By Sasha Dominguez
On the first day of religious school this year, I introduced myself to the class. “Hi, my name is Sasha Dominguez, I am going to be your teacher.” One of the students in my class responded, “Dominguez? That’s not a Jewish last name?” My students, like so many young Jews, are not getting any explicit education on what it means or looks like or sounds like to be Jewish in the United States today, despite the fact they are in a religious school class with two Jews of color and have a Jewish-Hispanic teacher.
Perpetuation of white-Ashkenormative Jewish culture is not only an incomplete illustration of Judaism, but it is also causing Jews of color and other non-Ashkenazi backgrounds to disconnect from their Jewish life all together. The desire among the racially and ethnically diverse folk within our Jewish communities to hold both their Jewish and “other” identities simultaneously must be met by the elite of our institutions teaching a multi-faceted history of who we are as American Jews.
Statistics show that diversity in the Jewish community is growing due to intermarriage, cross-cultural Jewish adoption, and influx of Jewish immigrants to the United States from the Middle East, Spanish speaking countries, etc. Their presence in our country and communities is exemplary of our need to teach the stories and histories of racially and ethnically diverse Jewish populations in the United States.
In my Jewish Day School’s graduating class, there were twenty-two of us, three of us are Jewish-Cubans (Jewbans). After college I lived in Miami Beach for several years, where I worked at a synagogue with a significant Jewban population. In my HUC year in Israel class, four out of forty-five students are Jewbans. I know based on national statistics, it is not the norm that on three different occasions in my life I was part of a significant Jewban population. Nevertheless, this is my experience.
In all of these situations I was given very few resources to explore anything outside of the white-Ashkenormative narrative. Jewish educators need to proactively incorporate the rich racial and ethnic diversity that make up our Jewish community in the United States. They should utilize the human resources, because there are Jews itching to tell their dynamic stories in many, if not all, communities. Take advantage of the digital age we live in and expose your students to podcasts, videos, articles, etc. As Jews in the United States today, we all hold complex identities. Jewish educational and institutional leaders ought to present their plethora of experiences and identities to their constituents as well. If we as Jewish educators cannot start these conversations around our Jewish identities and our students Jewish identities, who can?
I am not suggesting that Jewish educators reinvent this wheel. Yes, there are organizations such as Be’Chol Lashon and the URJ’s Jew V’Nation Fellowship. Both of which are dedicated to making the Jewish community more ethnically, culturally, and racially inclusive, with hopes to cultivate Jewish leaders of color. I am concerned though with the Jewish individuals and communities who are not aware of this work or these organizations.
I also hear those who would say that this population is a minority within a minority. We have enough issues to address as a united Jewish community, why should we divide ourselves even further? For this precise reason, we must address the needs of those who are ethnically and racially diverse in our community because the Jewish community has been isolated and made ‘other’ since our inception. In ignoring this issue within our own community, our Jewish educators are defying key Jewish values such as klal yisrael, tzedek, and gemilut hasadim. We must step up and educate the entire Jewish narrative. Only then can we create a stronger Jewish community, empowering the Jewish future to serve the world with justice and acts of kindness and compassion, rather than putting up these guards for those in our very own communities.
My student was wrong, Dominguez is a Jewish name because I hold it. It’s not his fault that he had this assumption though. My name is not traditionally Jewish, but this lens can’t be the only one through which we view our Jewish communities. For the sake of all of the ethnically and racially diverse Jews in this country, we must teach a multi-faceted history of who we are as American Jews.
Sasha Dominguez is a concurrent masters student in Jewish Education and Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.