A community read in Fair Lawn
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FIRST PERSON

A community read in Fair Lawn

Coming together to help deepen our understanding of inequality and discrimination

Rabbi Ronald Roth
Rabbi Ronald Roth

Speaking to the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, in 1946, Albert Einstein, said, “If the majority knew of the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long.”

One path to reducing the deep divisions that still haunt our country is for each of us to learn more about the history and dimensions of the evils of racism, discrimination, and antisemitism. When prejudice is the result of ignorance, a deeper study of history can help counter it. To that end, our community is continuing a program that enables us to expand our understanding of inequality and discrimination through reading an insightful book and holding discussions on the topic.

Our latest selection is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson.

During my more than 40 years as a rabbi, I have tried to educate people about prejudice. On one level we need to combat simple ignorance. When I was the rabbi of the West End Synagogue in Nashville, I once met someone who said that after reading the Bible, she assumed there were no Jews in the world anymore. Why? Because the Bible said Jews celebrate Passover by sacrificing animals and she never heard of anyone doing that. I corrected her assumption, although I thought that she was right about the absence of animal sacrifices.

During my time in Tennessee, I was a member of Leadership Nashville, a significant civic group. Every year I organized a panel called “Religious Hot Button Issues’’ for the group’s Diversity Day. Before we discussed abortion, gay rights, and who will get to enter Heaven, I would begin by asking the six faith group leaders I had assembled to speak about the two greatest myths or misunderstandings about their faith. I always would start by saying that some people believe Judaism is a race — we know it is not. I also pointed out that Judaism is more than a religion as that word is commonly used; it includes peoplehood, culture, a shared history, and a connection to our historic homeland, now the State of Israel.

Recalling the positive outcomes and sense of purpose afforded by those earlier community-wide opportunities, three years ago I applied to become a member of the newly formed Borough Council of Fair Lawn Community Relations Advisory Committee. I was pleased that I was chosen to serve. A year and a half ago, I read about a Community Read organized by the Jewish Community Relations Committee in Nashville and suggested that our group in Fair Lawn do something similar. I volunteered to co-chair our Community Read of “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo.

Our committee in Fair Lawn joined with similar community groups in two neighboring towns, the Community Relations Advocacy Network of Glen Rock (CRAN), and the Ridgewood Ambassadors for Global Citizenship (RAG) as co-sponsors. The libraries and town councils of those three communities and a number of other groups also supported that Community Read. Several hundred people joined our Facebook group and many attended our discussion sessions. We ended with a presentation by Gurbir Grewal, during his tenure as New Jersey’s attorney general.

Similarly, last summer I chaired a Community Diversity Movie Watch, encouraging people to view three movies: “Disclosure,” a film about how Hollywood has stereotyped, misrepresented, and ridiculed transgender people; “13th,” a film about mass incarceration of African Americans; and “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations,” about modern manifestations of antisemitism in right-wing circles in America, the United Kingdom, France, and Hungary. We offered a discussion group for each of the films. I thank the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey for co-sponsoring my interview of Andrew Goldberg, the director of “Viral.”

Now is the time for our second Community Read. Our committee discussed many book possibilities, with input from librarians from several towns, and chose Ms. Wilkerson’s “Caste.” In her book, Ms. Wilkerson writes about the issues of discrimination in America; they are not just a matter of race, she says, but more of a caste system that rigidly ranks human beings. She compares in detail the caste systems in America, India, and Nazi Germany. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial system in America to plan their laws against Jews. She brings facts and real-life stories to help us understand the effects of the caste system and points to ways that we can all work against destructive separations between peoples.

We began the Community Read last week. There will be several opportunities to discuss “Caste” in March. We will be hearing from an African American minister, Reverend Dr. Arturo Lewis, associate pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Ridgewood, on March 15. There will be small discussion groups the following week, and a panel discussion with a member of the African American community, a member of the Asian American community, and me, hosted by the Fair Lawn Public Library, on March 31. All of these events will be virtual. More information and links to register for our events is available on our Facebook page bit.ly/ReadCaste22. The book is readily available in many formats in our local library system, BCCLS.org.

The quote from Albert Einstein that began this article appears as an epigraph in “Caste.” I hope many of you join us to follow Einstein’s advice and learn more about the root of an evil in our society. Only then can we bring about its cure.

Ronald Roth is the rabbi emeritus of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel. He is a member of the Fair Lawn Community Relations Advisory Committee, a volunteer for Be The Match, the national bone marrow registry, and teaches a class on Jewish ethics.

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