Welcoming people of color to the Shul

Rabbi Larry Milder
Rabbi Larry Milder

Another good email from Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton.

Are You a Person of Color? We Welcome You!
Here’s the punch line that doesn’t work anymore:
“Funny, you don’t look Jewish!”

There’s no such thing as looking Jewish, and there probably never was, unless you go back to the very origins of the Jewish people. Maybe, just maybe, when we were a collection of related tribes, we shared some ethnic characteristics. But not for long.
Moses? Married a Cushite (i.e. Ethiopian) woman.

The woman in Song of Songs says, “I am dark and beautiful.”

Jews of Mumbai look Indian. Jews from Kurdistan look Kurdish. And the Jews of Kaifeng, when there was still a pre-modern Jewish community there, looked Chinese.

Indeed, if you want to see a really diverse country, with more ethnic diversity than almost any other country, just go to Israel. It’s the Jews who are diverse!

Of course, there is a history to the idea of Jews looking a certain way, but it is a history told from a very particular point of view.

Most American Jews trace their lineage to Eastern Europe. They are not just Ashkenazic, they are Eastern European Ashkenazic, with a very large proportion of Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Rumanian and other Eastern bloc backgrounds. Until World War II, American Jewry was so overwhelmingly from these communities, that it seemed as though that’s who and what Jews were. Bagel-eating, Yiddish inflected children of immigrants with a New York sense of irony.

It’s not a bad heritage. I’m particularly proud of mine, and the journey that my family made.

But that is only part of the story, and a decreasingly accurate portrait of American Jews, let alone Jews world-wide.

We are Jews of all colors. Jews who came from lands outside of Eastern Europe, including Africa and Asia. Jews of different backgrounds who converted into Judaism. Jews who were adopted from many countries. Jews who are the children of diverse parents of different cultures.

The truth is, making jokes about people’s backgrounds, as though there were something funny about a Jew who doesn’t fit a certain stereotype, just isn’t that funny. It’s not “cute.”

As far as I am concerned, the more diverse we are as a congregation, the more “Jewish” we look. Not because anyone can look Jewish anymore. But rather, because diversity, inclusion of Jews of color, is a goal toward which we should aspire. That’s being made in God’s image!