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Shavua Tov: “Where Are You From?”

This morning, along with a half-dozen other rabbis, I attended a training session to become a dayyan, or a participating rabbi, for the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din, a transdenominational body that oversees the process of conversion to Judaism. I have sent many potential Jews-by-choice to “take the plunge” through this beit din, as well as that of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Finally I decided to “take the plunge myself” by formally joining the Caplan Beit Din.

During my training, we rabbis read a personal reflection from an Asian-American candidate. She was willing to become a Jew by choice even though she, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was asked questions like “where are you from?” People would take one look at her and assume she was born in a different country. She was deeply hurt by these micro-aggressions. Fortunately, however, it did not deter her from joining our people, and only galvanized her determination to work for justice and equity both inside and outside the Jewish community.

I myself am technically a Jew by choice, though the choice wasn’t mine (I was three years old at the time). My father, a Dutch Jew who escaped to this country at the age of 7, fell in love with my mother, a descendant of President W.H. Harrison and of two signers of the Declaration of Independence. Over time, as I came into this world, my family became more and more observant – observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, attending synagogue regularly, and enrolling my older brother in a local Jewish Day School. During his time there, it was discovered that, according to halakha (Jewish law), he was not Jewish! My mother had converted through a Reform rabbi who did not require her to undergo mikvah, or ritual immersion. So my mother converted – again – as did my older brothers and I. I even attended my own parents’ chuppa!

As I attended American Jewish University as an undergraduate, this blond-haired, blue eyed young man was frequently told, “you don’t look Jewish.” My response was always, “why, thank you!” But I was masking an inner resentment. What does a Jew look like, anyway?

American Jews are becoming much more diverse quite quickly, and it is even being reflected among our rabbis! In the past few years, the majority of the B’nai Mitzvah in my congregation have been Latino and/or people of color – Asian, African-American, and Latino – and were born to at least one parent not born Jewish. This is challenging our assumptions about what Jews look like, at least in America, where between 1840 and 1920 a tsunami of German and then Eastern European Jews overwhelmed what had been a mostly Sephardi (originating in the Iberian peninsula) population. American Jews, however, have never been 100% non-Latino white. My rabbinical school, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, was founded in 1886 by Sabato Morais and Pereira Mendes. A small percentage of Jews has been African-American since the dawn of our nation. According to a recent Pew survey, about 10% of Jews in America today identify at least partially as Black, Asian or Latino (Latinos can be of any race). That number grows to 15% among Jews under the age of 30, while only 3% of Jews over 65 are. 13% of Jews live in multi-racial households, while another 4% live in households consisting entirely of persons of color. Add the number of Jews of color to Jews who live in multi-racial households, and we are talking about nearly a million and a half people. Another 6% of Jews are of Sephardic or Mizrahi origin.

I myself recently married a Mexican-American Jew by choice. She has been fully embraced by most since she “took the plunge” decades ago, but also nurses unpleasant memories, such as dropping her children off at a Jewish preschool and being thought of by others as the nanny! Stories abound of Persian Jews being looked down at by their fellow Jews. And, of course, many an African-American Jew has been passed over for an aliya because it was assumed they were not Jewish.

Those of us who are white Jews need to be mindful of the micro-aggressions we sometimes wield at our co-religionists. Our DNA is quite diverse – my father found out he was part Mongolian and part Neanderthal! When I was a young boy, he – part-Sephardic – told me he was white. I found that ridiculous, and blurted out, “you’re not white! You’re lavender!”

That our people are returning to our not-so-white state of origin is a cause for great celebration. When God created the first earthling, according to the Midrash, God used soil of four different colors, rendering the first human multi-racial. According to the Mishnah, God mints us with the “stamp of Adam,” which makes each one of us unique. For this reason, the Mishnah continues, “everyone should say, ‘for my sake the world was created.'”

For all our sakes, and especially for the sake of our perpetuation as a people, let us cultivate communities that fully embrace everyone, no matter what they look like or whom they love. Shavua Tov.


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