When I was in college and really starting to explore my Judaism and where I came from, I once asked my Dad, “How did your Southern, Christian family first react when they found out you were engaged to a Jewish woman from New Jersey?” And he told me this story:
It turns out that my dad’s grandfather met his grandmother when she was acting in a blackface routine. My great-grandfather entered the theater, saw this woman performing on stage in a minstrel show, and soon after they fell in love and later got married. And so, for the rest of their lives together, my great-grandfather would often use the n-word as a term of endearment for her.
Before introducing my mom to his grandparents, my dad had to warn her that his grandparents were “unreformed Southerners” – his euphemism for racists. He wasn’t entirely sure how they’d react to his Jewish fiance. But the story had a happy ending: upon meeting my mother for the first time, my great-grandmother leaned in close to her and said, “Don’t worry, Nancy – we can love little Jewish babies just as much as any others.”
Maybe this is a happy ending. But this story still left me feeling profoundly uncomfortable.
This is how I learned about the arc of racism in America: There were once unapologetic racists – these “unreformed Southerners”. Then, the civil rights movement happened, and the vast majority of white Southerners “reformed” – and now we’re okay – racism and antisemitism were defeated in one fell swoop, it seemed. White Jewish girls can marry white Christian boys, and the world won’t fall apart. (Leaving aside the fact that it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if the girl my father brought home hadn’t been white.)
But what we know is that the narrative of white supremacy that once lived proudly in our conscious minds and on the surface of our behavior didn’t get destroyed. This narrative is powerful, and pervasive, and it sunk below the surface, to the level of the subconscious.
Like many things that are subconscious this is something we know we need to talk about, to bring to the surface and discuss with sensitivity and courage. So, this weekend, we’re doing just that, as part of a national celebration of Shabbat on either side of International Human Rights Day, which is on Dec 10. This year, in particular, Jewish communities are using this event to focus specifically on combating American racism and to begin a year-long engagement with racism and racial justice.
This is something I have wanted our community to talk about collectively for a long time, but I’ve also been intimidated and nervous to begin, because I know that it can be uncomfortable to go here. I know that as we start to open up this ongoing conversation, I will make mistakes, we will make mistakes. But those mistakes are part of the learning, and necessary in order to bring truth into the light. So I’m feeling really energized today to dig into our subconscious a little bit and see what wisdom Torah might have to share with us on how we do this hard work.
At the very beginning of our parsha, Vayetze, we read the passage where Jacob is traveling toward Haran, and the Torah says that Jacob came upon a certain place, bamakom, that’s left unnamed and stopped there for the night. He immediately feels the urge to go to sleep, so he took a stone, put it under his head, and lay down in that place.
Two questions call out from the text for interpretation: What is this unnamed place? And why did Jacob suddenly go to sleep?
Rashi says this place is none other than Mount Moriah, where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. We talked about this two weeks ago, how Isaac was recovering from his own trauma inflicted by his father. But now, another generation has passed. Jacob is encountering the same place, a place that represents deep pain for his family, but by the time Jacob arrives here, he’s completely unaware of it on a conscious level.
Avivah Zornberg, in her biblical commentary, suggests that “Mount Moriah holds a form of unconscious meaning for Jacob…Perhaps the reality of the scene is something that Jacob cannot bear to acknowledge? To let his mind dwell on his father’s experience as he lay bound on the altar – this is the unbearable possibility that he bypasses. That place has become the focus of a lifelong avoidance…If he is to be born into a world of his own, he must confront his father’s place of terror.”
And so, paradoxically, for Jacob to finally confront the truth of what happened to his father, he has to fall asleep – it’s the only way that he can access what’s going on in his subconscious.
This may sound a little wacky, but think if there’s a time you can remember when something was so overwhelming that it was too much to process, and all you could do was fall asleep, and in the morning, somehow, you had greater clarity.
This is what happens to Jacob – while he’s asleep, he experiences a powerful revelation, and wakes and says, “Surely, God is in this place. And I did not know.” Avivah Zornberg says: “He wakens, that is, with the deep conviction that he did not know. He has brushed against a knowledge that could arise only from the way of ignorance. In such profound shifts of experience, the revelation is the not-knowing…”
For Jacob, and for us, true revelation means realizing the enormity of what we don’t know and aren’t consciously aware of. Not suddenly gaining all of the answers, but experiencing the vulnerability of beginner’s mind.
