A recent trip out-of-town made me think about “welcoming synagogues” and what that really means. So often Jews of Color, LGBT Jews and others feel like outsiders when they step into a place that should be accepting to every Jew regardless of race and/or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or socio-economic level. There’s an assumption that they’re a “stranger” or “other” and don’t belong.
As a Jewish diversity advocate I’ve worked and continue to work with others to make Jewish spaces more welcoming for people of color. However, part of the challenge is to articulate what being “welcoming” really means. In fact, when asked I often quote Justice Stewart and say “I know it, when I see it.” It’s not that there aren’t concrete steps that synagogues and Jewish organizations can make to become more inclusive, but that the end result might not merely be boxes checked off of a list. The challenge is that implementing the steps are not the end goal, true inclusion is.
Inclusion isn’t measured by events or diverse photos on a website, but by the character of the overall environment. It’s not inviting a local black church to your synagogue on MLK weekend, hosting a freedom seder, or presenting a film on Ugandan Jews, but creating such an inclusive environment that a Jew of Color feels they can walk into a synagogue and feel an automatic part of the community. Honestly, as a member of the Orthodox community, I rarely attend a synagogue with a website, diversity committee, or a plethora of pictures on the walls. Therefore, I focus on the things that truly determine the inclusiveness of the environment.
It’s about creating an environment where the following examples aren’t a concern (and I have experienced almost all of the below at progressive synagogues as well…so these apply to everyone).
Does the membership stare openly during services?
Do people assume I’m a non-Jew who is just there as a spectator?
Do people approach and ask personal and sensitive questions about my Jewish identity and history?
Are offensive comments made about people of color?
Are euphemisms used for people of color?
Are people of color always discussed as an “other”?
Are there jokes/comments made about other cultures being contrary to “Jewish culture”?
Do community members assume people of color are the nannies/babysitters, janitors, etc?
It’s not that I need a special welcome mat or everyone in an institution to personally walk up and welcome me. As I once told my husband…”we live in New York, I’d like to be ignored to the same extent as everyone else.”
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us all consider the way we treat each other and make an effort to reach out to those on the margins (or perceived to be on the margins) of our community. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time where many of us engage in self-reflection. Maybe this year that reflection should include how one relates to people in Jewish spaces who don’t fit American pop culture’s idea of “looking Jewish.”
***I like to give a shout out to places that I visit that are definitely doing something right when it comes to inclusion (yes, its sad that this requires a shout out, but hey progress doesn’t happen overnight). I must say that my experience at the Chabad of Highland Park is one I would call welcoming. Granted, I only attended once and arrived with a long time member, however, the community was warm, friendly (in a way out-of-town synagogues specialize in) and I wasn’t made to feel like an oddity. The first question wasn’t “How are you Jewish?” or “What brings you here?”, but “Are you new to the neighborhood?” and “Are you moving here?” and when they found out where I live in New York, it became a dash around the room to meet all of the parents of young couples who live in my neighborhood. I was offered to join several tables at the synagogue kiddush and was included in the conversation (without interruptions to explain basic Jewish and communal concepts). So kudos and keep it up!