Confronting Judaism’s Whiteness

Putting all of my cards on the table, I am a half-Black, half-White member of the Jewish faith and community. As such, I hold incredibly high expectations for our community and society to fight against systemic racism and embrace racial diversity. Therefore, when I offer this critique of Rabbi Gil Steinlauf’s Rosh Hashanah sermon at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington DC, I only intend to strengthen the Jewish community by empowering us to make the intentional and courageous decisions that will make this world a better place for all humans. For years, we have turned to our religious tradition to guide and support our social justice work. And following the past year of heightened conversations and activism surrounding racism and White privilege, I appreciate the broader component of Rabbi Steinlauf’s message: that Jews, having known the feeling of harmful discrimination, must combat racism in all forms.

However, the core of Rabbi Steinlauf’s message, that all Jews “must give up whiteness to fight racism” is incredibly problematic and harms any attempts for members of the Jewish community to understand the complexities of race and privilege.

First, throughout most of the sermon, Rabbi Steinlauf makes the assumption that all American Jews are White; that is simply untrue. Studies conducted by Be’chol Lashon, a Jewish organization dedicated to racial diversity and inclusiveness, estimate that up to 20% of the American Jewish population identifies as something other than only White. While noting the idea that Jews of Color exist, he only briefly mentions it in the context of Jews around the world. Jews in North America are quickly becoming more racially diverse and any conversation we have about our Jewish community, especially conversations about race and privilege, deserve to have Jews of Color included and accepted.

Second, it should not be encouraged to shed Whiteness (in fact, it’s not possible). Unfortunately, we live in a society that emphasizes skin color to make judgements on the abilities and character of people. While some argue that being Jewish destroys that individual’s White privilege, many of the experiences where White privilege demonstrates itself is when people do not know the full identity of the individual (including religion): walking into a store, participating in class, driving to work, or interacting with police officers. In order to truly serve as allies to People of Color, Jews that identify as White must confront and acknowledge their Whiteness as a part of their identity. Just as our people wrestle with God, White Jews must wrestle with the concept and experiences of White privilege and how that has influenced their lives, and the lives of people in their communities. After acknowledging and wrestling with the effects of White privilege, White Jews can then begin to work toward justice and equality in our society and world.

While creating an impassioned plea for Jews to combat racism, Rabbi Steinlauf failed to take the necessary first step: making sure that the Jewish community is confronting Judaism’s Whiteness. It is neither appropriate nor possible for White Jews to shed their Whiteness. Our Jewish faith and tradition calls us to welcome the stranger, provide for the underprivileged, and repair our world. White Jews cannot serve as allies to People of Color in this country by ignoring, or destroying, their racial identity. All of us must embrace our respective races, understand how it influences and affects our privilege or oppression in society, and address the inequalities that harm others in our communities. Confronting Judaism’s Whiteness is a real way that our Jewish community can change the world for the better.

Originally published at evanltraylor.wordpress.com on September 28, 2015.

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