In my middle school, a school that was around 50% white, 50% black, my honors classes were made up of about 95% white students. This should have made me stop and ask questions at the time – what’s going on here? But I wasn’t consciously questioning any of this. The strangeness of it remained in my subconscious.
And in the absence of an understanding of the many reasons behind racial inequity in education, my brain invented its own false reasons for why there weren’t more black kids in my honors classes, such as, “They aren’t smart enough to be here. Or, the black kids who are in my honors classes are the exception to the rule.”
At the time, I wasn’t even consciously aware that I was telling these stories and justifications in my head. It wasn’t until my 20s that I reflected back with embarrassment and some shame on my 12 year-old self trying to make sense of the world around her. This was when I realized how long that narrative of white supremacy had been lingering in my subconscious, and I began to slowly, slowly, wake up. This is a continual practice – I still feel like I’m walking around asleep to all of the ways that I’m complicit in upholding a system of white supremacy, most of the time – but I’m working on it, as I know so many of us are.
In this long, slow journey toward realizing a nation that is truly anti-racist, those of us who are white have to be willing to see the truth of racial inequity in the spaces we inhabit – our neighborhoods, our schools, our spiritual communities – and start to bring that uncomfortable feeling just beneath the surface to light. Meaning, when a public space is racially homogenous, something’s off.
In August, R’ Jeff and I went to a presentation led by Ilana Kaufman, the Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, about the study that was recently completed surveying the major Jewish population studies over the last few decades to better understand the percentage of Jews of color in the wider Jewish community. Based on the available data, they found that at a minimum, Jews of color make up 12-15% of the Jewish community in America. That is 1 in 7, which means that means every minyan should have a Jew of color, every b’nai mitzvah class should have a Jew of color.
And so, Ilana said, when we look out at our own Jewish communities and they don’t have this kind of representation, we should be uncomfortable. And we should wonder about the forces that are stopping these Jews and their families from being part of our Jewish community. We should ask questions like “Did they leave their person of color at home? Did someone get profiled on the way here, and have to turn back? Did they have trouble with the security at the door?” as opposed to things that you might think like,
“There just aren’t that many Jews of color living in Chicago, maybe that 12-15% figure is true on the coasts but not in the midwest” or “Maybe they’re not as interested in spiritual community.”
Our Mishkan community, which strives to be radically inclusive, bears a particular responsibility to live up to our values.
There are aspects of radical inclusion where we have put in a lot of work, and have made big strides (and of course, there is always room to improve). But it is clear that we still have a long way to go until the racial makeup of our community reflects the Jewish world at large, not just with who’s showing up to services and programs, but who’s in positions of lay leadership, board, and staff.
And it’s not just about numbers and representation, but about creating a radical culture shift, where no one has to fear being on the receiving end of racism and microaggressions in our Jewish community – like the person in our community who was made to feel other by something that we said during high holidays one year that made the assumption that all Jews are white. Afterwards, this person said, “I expected to hear these kinds of statements in other Jewish spaces, but I didn’t expect to hear them at Mishkan.”
This is the beginning of a year-long conversation that we are launching as a community a conversation that is still in formation. Here are a few of the first steps:
- We’re partnering with an organization called Bechol Lashon who is helping us to look internally. On February 23rd, we are having a community convening for white Jews and Jews of color to work on specific, actionable things we can do to be more welcoming to people of color and increase awareness in our community that not all Jews are white and ashkenazi.
- Later on in the spring, we’ll be hopefully participating as a community in a racial justice training with JCUA, looking at how our inner work can better equip us for working for racial justice externally;
- And, we’ll be going to Beth Shalom Benai Zaken, the predominantly African American Jewish congregation on the southside, on a Shabbat morning to begin to build relationships with our broader Jewish community across the city;
- What’s missing? Deeper learning, reflection, introspection. Many of you have been doing this kind of learning through books, podcasts, and on your own – if there’s interest in forming affinity groups, let’s discuss. The introspective work is really the foundation of all change, and needs to be core to everything we do.
In Jacob’s dream, God speaks to him and says, “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth. You shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” This is a vision of a truly multicultural society, where Jews are spread out among all of the peoples of the world, and are creating a society of mutuality and shared blessing.
May we be blessed to be a part of turning this dream into a reality – Shabbat shalom.
Thank you Rabbi Henderson. I have long wanted to meet you. I’m sure we know people in common in NYC. I would love to tell you my story.