L’Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year!)

L’Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year to all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

It was the Jewish New Year on Monday October 3rd, but it hasn’t felt like a celebration to me in years. I grew up in a Conservative Synagogue and I associate synagogues and Hebrew services with solemnity and pretending to be Jewish enough for these holy days.

But this year I attended services through Mishkan Chicago. Mishkan believes:

“that when we gather together, where ever we are on our journeys as Jews and as citizens of the world, we create meaningful connections- with ourselves, with others, with Jewish wisdom and with God. That’s what Mishkan is all about.”

300x300This is Judaism in the world, as I’ve never experienced before. There were people of all ages, and different races, and a multitude of other invisible aspects of diversity in attendance. For the first time I felt I could own my Jewish identity, and not just because there was a rainbow flag on the wall. Nobody had to say “you’re included”; it was all through peoples’ actions.

I think a lot about the Jewish narrative that says Jews are victims. My Hebrew School education and family education taught me that Jews must always live in fear and watch our backs because we are Other no matter where we live and therefore unsafe. On one level, history has shown centuries of pogroms, and massacres and torture and conversion of Jews. But Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) must also content with our current history as oppressors of Palestinians as well as discrimination and erasure of Jews of color. Previous synagogues I attended would discuss standing with Black Lives Matter (and take action to stand with Black Lives Matter), but would not even open the discussion of standing with Palestine. I struggle with my Jewish heritage and reconciling being both victim and perpetrator while having no one to talk to about these issues.

The Rabbi at Mishkan put into words all my thoughts and contradictions about Judaism, victimhood and our place in standing for justice for all people. Her analysis of the Torah portion is that when Sarah gives birth to Isaac and demands Abraham discard his second wife, Hagar, and her son Ishmael, Sarah acts out of fear and insecurity. Sarah does not act justly and neither does Abraham in turning Hagar and Ishmael out. The Rabbi’s interpretation of the text is that this insecurity is the same insecurity that allows Jews today to create an apartheid state in Israel. It is our fear of being victims that drive us to victimize others. It wasn’t right with Sarah and Abraham and it isn’t right today.

Yes, Jewish history is full of persecution. Our main narratives are “we were slaves in Egypt” and “we are survivors of the Holocaust.” Yet, we are so much more. We are people in the world with varying degrees of power and privilege, but a responsibility to lift others up. We’re not responsible because we’re Jews, but because we’re humans. For me, being a Jew means standing for justice. It means have been victimized (and some of us still are) but I will do what I can to ensure no one else goes through the same experiences.

Attending services at Mishkan reminded me that when I joke about one day becoming a Rabbi, it’s not actually such a joke. I hope to one day stand on the bema and be that welcoming, that inclusive and that truthful about Judaism and all its contradictions.

 

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Advice for White Allies

I don’t know what to say about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. I don’t know what to say that will not be repeating platitudes that their deaths must be mourned, that these are not isolated incidents. Castille was the 561st death at the hands of police this year, according to The Guardian’s “The Counted” project.

And because I am not part of the black community, there is only so much I can say as an ally. It’s important to be an ally to the black community, even if there are no black people in the room. Allyship is not a part-time position. You are an ally 100% of the time, or you are not an ally at all.

Advice for White allies:

  1. Saying someone is black or African American is not an insult. Growing up in CT, my hometown would speak about black people by speeding up our speech and avoiding even saying the word black. Black was coded to mean less-than. But we can change our speech patterns and remove our ingrained racism when we pay enough attention. When speaking about Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, or any of the black people murdered by police, race cannot be removed from the discussion.
  2. Recognize that you don’t understand what your black friends/co-workers etc are going through. This doesn’t mean you don’t care, but do not compare your own experience, even if you hold other marginalized identities. You still hold white privilege.
  3. Attend protests and vigils, but understand this is not your place to speak. Listen instead. Be silent and listen.
  4. Know you won’t always say the right thing. Be willing to apologize.

Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan.