A Few Words from Cantor Friedman, "Funny, you don't look Jewish"


Funny, you don’t look Jewish.

The Black Lives Matter movement has made us all grapple with some uncomfortable truths. For one, admitting that we all have unconscious racial biases is painful. But even more disheartening is that we Jews harbor those prejudices against other Jews as well. Although we preach inclusivity, we are not always open or welcoming to Jews of color.

I have to say that I come to this with an interesting perspective. My husband, Elias, is from an Indian Jewish family. When I was growing up, my parents had made their explicit biases clear. They wanted me to marry another Jew. So, when I brought home Elias, they were elated. The rest of the world however looked at us differently. I didn’t realize this until it was time to fill out my oldest daughter’s application for Chicago Public School. My children were considered “mixed race." We were a biracial couple.

I had long noticed how Elias was treated in our society. When we first started dating and we were traveling together for the first time in 1998, he assured me we would need every minute of the extra hour we allotted to get through airport security because he would be pulled to the side. This was 3 years before 9/11. It is but one example of many.

These biases are pervasive and form an uncomfortable undercurrent to negotiate for our Black and Brown family, because they don’t abate once they cross the Synagogue threshold. People ask me all the time when Elias converted to Judaism. He has heard throughout his lifetime that he “doesn’t look Jewish." What does Jewish look like??

“We were all once strangers in the land of Egypt, but because of the dynamics of race in North America—such as unconscious racial bias and social conditioning around stereotypical Jewish traits—Jews of color are perpetual strangers in communal Jewish life. Consequently, we Jews of color often are greeted with long stares or concerned looks, confused for hired help, and constantly asked to explain how or why we are Jewish,” writes April Baskin in her article for Reform Judaism. Baskin is a longtime advocate for Jewish diversity and most recently served as vice president of the URJ’s Audicious Hospitatlity initiative. April calls this phenomenon “perpetual stranger status."*

The American Jewish Population Project or AJPP, and community surveys done in New York in 2011 and San Francisco in 2017, found a range of 10-14 percent Jews of color. The three surveys included data on people who self-identify as nonwhite, mixed race or Hispanic. The AJPP counted about 11 percent of Jews in this category. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of San Francisco examined 25 population studies of American Jews and found that many failed to ask about race and the methods they used meant that nonwhite Jews were under sampled.

“For most of the late 20th century and into the 21st century, the default assumption is that Jews were white or that [there was] such a preponderance of Jews identifying as white that any percentage of Jews of color was so small that they didn’t matter,” said lead researcher Ari Kelman, an associate professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford.

Who are we, one of the most reviled people on all the earth to be unwelcoming or to be non-inclusive? “Jews as a people and Israel as their land are …the scapegoats responsible for all the world’s ills and the cause of all of its wrongs,” Rabbi Benjamin Blech reports in his piece for the Washington Post. Why, then are we so narrow minded as to not open up our tent to those who either want to join us or are already part of our family?

In the piece Black Jewish Woman Speaks out on Racism She Experienced at L.A. Jewish Day Schools, 22-year-old Los Angeles resident Chana Hall explains her experience:

"As a black Jew, I've never faced more racism in my life than I have from the Jewish community and Jewish schools…

I love the Jewish community and I am proud to be a part of it,” she told the Jewish Journal. “I grew up very Orthodox. As I grew up, I grew less and less religious.” In her FB post, she wrote, “Over the course of my childhood I would become increasingly aware of the stares I received when attending temple with my family and it made me very uncomfortable, and eventually due to this just becoming less religious. I stopped attending temple.”

Christina Benson-Wilson writes in her article for the Jewish Journal, “I am black, Jewish and American and have had to endure racial profiling and discrimination, not only in society but also in my own communities. When after telling my employers that I am Jewish too, and still being asked to work on the High Holy Days. Here’s what you can do," she writes: “Speak up for your minority counterparts. Demand diversity and equality. Open your eyes and ears to the concerns of those around you. Be silent no more. I, myself, will be silent no more.”

It seems to me that in this critical hour, we should be the first ones to say “enough is enough.” We must embrace our family in all their various colors and sizes and shapes. We know what it is to be the stranger, and we must not allow that feeling to propagate within the walls of our community. We must see all people as B’tzelem Elohim, as made in the image of God. We have a mandate - better than that - we have been commanded to Vahavta l’reacha kamocha, to love our neighbors, Jew and non-Jew, as ourselves. As we make our way to a new year, may our eyes and hearts be open to those who are yet to feel our warm embrace. Not only is it the right thing; it is the only thing.

From strength to strength,

Cantor Michelle Drucker Friedman

* Here are four things April Baskin writes you can do to alleviate “perpetual stranger status” in your community (From: https://urj.org/blog/how-help-combat-perpetual-stranger-status-jews-color):

Consider everyone as part of the family. Treat every person who walks through your institution’s doors as a member of our extended Jewish family. Even if you’re not sure. If they’re not Jewish, they will likely let you know.

Take action! Review and act on this list of 18+ Things You Can Do to embrace racial diversity. Join the RAC’s Racial Justice Campaign: Reflect, Relate, Reform.

Host or attend a training or teach-in. We offer lots of resources, including robust study guides and other materials that can help you facilitate discussions and learning in your community.

Let us know what you’re doing. Some of our congregations are already deeply engaged in this work; others are just beginning to be intentional about racial inclusion. We’d like to hear from you. If you would like to be part of advancing this work in your congregation, community, or in our movement, join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement.

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Emanuel Congregation  5959 N. Sheridan Road Chicago, IL 60660

(T) 773.561.5173 (F) 773.561.5420  info@emanuelcong.org

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