February is Black History Month and, in January, Americans marked Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (MLK Day) to honour the legacy of the leader whose contributions to the civil rights movement drastically shifted American society and, arguably, the whole world. American Jewish communities often honour MLK Day by organizing social justice projects and holding solidarity events with communities of colour featuring inspiring speeches and music.
But, as Jared Jackson wrote in the Forward (January 18), “Much of Jewish MLK Day programming … does not lead to actual change in the culture of the institution” but rather reflects a novelty that “makes it all too easy for us to overlook the diversity that already exists within our own ranks – Jews of colour, multi-heritage individuals and families – as well as the racial and social justice work that we must do within the Jewish world.”
And here? When was the last time Ottawa’s Jewish community honoured Black History Month, celebrated the contribution of Mizrahi Jews, invited experts to speak about Jewish traditions in ancient communities like Ethiopia or India, or ran a workshop about challenging our internalized racism when it comes to who we think counts as Jewish? I have written a play about my own Black-Jewish experience. It premieres this month – but will it speak to our community? www.undercurrentsfestival.ca/monstrous
Perhaps Ottawa’s Jewish community is waiting for a demographic shift in order to launch an inclusivity program; in other words, waiting for more Jews of colour to make grievances so there is a “problem” to deal with. But, ultimately, we may not realize who we are already leaving out, and we need to be welcoming of the diversity of Jewish experiences we already have in our midst.
On the other hand, I am buoyed by initiatives such as the one held by Agudath Israel Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom on January 24 to stand in solidarity with the congregants of Parkdale United Church after their church was desecrated with hateful graffiti just before MLK Day.
I recently spoke with Jared Jackson, whose Forward article is cited above. Jackson is the founder and executive director of the Philadelphia-based organization Jews in ALL Hues, and he coaches groups and individuals on diversity, anti-oppression and inclusivity. He helps groups identify challenges and then create plans to increase their sensitivity and inclusion policies.
Jackson is hopeful. “There is always the opportunity for learning about diversity, but you must cultivate your heart first,” he said.
Jackson wants to see a Jewish future where intersections of identity are not a barrier to the obligations and joys of Judaism. He sees beauty in the nuances, layers and blends of traditions that happen when the diversity already in our families and communities is allowed to shine through, when differences can glow in counterpoint.
“What would it look like for communities to accept people for who they are?” he asked.
He says most Jews of colour, when they enter Jewish spaces, expect to have to defend themselves and explain their right to be there. “Could we have spaces where we could just be?”
Jackson reminds me that kavod is a deeply significant Jewish concept: the value of dignity and respect for our neighbours is paramount to our tradition. If we return to our sacred texts, he suggests, we will find suggestions and obligations related to kavod, “and we will see that dignity and inclusivity is about honouring not just our neighbours but the entire Jewish family, everyone.”
As I see it, practising inclusivity and a real “open door policy” also includes not questioning someone’s choice to be in a Jewish space. Over the High Holidays, someone in my congregation worried that a few non-Jews were attending our events. My feedback was this: How do we know that those individuals are not on a Jewish journey? Whether or not their last name sounds Jewish or they were raised atheist, how are we to judge whether or not joining us in prayer is meaningful for them?
I told Jackson to get his winter gear together so that he could come to Ottawa and help us out. I can’t speak for the whole Ottawa Jewish community, I said, but I would love for my congregation, Or Haneshamah, to commit to the work of anti-oppression and inclusion. I assured him that, although it would take hard work, we were up to the challenge of cultivating our hearts.
In honour of the dignity of all of Israel, kavod ha tzibur, I wish you a meaningful Black History Month.