a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

We Should be Working on Jewish Diversity Every Day

Posted on: June 25, 2016

I was browsing a few shuls in the Seattle/Tacoma area looking for the websites of prayer spaces that I have been in to be added to the Welcoming Synagogues list JMN has been curating for the last several years. As I browsed through some of the local synagogues I personally vetted I and noticed the word “diverse” used in nearly every mission statement of Seattle-area shuls. Let me take a moment to acknowledge that diversity means a lot of things and these sites definitely do not specify what diversity means to them. And while I would have to agree that on some levels the spaces I’ve been in have represented a diversity in age and gender and in some cases sexual orientation and gender presentation, they lack racial diversity. And for me, and for most JOCs I would have to argue, when we see words like “welcoming” “inclusive” and  “diverse” we presume that it refers to racial diversity. But our hopes are almost often gnashed when we see only white faces in photos and when inclusiveness means interfaith. (Seriously, just call it interfaith).

I’ve written about mission statements before. I’ve helped write and re-write them for organizations and causes. They are useful tools and they are written to have all of the “right” words if you’re going to attract the people you hope to serve. I also find that they are really, in a lot of cases, empty promises written from a place of aspiration and intention, but more often than not, fall flat. Synagogue mission statements should be more honest like, “We’re working hard on inclusion and diversity, but we’re not great at it.” or “We’re trying to be diverse and inclusive to all people, but we’re not sure what that means really.” or “We’re complete shit at diversity, but we don’t want to be.” If mission statements read honestly I and other folks “on the fringes” would know what we’re getting into.

In NYC I never really paid much attention to them because they were often disappointing and inaccurate. And because most of shuls or minyanim I attended were vetted by friends. Therefore before entering a new space I knew which ones were truly egalitarian, which ones had a more young, hipster crowd. Which ones had a sprinkling of JOCs, which ones were super queer friendly. And which ones to avoid at all costs. Not everyone has friends who are JOCs or perhaps you’re new to a city or are curious about converting to Judaism. When you’re in this position, the synagogue mission statement is often the first thing to be clicked on.

So when our mission statements say diversity and it means racial diversity, what is it that we’re really doing, really. Are our mission statements aspirations for bigger goals? Are we only concerned about racial diversity when it’s brought to our attention? Do we fall back on easy outs like MLK or Black History Month? And what would happen if, say, we focused our attention – as a Jewish community – on Jewish diversity in the same way we focused on making women equal participants in prayer spaces and LGBTQ folks? I say this with 100% realization that we don’t do these things very well all of the time either, but we don’t balk when we see a woman on the bimah or a rabbi who is a lesbian. We write “LGBTQ” and “egalitarian” in our mission statements, but when is it time to write, “Welcoming to Jews of Color, Multiracial Jews and their families.” Is it so hard to do?

I didn’t write this post with the intention to go on and on about mission statements, but to mull over this idea that talking about Jewish  Diversity and all that goes with it; race, racism, privilege, etc. is a hard pill to swallow. Recently I gave a talk at a local shul in Seattle (that is actually really great at recognizing the need for more nuanced conversation around race and racism within the Jewish community) for Shavuot. About 20 or so folks showed up to listen to me debrief the JOC Convening and ways for us to make our Seattle Jewish communities more open and accepting places for Jews of Color. I was expecting a conversation, but ended up giving more of a talk. When I opened the floor for questions or thoughts, I was met with a painful and uncomfortable silence. I started to panic a bit. I’m a sort of off the cuff speaker and really use my audience to help feed my talks. So when the audience isn’t as participatory as I expect things can veer off course quickly.

“So let’s talk about this idea of who we are as Jews,” I said. “And what it means that for some of us, we’re allowed privilege because of the whiteness of our skin, when only 50 some odd years ago, it didn’t matter how white you were you were still just a “Jew”. What if we think back to those times, the stories our parents or grandparents told us. Now, think about that and that feeling and use it put yourselves in the shoes of someone who looks like me. To some people, it doesn’t matter what we look like, we’re always going to be “Jews.”

I said something like that, but I’m sure it was more eloquent. But, I said it to make the reality of the importance of talking about diversity, especially racial diversity, as a vital key to talking about Judaism as a whole. I’ve been running up against the same old walls lately. People are reaching out to me asking me to speak at their shul, for their organization, or to write. But when I inquire about a permanent position addressing race or another piece of writing addressing race in Judaism I’m told that it’s been done or “we already covered it”. But have we? We’ve barely scratched the surface.

Recently a friend of mine, Sandra Lawson, wrote an article and in it she said she sick of seeing just white men with beards when she Googles the word rabbi. If you haven’t Googled “rabbi”, go ahead and open a new tab. She’s right. Pages of white men with beards and towards the bottom of the page you see a woman. But where are the rabbis that look like me? Until a face that looks like mine pops up, I’d say we have a long way to go and a lot more talking to do.


Shavua Tov.

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