When Race is only for Blacks: Unpacking Identity as a Means to Inclusion

“It was for this reason that man was first created as one person: to promote peace among the creations, that no man would say to his friend, ‘My ancestors are greater than yours’” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

This summer I had the privilege of visiting Camp Bechol Lashon in Petaluma, California. As a summer camp for Jews of color, Bechol Lashon draws a diverse group of campers from around the country. These campers come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and family structures; they make up a rainbow of diverse races, ethnicities, and cultural histories. Many were adopted into Jewish homes, while others were born into Jewish families of color. Some have one mom and one dad, others have one dad, two moms, four dads; the diversity is endless. While these campers looked different and came from different backgrounds, they all shared one important aspect of their identity, Judaism.

Campers were given a “passport to peoplehood.” Each day they would explore Jewish practices and cultural customs from a different part of the world. Campers spent every morning learning the history, art, dance, and culinary traditions of eclectic Jewish cultures. Not only did this lead to hours of engaging summer fun, it also led to cultural competency, an appreciation of Jewish diversity, and better self-awareness. As they engaged with the identities of Jews around the world, campers also began articulating the nuances of their own identities as American Jews of color. Campers were itching to unpack the complexities of their identities and to discus what it means to be Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, adopted, rich, poor, middle class, GLBTQ, and Jewish in America. Their passports to peoplehood became passports to an understanding of identity, intersectionality , privilege, and what it means to be part of a diverse global world.

These lessons of diversity took children who were inclined to struggle with how they feel different in the Jewish community and empowered them to understand that diversity and the complexities of identity are essential parts of the contemporary Jewish world.

This year, as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Kulanu, a program for Reform Jewish high school students, I wanted to bring what I learned at Camp Bechol Lashon back to Cincinnati. I designed “No One Left Behind,” a curriculum meant to unpack the complexity of identity and explore how Reform synagogues could better embrace Jewish diversity. When I conceptualized the class, I was guided by the principle kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, “all of Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a). My goal was to transform my students into culturally competent young leaders ready to take on the challenges of truly being responsible for inclusion of all Jews in the contemporary world.

I went in on the first day of class with a program we had run at Bechol Lashon a month earlier. Students were to fill out a chart exploring the complexities of their own identities and then discuss how each identity shapes the way they see the world. Unfortunately, the lesson did not go so well the first time around. Students left large sections of their charts blank and looked at me in bemusement when I tried to open up a discussion. Before we could get into diversity, inclusion, and the real substance of identity issues, I had to teach them that they had identities.

For my students, race was something that caused black people to get shot by cops, not something directly relevant to their lives. Sexual orientation was something for the members of the gay-straight alliance to discuss, not something that was relevant to their personal identities, much less their Jewish ones. Class was the reason they gave tzedakah, but they were blind to how class shapes their everyday lives. Growing up in a homogenous environment these students were oblivious to the fact that they contained a string of multiple complex intersecting identities that shaped the way they were able to interact with the rest of the world.

The campers at Bechol Lashon, many of whom had experienced disadvantages in life, were the advantaged ones when it came to discussions of identity; they were able to understand diversity from their own lived experiences of feeling like the other. This awareness of identity and its complexities allowed them to gain a strong appreciation for the growing diversity of contemporary Judaism. Now, fourteen lessons later, I feel like my students at Kulanu are really starting to get it. They see the world around them in a new way and are eager to discuss the nuances of their intersecting identities. My students have finally come to realize that diversity is inherent in every community regardless of how homogenous it may look, and that they, too, have something to bring to a conversation about identity.

Forty-four percent of Jews in America have a non-Jewish spouse.[1] Twenty percent of America’s Jews don’t identify as white.[2] Now, more then ever, members of our community are coming out as GLBTQ. In order to truly take responsibility for all Jews, we must embrace diversity and inclusion; we must admit to ourselves that the Jewish world is rapidly diversifying and changing. Identities have always been complex but, as our Jewish communities evolve, we are called to make more space for a greater complexity in what it means to look, think, and live Jewish. There was a time when the Reform movement prided itself on inclusivity because it allowed men and women to pray side by side. While that was a monumental advancement in equality at the time, the contemporary Jewish world is tasked with much more difficult challenges in embracing inclusivity and diversity. Identity is complex. The first step of ensuring that we can face these challenges is teaching Jewish youth to be aware of diversity and, as I learned this year at Kulanu, that begins by teaching them to be aware of themselves.

Isaama Stoll serves as the student rabbi of Bnai Israel Synagogue in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

[1] Lugo, Luis and Alan Cooperman. “A Portrait of Jewish Americans Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Institute, October 1, 2013). http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-2-intermarriage-and-other-demographics/

[2] Tobin, Gary A, and Sid. Groeneman, “Surveying the Jewish Population in the United States.” (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2003). http://www.bechollashon.org/population/counting_color/counting_color.php

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