Creating A Culture of Equity and Inclusion

As we are coming to a New Year, we are reading the final portions of the Torah. The 40 years of wandering in the wilderness are coming to an end. And yet, the Children of Israel do not actually enter the Promised Land in the Torah. (Read the Book of Joshua for what happens next.) On Simchat Torah, we will roll back to the beginning, the very beginning, B’reishit, Creation.
40 years is a powerful image for how long change can take. It took forty years for a band of slaves to turn into an independent people. Think back to 1976, and consider the changes you have seen (if you’ve been alive that long!). We have come so far in so many ways. And in many ways, there’s no apparent progress. Notice how this makes you feel: grateful? frustrated? despairing? hopeful?

This week, our #BlackLivesMatter team presented its report to the congregation. This robust, hard-working team spent a great deal of time and thought to assess and describe our congregation’s journey toward racial inclusion, equity and awareness.

Think back to when you first came to HBT. Note how far we have come. And consider how far we have yet to go. Are you feeling grateful? frustrated? despairing? hopeful?

In the past 3 years, our leadership has actively sought out ways to deepen our awareness, and worked to put into practice what we’ve learned. But having leadership alone is not enough.

This report is a major step forward on the journey. The assessment not only tells us where we’ve been and where we need to go. In the process, the team has raised important questions that have also led to more activism and deeper awareness.

But having activists is not enough.

The word for “enough” in Hebrew is dayenu. We are a dayenu people. We stop to appreciate what we’ve received, and to notice what we have yet to achieve. This report marks a dayenu moment. It gives us the information so that we can stop to acknowledge how far we’ve come, and set our sights for the road ahead. It’s time to say dayenu, on the one hand, it’s enough, and on the other hand, it’s not, not by a long shot.

One important advance in the years that I’ve been rabbi is the fulfillment of our goal to integrate the school and the temple, to integrate the community of parents and people without kids in the school, the “Sunday people” and the “Saturday people”. We’ve integrated the budgets and brought more school representatives into leadership.

We have an Education Team consisting of Hillary, Benita, and me who work together to ensure that the school and congregational activities, values, and policies are aligned. We share collective responsibility where we fall short, while we give full credit to individuals on the Ed Team for their successes.

I am proud to note that we have nearly fulfilled that goal of integration. With the work of the Ed Team and attention of the temple leadership, the school is very much aligned with temple. In many ways, particularly regarding reflecting the diversity of multi-racial families, LGBTQ families & kids, addressing issues of class and disabilities, the school is leading the rest of the congregation.

That is not such a surprise, when you consider that the school is where our diversity is most visible. Particularly in the younger grades and among new families, we have a growing number of kids of color. But for those who do not come during school events, our temple’s diversity is not so obvious. We simply don’t have a large number of adults of color, and even fewer Jewish people of color. Though we proudly report that we are a multi-racial congregation, the work we need to be doing is to raise awareness among all the adults of our community in order to change our culture.

As the Israelites teach us, changing a culture takes time.  Let me share a story I heard this summer about Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist summer camp. Camp JRF is deeply committed to creating inclusive, welcoming, and respectful community, and very successful at it. Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, camp director, described a recent incident at the weekly talent show. One skit featured a male counselor dressed in women’s clothing, meant to be a joke. When he appeared, the campers and counselors in the audience didn’t know how to react. They were confused and shocked, because this skit crossed a boundary of respect for transgender people.

What did Rabbi Isaac and the staff do? They decided to treat the offending counselor with the same respect they treat everyone. Rather than shame him publicly, they embraced him as they discussed the lesson that everyone learned that day. Just because camp professes inclusion doesn’t mean people never make mistakes. Mistakes help us learn. The values of community and respect were preserved while honoring the commitment to inclusion.

One take-away from this story is that this incident would not have turned out the way it did without years of preparing the ground. It took more than announcing an intention to change the culture. Not to mention that the camp atmosphere reflects the attitudes of the young staff, who are better prepared for these changes than their middle-aged parents and teachers.Our congregation is on a journey. I pray that we will become more like the Camp JRF family, becoming more aware of the needs of those who have been marginalized and disempowered, and being compassionate for those who lag behind. It will take time and patience, as well as a sense of urgency. I am hopeful that it will not take us 40 years!

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on September 22, 2016 .