In overt and in subtle ways, so many of our Jewish institutions and communities have let dominant narratives dictate who is a Jew. Too often, Jews of color enter Jewish space that has been shaped by assumptions of whiteness that transform safe, communal and warm spaces into places fraught with curiosity, exoticization and discrimination. When white Ashkenazi Judaism is the accepted unexamined beacon of who a Jew is in our communities, we inadvertently prevent many Jews and their families from being able to fully participate in Jewish life. Not only do we render these Jews and their family members invisible — or worse, unwelcome — we are also not able to address adequately their needs or their spiritual yearnings.
Embracing Jews of varied races and ethnicities is about our survival and our thriving as a people. We all benefit from shifting the dominant narrative. When there is greater inclusion, our communities are enriched and vibrant. We are more authentic in our diversity, and that has tremendous cultural and spiritual benefits for all of us.
Too often, even the well-intentioned desire to “become more inclusive” is framed in ways that feel charitable or altruistic. This perspective treats Jews of color and multiple ethnicities as if they are either in need of our acceptance or should be grateful for it. The framework we need to adopt is that there are multiple Jewish identities and origins, all of which are components of Jewish peoplehood.
At Congregation Bet Haverim, I have sought to deepen our awareness of the vast richness of Jewish civilization that extends beyond Eastern Europe. We began to learn from the global Jewish community and to incorporate an array of Jewish lore, rituals, music and prayer forms into our worship services, and family and adult education. This global approach has created entry points for Jews of different ethnicities to feel welcomed. For example, a bar mitzvah of Indian and Jewish heritage requested that we incorporate the piyyut Ahot Ketanah, which emerged from the Indian Jewish community, at his bar mitzvah. He had experienced it as part of our High Holiday ritual and remembered that we honored his heritage, and he felt affirmed.
It is important to incorporate prayers from Yemen, Uganda or India, and to learn about those Jewish communities. That learning, however, doesn’t always shift how people in our communities are actually treated. We must ask: How does the community represent itself? Who are the community’s leaders? Who takes an active part in communal ritual life? Who serves on the board? Who are the people giving sermons, singing in the chorus, teaching our children? How are Jews represented visually in the collateral materials of the community and on the walls? If there is a lack of diversity, it must be recognized and addressed.
We also must think about how people are treated when they walk into the building. We have regularly sent our community communications with these five guidelines:
1. Avoid making assumptions about gender identity, sexual orientation, religious identity, Jewish background, race or reasons for joining us.
2. Respect a person’s identity and self-label, and respect a person’s chosen name and pronouns. Do not comment about whether a name sounds Jewish or not.
3. Do not comment on whether someone looks Jewish or not.
4. Do not assume people want to only speak about their identity, particularly when their identity is different from yours. Engage them in conversation and get to know them. Be engaging rather than curious.
5. Do not expect a guest to immediately become your resource on understanding their identity.
Having representation matters internally. When we had more than one Jewish person of color sit on the board, issues pertaining to race within the congregation were addressed organically. Everyone’s awareness was engaged in a natural and relational way. It also helped to shift the “who is a Jew” narrative without always needing to be explicit. Recently, a black Jewish teenager told me that when he was a child, it was meaningful for him to see a black Jewish woman have an aliyah. Not only did it help him envision having a bar mitzvah, but it encouraged him to become a gabbai rishon in our community years later.
It also matters externally. For instance, when our first vice president, a Jew of color, represented the synagogue at a memorial service for Coretta Scott King, other Jews of color noticed, and people of color interested in Judaism took note and showed up at the synagogue understanding that they would likely be welcome. By having Jews of color in visible leadership positions, Congregation Bet Haverim was able to participate in forums that were largely for people of color. We were often the only Jewish voice represented in those important spaces.
It also makes a difference if our communities are involved in justice issues around racial equity. For Jewish leaders who have worked on issues of racial justice, I have noticed that some of us have a tendency to distance ourselves from Jews who have less experience in challenging racism. We can be frustrated and even dismissive of “white” Jews who are reluctant to examine their privilege. I strongly believe that this is the work in which we must engage. We must cultivate patience, listening and a way to speak of these issues that is encouraging and helpful, rather than shaming.
There is a great deal of ground to cover, and it can feel daunting. Yet this work is essential, and it is also rewarding. The more these values, principles and approaches become part of our communities, the more authentic and whole we become. A commitment to shift the culture around race will result in benefits that radiate well beyond race. This approach is a sacred obligation, and I believe it is a key both to our survival and how we will thrive. JN
Rabbi Joshua Lesser is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta. This piece is an excerpt from an essay originally published on the website Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, an initiative of Reconstructing Judaism. The full version can be found here.