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New shul, New City

Rabbi’s story of exclusion leads to mission of inclusion

Rabbi Shais Rishon
Rabbi Shais Rishon

Rabbi Shais Rishon has some disturbing Chanukah stories.

Rabbi Rishon is a founder and leader of the New City Minyan, a two-year-old Orthodox congregation that meets in members’ houses in New City, and has between 20 and 30 participating families.

The subtitle of his first book, “Thoughts from a Unicorn,” tells his story: “100 percent black. 100 percent Jewish. 0 percent safe.”

“Thoughts from a Unicorn” is adapted from blog posts he wrote under the moniker of MaNishtana. His most recent book, “Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi,” was 2018 finalist for the National Jewish Book Award’s Goldberg Award for Debut Fiction and is a fictionalized version of Rabbi Rishon’s experience as an Orthodox Jew of color.

“How are you Jewish?” he frequently is asked.

To which he responds:

“Fine, thanks. How are you, Jewish?”

“It tickles me,” he said of his retort.

Rabbi Rishon grew up in Brooklyn. His father was an African American who converted to Judaism through Chabad; his mother came from an African American family whose American Jewish roots go back to the 1780s, when family tradition says their ancestors were Nigerian Jews captured and brought to America as slaves. (His first name is the Chabad pronunciation of the Hebrew version of “Seth.”) He is comfortable wading into the thickets of obscure citations from both commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch and 1980s Marvel Comics.

His wife, Gulienne Rollins-Rishon, grew up in Rockland County, which explains why the couple moved there three years ago, when they decided to leave Brooklyn with their daughter, who is 6. His wife’s mother was a white Reform Jew, an immigrant from Germany, and her father was an African-American Catholic. She became more observant as a student at Boston College, where she was president of the Hillel. Going to the Hillel’s Chanukah party, held in the library, Chanukah menorah in her hand, “she’s stopped at the door,” Rabbi Rishon said. “It’s a Jewish event that’s happening now,” she was told.

That’s one of the Chanukah stories he uses to illustrate the difficulties of being a black Jew in America.

Here’s a more painful one from a friend, that also takes places at a college Chanukah celebration.

“She’s lighting the candles and she overhears people saying, ‘How do you think she learned the blessings? Who do you think taught her?’

“She left the party in tears,” Rabbi Rishon said. “I don’t think she ever celebrated it since then.”

His own Chanukah experience:

“I was at a Chanukah party talking to somebody. A random stranger came up to me and said, ‘Are you really Jewish or are you just playing around?’ But the word he used was not ‘playing.’

“Things like that are sort of constant.”

And don’t get him started on Purim.

“For a lot of Jews of color, it’s not our favorite holiday,” he said. “We’re not sure we’re not going to show up and see a caricature of ourselves sitting in the pews.” White Jews have gone in blackface as recently as 2013, when then New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew, did that.

The pain of being told again and again, both explicitly and implicitly, that he doesn’t look Jewish is part of why Rabbi Rishon has moved away from the Chabad community where he was raised, though he has kept many Jewish practices specific to Chabad. He describes the New City Minyan as modern Orthodox.

“I believe in and enjoy the ideology of Chabad, the inclusion and reaching out and accepting people,” he said. “Where it sort of loses me is the practical application. If you’re approaching people and trying to bring them close to observance, are you asking if they’re Jewish? What rubric are you using to decide if they’re Jewish? Chabad often ends up ignoring Jews of color or even pushing them away. I know far too many stories of Jews of color walking past Chabad tables hoping to be asked, never to be asked. They’ll be walking with a white non-Jewish friend and the friend is asked and not them.

“A few years ago I was taking a train home. A Chabad student comes by, hands me a b’nei noach card that explains the seven Noachide mitzvot required of non-Jews. I told him: ‘You’re able to tell me I’m not Jewish just by looking at me? Do you realize that if I was somebody who was struggling with my faith right now, this would be the last straw?’”

How many Jews of color are there in America?

“Jews of color have been historically underrepresented,” Rabbi Rishon said. “People who are trying to count Jews look for Jews who look like what they think Jews look like, or have a Jewish-sounding last name. Even with that underrepresentation, Jews of color make up eight to 10 percent of American Jewry. We’re a good hunk of the American Jewish community.”

How will taking this group seriously affect the self-understanding of other American Jews?

“That’s the whole race and religion question,” Rabbi Rishon said. “Jews are neither. We’re closer to what a family is.

“Sure you can have the Johnsons. They are this one specific, genetically related group. You have people who can marry into the Johnsons. Now they’re also Johnsons. This one Johnson family adopted some kids. Now they are Johnsons.

“Judaism works in the same way. Sure, there is this genetic hub: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Twelve Tribes. But people can marry in, people are converting, people are adopting. Once we have that, the question becomes obsolete.”

That’s the big picture perspective from Rabbi Rishon.

The small picture is he’s leading a group of people in New City “who are either observant or becoming more observant” and the local Chabad Lubavitch of Rockland “wasn’t our speed.

“We’re an inclusive kind of space,” he said. “If you drove, we didn’t see it. We need 10 guys for the minyan.”

The groups aims for weekly services on Friday night and Shabbat morning, as well as on holidays. “We pulled off our second Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. It’s a good feeling.”

The congregation generally meets in members’ homes. “We’re a speakeasy minyan,” he said. He would love for it to have a permanent home. “We’re really trying to find a way for it to be sustainable,” he said.

Part of that is an effort to expand its eruv eastward to enclose more of New City, making it an area where observant Jews can carry items and push strollers on Shabbat.

Not all observant Jews: Rabbi Rishon hasn’t let go of the Chabad movement’s general reluctance to use an eruv.

“My friends like to jibe me. ‘How are you ex-Chabad? You read the Tanya,’” — the book written by the first Lubavitcher rebbe — “‘you wear a gartel’” — a ritual prayer belt — “‘and you don’t hold by the eruv.’”

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