Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Open Letter to Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Congregation Bet Havarim


I was quite moved by your Facebook page post on August 15, 2012 on welcoming people into our Jewish congregations. As someone who has not always felt welcome in different Jewish shuls (synagogues), I felt confident that I could at least get myself through your front door because – at minimum – I knew I would be welcomed by you. With only two Shabbats left before our most holy set of days, I offer a few items you can do with your congregation (if you have not already done so) to realize the warmth, welcome, acceptance and safety your post promises.

The first one is obvious; circulate the post in your congregation: all members, all volunteers, and all staff. Encourage them to really read the post and to consider what they can do to make the promise live.

In your homilies (sermons), weave in stories about Jewish diversity; directly state that the assumption that all Jews are “white” is completely false and that the assumption that all Jews of color are converts is equally false. Remind them that we have always been a "mixed multitude" (Exodus 12.38) and that, according to one midrash, we would not have what we now call rabbinic Judaism were it not for a brown skinned man named Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.

Additionally, speak to them about hospitality. Remind them that it is as important to greet the people they have never met as it is to greet and rekindle relationships with people they have not seen since last year. Also remind them that there are members who can be a little too eager; therefore, if someone is holding onto a newcomer's hand a little too tight, check to see if a guest needs rescuing.

Lastly, share with congregants that asking someone if they are Jewish is offensive and antithetical to halacha (Jewish Law). Yes, I am aware of standalone writings that quibble about what portions of certain prayers converts ought not to say. However, the oldest writings say a convert is completely Jewish and not to be reminded of their conversion (Yevamot 47a, Bava Metzia 4.10). This would also be the perfect time to remind people – again – that not all people of color are converts. Questions that pry into our status are the most frequent and are perceived as being highly invasive. Speaking for myself, I feel as if I am being asked what color underwear I am wearing. You could also use it as an opportunity to raise to consciousness that there are plenty of members that look like them who are converts as well as spouses of another faith active in the congregation and no one ever asks them for credentials. Personal stories are shared, or not shared, over time as a part of people getting to know each other and building community.  

Thank you, Rabbi Lesser, for entertaining my thoughts. I will not be able to join you during this year's Days of Awe due to commitments in Washington, DC. However, I hope my travels permit me to visit Atlanta and share services with you and your congregation in the coming year. 

L'Shana Tova Tikatev v'Taihatem!
(may you be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good year!),
Sabrina Sojourner

(c) Copyright Sabrina Sojourner 2012


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