Embracing Racial Diversity

I recently received an inspiring post from JOIN for Justice about expanding their applicant pool to create a more diverse Fellowship class, including more Jews of color, LGBTQ and Jews with disabilities. This powerful training ground for Jewish social justice activists is on the cutting edge of so many issues. Yet this post reminds us that even the most progressive organizations benefit from rigorous self-assessment, in Hebrew heshbon hanefesh. It’s great to live our values out in the world; it’s essential that we root those values in the actions within our own organization. Change has to begin at home.

In the wake of the Ferguson non-indictment at the end of 2014, Miriam Messinger put out a fervent plea to members of our congregation saying that HBT had an obligation to embrace diversity more fully, and to support the rising #BlackLivesMatter movement. She challenged many of us to look at ourselves critically, to see beyond a surface commitment to being welcoming community, and to truly listen to the experience of all our members, especially those in multi-racial households in a new way.

Like JOIN, we have been committed to being welcoming for a long time, longer than many in the Jewish community. And like JOIN, we are not willing to pat ourselves on the back and leave it at that. We are currently engaged in an ongoing self-assessment process, spearheaded by a very dedicated and thoughtful group of volunteers, including Miriam as well as other members in multi-racial families. You will be hearing more about what they’ve learned about what HBT is currently doing to foster racial diversity, and where we can improve.

I’m glad to say that our synagogue is not alone in this endeavor. Three weeks ago, a robust contingent from HBT attended a landmark event, the first Jewish community conversation on Embracing Racial Diversity. Sponsored by the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) Outreach institute, the workshop brought together a stunning group of over 40 synagogues and Jewish organizations with over 90 individuals in attendance.  April Baskin, URJ Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, led the training on making the Jewish community more welcoming.

The HBT table included Judith Levine (temple officer), Paula Gaffin (a Chaverim School teacher), Hillary Pinsker, Benita Block, and myself, as well as Tali Smookler, who grew up at HBT and now works at JOIN for Justice (and was the first recipient of the Larry M. Diamond Tikkun Olam Youth Award).

What did we learn?

One teaching that I took away was a paradigm for inclusion:

from invisible to outcast to foreigner to guest to token to member.

That gives us a way of thinking how far we still need to go as a community.

Even more inspiring, the turnout demonstrated that the Jewish community is eager to learn more!

I am also proud to share that the HBT community was far ahead of any other group in the room. In fact, we’ve been asked to take part in a panel at the next gathering to take place on June 15. We’ve come a long way, and we still have work to do.

We are grateful to all those who have motivated our congregation over the past two decades to go deeper and think more strategically about welcoming a diverse Jewish community. Starting with Leslie Belay, who modeled and taught us when her oldest son Kassa enrolled at HBT and became the first Chaverim School student to become bar mitzvah, in 1999. Judith Levine, who went to the Jewish Multi-Racial Network retreats and raved to the families about her wonderful, welcoming congregation. Jean Weinberg and Mark Dinaburg who brought Sarah when she was two, and have been recruiting multi-racial families and strengthening our community ever since. And to the many families (about one-sixth of our congregation) who are contributing today to a rich, vibrant, and activist multi-racial community at HBT, where so many children of color, from different backgrounds, feel at home because they see other kids who look like them.

At our Passover seder, we affirm the value of welcome. The Exodus story reminds us not to oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. And in the haggadah we open the door for all who want to sit around our table. Through this holiday of liberation, we learn how to turn a stranger into a member.

May we all merit the opportunity for doing the hard work that brings us closer, every day, to the Promised Land, a world of love, justice and peace for all people.

Posted on March 31, 2016 .