by Aviva W
I’m not a member of your synagogue… but I could be. I am the daughter of a Rabbi from a long line of rabbis. I am the product of Jewish day school education, Jewish camps and summer programs.
I know Hebrew, am well versed in Jewish prayers, and feel deeply rooted in Judaism, but I’m not sure whether or not your synagogue would be a safe or welcoming community for my family.
If I am being honest, I am scared that my family will be harmed.
I am a White Jewish woman. My partner is a Black man. My children, who are are four and one years old, are biracial. They are being raised in an interfaith and interracial home. I have begun a slow and guarded process of trying to find a Jewish community for my family. That process started in Boston, where my partner and I first started our family. We moved to the Bay Area from Boston specifically in hopes of finding community where my children would be more than just accepted. I want them to be affirmed at the intersections of who they are.
I came to Kehilla because I heard that Kehilla is an incredibly inclusive and progressive Jewish community. I also came because I heard of the Belonging and Allyship Project. Knowing Kehilla was actively initiating a project to decenter Whiteness in a Jewish space felt promising.
There is a lot that is promising to me about what I have seen at Kehilla so far. Kehilla has a large rainbow flag and a Black Lives Matter banner outside. In the lobby, there is artwork that features Jews of color. Inside the sanctuary, there is a beautiful memorial to Black people who have been killed by police. In fact, it was the first thing that caught my daughter’s eye when we visited.
There are so many visible representations that Kehilla is doing more than the vast majority of synagogues to be inclusive. And yet, I am hesitant to bring my family into the community.
Here is why:
In Boston, my family and I went to visit one of the city’s most “progressive” and “inclusive” synagogues. We went to Saturday morning services one week. Within five minutes of our arrival, my partner was approached and asked “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” If you are in some way surprised he was asked that question or are internally gasping, know that this question came from a well-intentioned place. The congregant was asking because we were the 9th and 10th people to arrive to services that morning. As such, they wanted to check if Danny could be counted in the Minyan or required quorum of Jewish adults needed to recite several prayers.
That a congregation would want to make sure they were counting their Minyan correctly makes sense. However, unless each person walking into that room was asked if they were Jewish (myself and all the other White people included), this ask is an example of a racial microaggression.
You might be thinking to yourself, how problematic is that question? After all, your partner isn’t Jewish! It’s true. He isn’t Jewish. However, there are two problems with that question. First, my son and daughter are Jews of color. That question can, and likely will, be asked to my children at various points throughout their lives. Hearing that question could make them feel isolated and marginalized. It could also make them feel that Jewish spaces are not for them and Judaism is not for them.
Additionally, my partner just as easily could have been Jewish. That simple question served to remind him within his first five minutes at the synagogue that it is unlikely that he belonged there. That comment communicated to him (and to me), that this community is not for you and your family. That this was our first visit to any synagogue together felt like a cautionary preview of what is to come.
As Kehilla is a place that is already inclusive in so many ways, I can imagine you might be thinking to yourself, but that was Boston. That’s not our synagogue. That wouldn’t happen here. I want to emphasize that this synagogue in Boston was welcoming and inclusive in many ways. It had posters in the hallway from the Jewish Multiracial Network that say “Jews Come in All Colors” that celebrate the diversity of the Jewish community. Their membership outreach coordinator actively thought about ways to connect us to other interracial families in the synagogue. There was a lot of promise there. Yet I knew that it wasn’t the right community for my family.
So what about the thought, “That wouldn’t happen at Kehilla”? It could be easy to think “that wouldn’t happen in one of the most inclusive, progressive communities in the country.”
The moment we adopt that mindset about anything, we are potentially complicit in the process of marginalizing others. The truth is that the specific incident or microaggression that happened to us in Boston might not happen at Kehilla.
But how sure are you that something similar wouldn’t and doesn’t happen in your community spaces? The reality is that racial microaggressions are regular occurrences in all predominantly White Jewish spaces. What if instead of thinking, “that couldn’t happen in our synagogue,” operate under the assumption that it will. Assume it will happen because we, as a community of primarily Ashkenazi White Jews, have a lot of work to do.
One of the most common microaggressions are from well meaning, curious individuals asking Jews of color questions that in some way, directly or indirectly ask, “how are you Jewish?” That question might be kindly disguised as “Where are your parents from or what synagogue were you raised in?” The frequency with which this happens to Jews of color suggests that there is more to this question when asked of people of color. Folks might be wondering to themselves is this person adopted? Did they convert? Do they have one Jewish parent? This question, often comes from a well meaning community member as a way of indirectly, but still just as harmfully asking, “why are you Brown and here?”
A few months ago, I went to the fourth meeting for the White Privilege Affinity group at Kehilla. As a White Jewish woman, it is deeply meaningful and important to me to be in a space like that. After one meeting, I was speaking to another White Jewish parent of a child of color. The parent said something to me that deeply resonates with my worries. They said that even if 90% of the congregation is aware of their privilege, even if 90% refrain from committing racial microaggressions, the impact of the remaining 10% is concerning. Given the small number of folks of color in the community, just several comments from that 10% (a potentially generously low estimate) could cause real harm. That is part of why I am cautious about bringing my family into Kehilla or any predominantly White Jewish space.
To be clear, as a White woman, I also have a lot of my own work to do. White supremacy is deeply ingrained in my thought process. By no means does having an interracial family mean that I haven’t perpetuated racial microaggressions myself. It also does not mean that I do not have my own work to do to unlearn internalized biases, including unlearning the bias that looking Jewish is not synonymous with being White.
It is essential that White Jews challenge those assumptions. A 2015 study conducted at Brandeis University estimated that 11.2 percent of Jews in the United States are not White. The numbers are even more significant in the Bay Area. A 2018 study found that close to 25 percent of Jewish households in the Bay Area include at least one person of color. Jews of color and their families are a significant part of the Jewish community. My family’s experience and my concerns represent just one of those households.
This is just a little bit of my perspective. All too often, the words of White folks are elevated or highly publicized when folks of color have already said these things. So please, do not just take my word for it. Read this and other writing by Jews of color. Read these words because they speak to the reasons so many Jews of color may not feel comfortable in an “accepting” community that is filled with caring, social justice minded, White Jews. Support organizations like this. Engage other White Jews in conversations about White supremacy both within and outside of your community. Please engage people in conversation who would be unlikely to show up to White privilege affinity spaces. If you do not actively engage all White members of Kehilla in these conversations, you can expect that harm will be done to people of color in your community. Furthermore, engage in relationship building with humility.
Assume that you will unconsciously cause some harm. It is essential to continue to engage in dialogue such as in Kehilla’s Belonging and Allyship Project, especially if you are someone who can’t imagine yourself doing so.
I’m personally asking each of you to find active ways to make the community more inclusive. I ask this not just for me, but for my family, for families who are already part of the community, and for families who like mine, who are not sure if it would be safe to join Kehilla.
Please note: The initial version of this article that was posted inadvertently left out the hyperlinks. One of the hyperlinks is particularly important because it highlights the words of Jews of color as it relates to their experience in the Jewish community.
A note from Rabbi Dev: I met Aviva and her family at a Belonging & Allyship: Racial Justice Initiative gathering. When I heard some of her story, I was very moved, and I asked if she’d be willing to share it in a form that would enable more people in our community to hear it. I’m very grateful to Aviva for giving us this insight into her experience, and for helping to guide and challenge each of us, and all of us as a community, to come closer to who we are called to be.