I had the privilege and honor to represent Temple Beth El at the URJ Biennial just a few weeks ago. There were so many opportunities for learning, having fun, socializing, praying, singing, etc. It was truly an amazing experience and one I look forward to every 2 years (or really think about it all the time!). However, just a few days after I returned from Chicago, I read on Facebook something that really hit me quite hard.
In today’s world, we often speak about privilege and what it means to be privileged. Perhaps we even take for granted things we do not realize we are privileged to have or be a part of. Attendance at the URJ Biennial is a privilege and a great honor. However, my experience was quite different from one of my friends, and I hope you will recognize very quickly how the concept of “privilege” can mean many different things for many different people. What I am about to read is an excerpt from one of the presenters/teachers at the Biennial, Marra Gad:
“For those of you who are not aware, one week ago, I arrived at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Conference in Chicago, and from moment one, things did not go as any of us had hoped they would.
When I went to pick up my credentials, I was told that the ‘REAL’ Marra Gad needed to pick up her badge. And when I replied that I was the real Marra Gad, I did not receive an apology. Instead, the person behind the desk said, ‘Really!?’
When I was eventually given my very bright orange badge that clearly said PRESENTER across the bottom….
I was assumed to be hotel staff. Twice. While wearing my bright orange badge. And told that I needed to do more to get room service orders out more quickly.
I was aggressively asked repeatedly WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? And when I would reply that I was a featured speaker on Shabbat afternoon, I was then asked what I could possibly have to speak about.
I ended up in an elevator filled with attendees who elected to whisper about me. What I was doing there. And, again, what I could possibly be presenting about. LIKE I WASN’T THERE.”
While I will read some more from Marra’s post later on in my sermon, I wanted to stop there and stress a few points I understand from Marra’s post. In the past few years, our society has become super aware of the differences between people. We have found ways to celebrate these differences, while at the same time appreciating what we have in common. There have been some great successes and unfortunately there have also been some terrible failures. It is important to point out that the way some people deal with their own embarrassment is to joke or play it off as a joke…but that does not take away from the seriousness of how others may feel, react or respond.
Assumptions are another problem. We all do this, so I am certainly not pointing fingers. However, we can, and we should do better. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, reached out to Marra privately, to issue an apology. He also wrote an outstanding public apology. Although he was apologizing for himself, he also spoke beautifully about our movement’s responsibility to prevent these types of events from happening:
“I need to publicly apologize to Marra Gad, who endured numerous acts of racism at the recent URJ Biennial in Chicago. I’m the president of the Union for Reform Judaism – and what happened to Marra happened on my watch. I’m deeply sorry for each painful encounter…”
“Her experiences took place at a Biennial at which I addressed this issue head-on. On Thursday night at Biennial, I spoke at length about embracing the diversity within our Jewish community as we simultaneously call out and face the racism within every part of our Reform Jewish community. (You can find that address here: https://bit.ly/2rtCR0C) Marra’s experience, and the experiences of other participants of marginalized identities from whom we have heard, only underscore the urgency of this work.”
During his Biennial address on Thursday night, December 12, Rabbi Jacobs instructed us in ways we can widen our Jewish tents: smashing divisions such as racism, sexism, etc.; committing to anti-racism, not just being “not a racist;” and by making people who enter our tent feel as if they belong from the moment we meet them. Most importantly, we must realize and understand that no one looks Jewish anymore and there is not one authentic way of being Jewish anymore. Rabbi Jacobs spoke about embracing those who are “Jewish adjacent,” which very broadly is defined as someone who participates in Jewish religious or cultural practices without having converted to Judaism. We are not diluting Judaism; we are bringing Judaism to more Jews by honoring diversity and strengthening our communities.
If we turn to our sacred text, the Torah, we find answers to even the hardest of topics such as this. Just one verse beyond what I read from Torah tonight is a very important moment for the future of the Jewish people:
וְעַתָּ֡ה שְׁנֵֽי־בָנֶיךָ֩ הַנּוֹלָדִ֨ים לְךָ֜ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם עַד־בֹּאִ֥י אֵלֶ֛יךָ מִצְרַ֖יְמָה לִי־הֵ֑ם אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי׃
Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.
Manasseh and Ephraim take Joseph’s “slot” in the land holding – in the spaces around the Ark and in the Land of Israel surrounding Jerusalem once they get there! It is the passing of the blessing from Jacob to Joseph and Ephraim and Manasseh that continues the line of Abraham, continuing to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham. Ephraim and Manasseh were born to a non-Jewish woman, Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenath.
Not only do we find Patrilineal descent, Judaism passed down from the father, here, we also find two children from a very different culture being embraced as part of the early Israelite community. Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons as his own, breaking any barrier that may have been present. We learn from Jacob the important lesson of inclusion. While we do a pretty good job of this here at Temple Beth El, there is always room for improvement…another important message gleaned from Rabbi Jacobs as he addressed the 5,000 Biennial attendees:
“Schedule a training about equity, inclusion, and antiracism in your community. Learn about unconscious and implicit bias, and how to be a better ally. Lean on our Audacious Hospitality Toolkit for Congregations and dig deeper into social justice activism through the RAC to address racism in our broader society. When marginalized members of your community find the courage to speak up, treat this as a gift, and listen deeply to what they have to say. Commit to antiracism and other active forms of fighting oppression. Take the time to reflect and make an honest accounting of your own actions. I know I will. It is time that we make every person that comes under our tent feel like they already belong.”
Will the actions suggested by Rabbi Jacobs solve all of the problems? No…but it will lead to huge improvements in the lives of every member of our community. We must acknowledge that racism exists not just outside of our community, but also within our community. The alternative to not embracing these differences is to continually alienate potential members of our community as well as current members of our community. We must do everything in our power to avoid this – for the benefit of our Jewish future and for all of our children!
Earlier in my sermon, I spoke about privilege. In today’s society, we often hear the phrase “white privilege.” It exists and is dangerous if we do not recognize and change our attitudes, not just our behaviors. Toward the end of her post, Marra wrote:
“And then, 2 of my trusted friends with whom I was discussing all of this and who also happen to be rabbis, suggested that most people really don’t understand what the experiences at Biennial felt like for me. Because they cannot. Because it would not happen to them. Because they are white. And I am not. And for a moment, that made sense. But, as I continue to consider the question, I would offer that Jews should absolutely understand because of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of anti-Semitism. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, anti-OTHER ism…. they are all abuses of the soul. And to be on the receiving end of it is a trauma. And it is a trauma that Jews know very well.
Jews know what it feels like to be stared at. Whispered about. Not made to feel welcome. To feel unsafe.”
My friends and family, there are several common themes throughout the Torah and our liturgy. One of the most important is:
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
“Because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
These few extremely important words flow through our lives as a constant reminder of what it feels to be “the other.” Marra Gad’s experiences at the Biennial are only one example of something that is horrible and avoidable. We must open our minds, our hearts and our souls to embrace anyone and everyone that chooses our Tent. At the Biennial, we were challenged to commit to doing this work together. We will because we must.
Let me end this sermon tonight with a very important prayer found in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot 58a:
“Baruch hachacham ha’razeem she’ayn da’atam domah zeh l’zeh V’Ein Partzufayhen domeem zeh l’zeh.
״בָּרוּךְ … חֲכַם הָרָזִים״ — שֶׁאֵין דַּעְתָּם דּוֹמָה זֶה לָזֶה, וְאֵין פַּרְצוּפֵיהֶן דּוֹמִים זֶה לָזֶה
Blessed are You, the Sage of all secret things for their minds are not similar to each other and their faces are all unique.” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 58a)
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