By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko
One of the few good things coming from Hollywood these days is the notion that representation matters. You cannot speak for multiple populations, just for those same populations not to be found in any positions in your movie, company, political organization. Representation matters. This is why I was shocked when browsing through the staff listings of multiple Jewish organizations. Yes, they did try and make sure those were diverse. No, many of them did not have even one Mizrachi Jew in their organization. This needs to change. Organizations which proport to speak for the Jewish community, cannot do so with no representation of Mizrachi Jews in their organizations. This change begins with every one of us.
When reading this article, some may ask what the motive is. Unfortunately, not I, nor any of my grandparents or great-grand parents are Sephardi Jews. I wish. Nonetheless, as an Ashkenazi Jew, I firmly believe we all need to work for better representation in Jewish organizations for the following five reasons:
Because it is right. There is a great injustice when Jewish organizations say they speak for all of us, and then don’t represent all of us. Sephardic Jews need to have a voice at the table, not just when organizations are asking for donations. We need to make sure we give a voice to every part of our community. Things have changed in North America since the 1930s, the point in which many Jewish organizations formed. Sephardic Jews are no longer a single-digit percentage of our community; they are way into the double digits. Mizrachi Jews must have an equal say in any organization which attempts to speak for the Jewish people. Sure, some organizations speak to a specific cultural experience, such as the Yiddish Theater, which one may find to be uniquely Ashkenazi. Unless an organization clarifies that it is speaking for a unique subculture – for a specific reason – it must represent all Jews.
Perspective. I – an Ashkenazi Jew – know that our organizations are missing a huge part of what being Jewish is all about when they lack the perspective of Mizrachi Jews. Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews have an incredible amount of shared history cultural commonalities. They also have an incredible amount of differences. It is not just whether we eat gefilte fish or Moroccan fish on Rosh Hashana, there is much more than that to it. To reflect a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish, we must make sure our perspectives include a full view of what being Jewish means. We may not know what thousands of years of life in Arab countries, in Spain, Iran, or wherever it may be can teach you. In a world that is growing smaller and smaller, we must make sure we have richer and broader perspectives. A great example of this is Israel’s current Ambassador to the United Nations, my friend Dany Dannon. Dannon is Israel’s first Mizrachi Ambassador to the United Nations. Dannon, born to a Jewish-Egyptian family, has been very successful in building great relationships with many ambassadors and countries with no previous relations with Israel. His unique perspective and ability to connect beyond traditional cultural lines has enabled him to foster these relationships. Dannon is just one example of how the richness of perspective can bring incredible value to the entire Jewish community. Getting more diverse perspectives lets us have more diverse opportunities.
Bridging the Israeli-American Gap. Recently, in Washington DC, I got to hear a talk about the widening gaps between American Jewry and Israeli Jews. This gap was being addressed as Jewish leaders from across the spectrum of religious and political views, showing increased concern for this mounting challenge. The expert who spoke off the record, noted the demographic gap between Israel and the U.S. is also a major factor in the divide between American and Israeli Jews. Israeli Jews who lived in eastern countries naturally can have a different outlook on religion, politics, and other issues and thus there is a growing rift between the communities.
Polarization. the increasing divides and divisiveness in America as a whole puts polarization in the Jewish community on steroids. Rifts between denominations, political affiliations, and different classes is an epidemic that causes most Jewish leaders to lose sleep at night. Making sure we do more listening, hear people from different demographics, and making sure we learn how to respect differences, can lead us to more efficient communication. Making sure our communities are not monolithic echo chambers in which we only welcome those who went to Brandies with our grandparents gives place for a stronger and more unified community. American organizations who wish to have more holistic, reconciliatory, and open perspectives on how – who they claim to be their constituents – think ought to make sure they employ members across the board of that community.
Demographics. In 2014, many Jewish organizations reacted with horror to the Pew report on the state of American Jews. Affiliation rates of young Jews showed to be plummeting, self-identification of Jews declining, and long-term trends seemed gloomy. One demographic who is assimilating in much lower rates and maintaining a high rate of affiliation? Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews. With studies showing one of every five American Jews being non-Ashkenazi, there is no excuse for any Jewish organization not to reflect those numbers in their own leadership. Organizations reflecting less than twenty percent Mizrachi employees do not only lack in their diversity standards – they simply don’t reflect the face of American Jewry. Future minded organizations should read the map and recognize the enormous role Mizrachi Jews have in today’s and tomorrow’s Jewish leadership.
As Jewish organizations march towards an ever-changing world, we must make sure we are strong, unified, and diverse. No Jewish organization can claim to meet diversity requirements when they do not have Mizrachi Jews among their leadership. We must make sure we do what is right and good and strive to live up to our moral commitments “Yachad Shivtei Yisrael,” united we are stronger.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher, and a writer. He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.