph.D. in Jewish History, and a Rabbinic degree. After all that, I still knew almost nothing about Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, India, or Ethiopia.

I could literally write books about German Jews, but I could say almost nothing about these others Jews.  I realized that there was a big hole in the mainstream part of the Jewish community, and I had the opportunity as someone who understands that world, to potentially help change the conversation within that world.

Why Diversity Matters

According to Rabbi Abusch Magder, diversity itself is largely misunderstood in the Jewish world.  It’s not that we need to value it: it is embedded in who we are:

Diversity is fundamental to Jewish life. What’s the very first time we see Jewish peoplehood? It’s not with Abraham, it’s not with Isaac, it’s not with Jacob. It’s with Jacob’s children. We only become a people when we have twelve different tribes. So that model of one from many is fundamental to Judaism. There is no such thing as Jewish peoplehood without diversity. It just doesn’t exist.

The issue, according to Rabbi Abusch Magder, is that we’ve become confused as a people because we think that since “diversity” has become a buzzword in America, that it is a new idea.  Something Jews need to implant on their existing beliefs.  To Rabbi Abusch Magder, the truth is the exact opposite.

“I’m a white Ashkenazi Jew,” she said,

People look at me and they think ‘that’s what a real Jew looks like.’ But of course, more than a thousand years before my ancestors got to Poland, there were Jews in India, Iraq, Iran, and Ethiopia. There were Jews in places with much darker skins, for much, much longer than there were ever Jews in Poland.

…The fundamental idea that diversity is a new thing to the Jewish community, is really about an American narrative that is narrow and based in the limited understanding of migration.

It is this sort of education that Rabbi Abusch Magder has made her mission to instill in her work.  While the Jewish world has narratives about “the way things are,” Rabbi Abusch Magder’s mission has been to teach that many of these narratives are largely artificial and based on a misperception around what diversity means to the Jewish people.

In so doing, she has made incredible leaps in how Jews don’t just view diversity, but view what it means to be Jewish.

Giving Permission

In our discussion, Rabbi Abusch Magder shared a story that exemplified the power of teaching diversity in a stark and beautiful way.

She was in a Jewish Day School classroom with a fourth-grade teacher and her class.  Among the exercises she had given them, one of them included having children write up to ten passports they would use for other activities.  One child whose mom was Japanese refused to fill out anything about nationality. Rabbi Abusch Magder and the teacher decided not to push it.  The child was also not sitting still, moving around, and not focusing on the lesson.

Eventually, the students began to discuss their nationalities with each other.  Rabbi Abusch Magder, in an attempt to steer the conversation in a way that wouldn’t cause anyone to feel excluded, decided to ask the teacher what her nationality was.

“I said to the teacher, ‘Why don’t you talk to them about who you are?’” Rabbi Abusch Magder describes, “So she said to the kids, ‘Where do you think I’m from? What do you think I am?’”  Since the teacher didn’t fit into the normal racial constructs the students were used to learning about (“her skin tone was café Au’ lait”), the students had trouble responding.  Finally, the teacher told the class, “I’m actually Asian American.”  And this is the moment that struck Rabbi Abusch Magder so deeply: “The Japanese American boy jumped up and this is in a day school, said, “I’m Asian too.” From then on, he participated happily in the class. Because until that point, he’s never seen anybody talk about being an Asian Jew ever in his life. He’s talked about being Jewish and he knows he’s Asian.  He goes to Japan every summer.

“This was not a child who wasn’t aware of both his Asian and Jewish identities. But he’d never had anybody put them together, and so for me, that was just this fabulous moment of us giving permission.”

It is moments like this that mark Rabbi Abusch Magder’s work, and that educate not just white Jews, but Jews of all backgrounds, to see their identity in a way that they never have before.  And that revelation can be profoundly life-altering. According to Rabbi Abusch Magder, this was not a one-time occurrence: “I see it again and again… It happens all the time for people.”


Get To Know Rabbi Abusch Magder

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Stay tuned for more profiles of the rabbis changing the face of Jewry today.

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