Uncentering whiteness in Jewish life

Uncentering whiteness in Jewish life

Nyack synagogue puts anti-racism high on its agenda

Rabbinical student Tamar Manasseh, in a scene from “They Ain’t Ready for Me.”
Rabbinical student Tamar Manasseh, in a scene from “They Ain’t Ready for Me.”

Last summer, the death of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin brought a renewed burst of energy to the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked demonstrations across the country, and put books about America’s racial legacy on the top of the bestseller lists.

In Nyack, Congregation Sons of Israel felt the call to engage in issues of racism last summer. It created an ongoing series of programs under the banner of “Un-centering Whiteness in Jewish life.” Earlier this week, a group discussed the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson; plans are in the works for a social justice seder with Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, a multiracial Jew, and a series of race consciousness workshops with Heather Miller, a Black rabbinical student, is being scheduled for later in the spring.

“After George Floyd’s murder, we came together and said we had to do something,” the shul’s Rabbi Ariel Russo said. “We were feeling so helpless and so shocked — though of course he wasn’t the first person of color to be murdered. It just was the tipping point.”

The previous summer, Rabbi Russo had taken a course on undoing racism with Phyllis Frank, a Rockland activist “who has been doing racial justice work for many, many years.” So Rabbi Russo invited Ms. Frank to speak to the congregation “about white supremacy and what it means to be antiracist and what it means to be an ally,” she said.

That got the discussion going.

From there, Tamara Duker Freuman, the synagogue’s social justice chair, asked Joe Zweig, the congregation’s first vice president, to head a social justice working group on racism. Ms. Freuman lives in Nyack, Mr. Zweig in Piermont.

“A lot of individuals in our community have had a reawakening of racial consciousness,” Ms. Freuman said. “We’ve started our individual journeys of learning and self-education about what it means to be a white person in this country and what our responsibilities are. We thought, why not do this work together as a community?

“We came to understand that as white identifying people our job in helping to dismantle systemic racism is to look at the communities and institutions where we actually have influence. I’m not a CEO of a company, but I am a board member of a synagogue. Is there racism or implicit bias or white centeredness in our Jewish community? How do we as a synagogue address that?”

Tamara Duker Freuman, left, and Joe Zweig

“Our early programs back in the summer were raising basic awareness about the fact that not all Jews are white. There are indeed Jews of color, not just in other countries, but in our own country, our own county, our own town. There’s an assumption that Jews are white and if you’re not white you’re an exception or anomaly, but Judaism has no color.”

This stage of the discussion featured screenings of such films as “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” a documentary about Tamar Manasseh, the Black rabbinical student who leads the fight against gun violence on the south side of Chicago, as well as readings and discussions of books and articles. After the High Holidays, the working group organized facilitated discussions “around some of the tougher issues,” such as what it is to be a Black Jew in America. They invited a former congregant, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, a composer and performer of Yiddish music, to talk to the community.

“We learned from him what it is to walk into synagogues where he is sometimes the only person of color,” Ms. Freuman said. “What makes him feel welcomed and what makes him feel otherwise. It got us talking about issues around microaggressions, how things we say can make people feel unwelcome even when we don’t want to. The discussion can be uncomfortable but that’s how we grow.

“One thing that is so hurtful to Black Jews — we heard this from every single speaker we spoke with — is when they come to a predominately white Jewish space and the first thing they are asked is ‘How are you Jewish?’”

“Almost universally they’re asked to prove their Jewishness, to demonstrate their credentials in a way that the rest of us wouldn’t have to,” Mr. Zweig said.

In addition to the films, speakers, and discussions it offered, the taskforce started a monthly group for parents called “Raising Anti-racist Kids,” led by Rabbi Russo and Margery Davis, a congregation member who is a social worker and the adoptive parent of a Black child. It addresses the challenge of “how do we learn to talk about race with our kids, when our parents never talked about it with us? How do we do it differently?”

