The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

September 6, 2018 by

My High Holiday Prayer: Stop Exploiting Jews of Color

About three months ago I invited over 20 Jews into my home for a havurah we call the Tacoma Shabbat Experiment. After my co-organizers and I finished leading Kabbalat Shabbat and the important bits of Ma’ariv, we sat down to a dinner that I’d prepared. I only planned for 20 people, and we had almost 30, but we found more plates, pulled up another table and folks sat on a hodgepodge of various lawn chairs and stools. Wine flowed, we tended to a pre-lit bonfire and folks meandered around the backyard my wife and I share with neighbors.

shabbat tableI was saying goodbye to one woman when a man I didn’t know approached me and asked what my connection to Judaism was. Slightly tipsy and really pissed off, I quickly reminded him that his question was hugely problematic. He leaned in to ask about Ethiopian Jews and Ugandan Jews, hoping for some validation. Instead of realizing his misstep he continued to ask my connection to Judaism, claiming to not understand my objection to his line of questioning. Thankfully, a white Jewish woman stepped in and I turned my back to him to continue to say goodbye to a friend.

This was not the first time a white Jew has questioned the authenticity of my Judaism based on the color of my skin. It was, however, the first time a white Jew had done this to me in my own home.

Every Jew of Color (JOC) will tell you a story of how they have been othered in Jewish spaces. We have been assumed to be the help. We have been asked if we’re lost. We have been presumed to be converts. We have been presumed to be the non-Jew in a partnership where the other person is white. While davening we’ve been interrupted and asked if we understand the service. Our children are rejected from religious schools. We have been harassed and followed while shopping for tsnius clothing. We’ve been passed over for shidduchs. We have been denied aliyot. We have faced blatant racism.

I’ve witnessed white Jews rationalize their racist line of questioning and othering of JOCs as “innocent curiosity” and “just wanting to know people’s path to Judaism.” But, the problem with these innocent curiosities is that they’re one-sided attempts to “figure out” why someone who doesn’t look like them is in “their space.” It presumes that whiteness is the norm, perpetuating white supremacy within the Jewish community.

When living in New York City I regularly was invited to give talks to congregations about Jewish diversity and Jewish inclusivity. When I realized that these well-intentioned congregations had no real intentions to do the actual work of creating inclusive and diverse spaces beyond tokenizing me, I started rejecting offers to speak. I also stopped writing for publications who wanted my perspective as a JOC on issues of race/racism but wouldn’t let me write about other topics. The blog I curated for almost 10 years has been removed from the internet because of the tokenization, harassment and racism I received from Jews for simply sharing my experiences of racist behavior in the Jewish community. And recently in the Pacific Northwest, where I currently reside, I’ve withdrawn proposals for Limmud and rejected offers to speak at Juneteenth, MLK and High Holiday services.

So, my prayer for the Jewish community in 5779 is this: stop exploiting Jews of Color, whose stories are not commodities to sell. We Jews of Color can’t change the racist views of your organization, synagogue, school, JCC in one talk on MLK Day, or Juneteenth, or during the High Holidays.

We’re not here to put a band-aid on years of race and racism within our Jewish communities. We’re not here to tell you it’s OK. We can’t fix it for you. You, white Jews, need to do that work.

What you can do is pay us. Pay us to work for you and for your organizations at a rate that isn’t just “competitive” but a rate that says doing the work of actual diversity and actual inclusivity is important,a rate that says you understand that the work of undoing white supremacy within the confines of Judaism is important work that takes time.

Pay us when you want us to give talks sharing our experiences to your board, your synagogue, your community. And pay us well because when we get up there and share “our stories” a small piece of us feels like we’re shuckin’ and jivin’ for massa. It’s exhausting to spend the rest of the evening talking to white old women and men who want to tell us how moved they were by our talk, how articulate we are, just so they can go home and be the same . You leave feeling inspired. We leave feeling exploited and exhausted.

Don’t invite just one of us to your events and think you did a good job. Don’t just give one of us a scholarship or opportunity to travel with our Jewish peers. Do the work of engaging a host of JOCs, invite a dozen of us and encourage us to invite more of our peers. Because when we go on these trips or talk at your Limmuds we’re usually the only JOC.

Lastly, when you meet a Jew of Color, don’t go on about this person who is Bene Israel or that person from Uganda or the Jews of China. Don’t ask us to share our story or question the authenticity of our Judaism. A simple “hello” is effective. A Shabbat Shalom on Shabbes is welcome. Don’t talk about Heschel and get Martin Luther King’s name out of your mouth unless you’re actively marching in the streets today, on the regular. Heschel marched with King 60 years ago, after all. We’re tired of marching for some sort of vague future change. We need change today. We need acceptance and understanding today. We have always been here. Our experiences and history is and has always has been woven into the fabric of Judaism. 


  • Freda Birnbaum

    What that guy did is just incredibly rude and bullying. Who is he to demand answers to his questions? If YOU bring up your story, fine. Otherwise, not. Sometimes the curiosity IS innocent, but we who ask have to think about how it sounds to the person being asked. I myself am always interested in how somebody came to convert to Judaism (NOT that all JOCs are converts!!) because, as a BT, I’m fascinated by how somebody came to choose the sometimes rocky path of halachic Judaism if they didn’t have to. But I wait until they bring it up! (I have a significant number of friends who are converts, but we don’t talk about it much. And only if they initiate.)