Rabbi Russo, whose children are 2 and 4, is a member of that group. “I’m learning so much from the other parents,” she said.

“One of the things we put together as part of the raising anti-racist kids discussion was making sure our play and our toys at home is more reflective of the diversity in our world. Something my husband and I started doing was buying dolls that are Black and books that feature Black protagonists.”

Rabbinical student Tamar Manasseh, in a scene from “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” recently screened by Congregation Sons of Israel.

At first, conversations with her children about race were awkward.

“My kids would ask questions like, ‘Why does he have weird hair?’ and I would start to feel really defensive,” she said. “My kid is saying something that might be perceived as racist about this doll! What I gained from talking with other parents is that it’s my kid’s curiosity, it’s not something that’s actually negative. It’s often our own biases that we put on our kids.”

Ms. Freuman, who has two 10-year-old twins, also is part of the parenting group.

“It’s important for us to be very deliberate, to find the teachable moments where you can observe something in the world or in a book and say this a racial stereotype we’re looking at,” she said. The group is helping her “seize those teachable moments.”

At a recent meeting of the group, “We talked about race in Purim,” Ms. Freuman said. “It took place in Persia. They were people of color.” Growing up, “every year, I got the same Purim masks of Esther and Vashti, with white skin and blonde hair. Esther was not blonde.”

What advice do the people at Congregation Sons of Israel have for other synagogues that might want to follow in their footsteps?

“We’re all operating on a shoe string, but it’s so important that if you’re inviting someone into your community and asking for their expertise and time, not to expect them to work for free,” Ms. Freuman said. “It’s important to set aside some money for honoraria. It’s disrespectful to ask people to do the hard work of teaching you what you should have learned decades ago — and to do it for free.”

Mr. Zweig added that synagogue anti-racist groups do not need to be homogeneous. “At our meetings we’ve had people with a pretty wide diversity of thoughts about anti-racism, who might not be as sensitized to the concept of white privilege as some people are,” he said. “Not everyone will be on the same spot as you. Those kind of conversations are helpful and encourage greater dialogue in general.”

“The point of this is a journey,” Ms. Freuman said. “These conversations can be really hard. Which is why it’s nice not to do it alone.

“There’s a lot of guilt and defensiveness when you talk about race. If a Black Jew says, ‘When you ask me how am I Jewish, I feel very othered,’ the instinct is to respond ‘I ask everyone. I didn’t mean it that way.’ It’s hard to understand that our intentions do not mitigate the injury it does to someone else. It doesn’t matter what it means, it matters how it feels to someone. It’s our job to listen to their experience and trust that they are the expert of their experiences more than we are. You can feel accused and misunderstood and guilty. Those feelings can be difficult to deal with.”

“The corollary to that is a kind of whataboutism,” Mr. Zweig said. “People in our community say, what about all the prejudice that I’ve experienced because of anti-Semitism? And also, we were slaves too.

“Well, we were slaves thousands of years ago, far away from here. Jews of color may have ancestors who only a few generations back were slaves here.”

Ms. Freuman recalled going on a class trip to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. “I can assure you that no one informed us that the person who built the Touro Synagogue was a slave trader,” she said. “When you go on this anti-racism journey, you recognize that racism is everywhere.

“Sometimes when we create the programs, people can feel uncomfortable and feel they’re being called a racist. That’s not what any of this anti-racism programming is about. It’s not about calling out racists.

“All of us, whether or not we have enmity, can do or say racist things without intending to or feeling hatred. We can do or say racially problematic things without knowing it. It doesn’t mean that you’re a horrible racist we’re going to shun from the community.”

“It’s been an incredibly reward experience,” Mr. Zweig said. “It’s also rewarding to see that other communities and congregations are on the same journey. It’s really exciting that this is something that seems to be gaining traction in the Jewish community in general. This is taking it to the next level beyond the civil rights struggles of the 60s and 70s.”

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