Looking in the Mirror

by Jay Ruderman

I am concerned that Jewish people, everywhere, are so focused and exclusionary in our desire to assert a strong and single identity that we limit who and what we are – and we weaken our community and deprive it of potential and opportunity.

In an insightful and valuable article by Brad Sugar that was published here at eJewish Philanthropy on January 14th, the author used the example of Jewish and non-Jewish students he was teaching at a high school in Chicago to demonstrate how young people hold a highly rarified and unenlightened perspective on Jewish people.

In the story, titled, “The Case for Jewish Mentorship,” Mr. Sugar told how in 2005, he asked students in a meeting of a high school Jewish culture club to draw a Jew on a whiteboard. Again, the students were Jewish and non-Jewish.

“As you might imagine, stereotypes ran rampant,” wrote Mr. Sugar, and they offered proof that the Jewish community is lacking for leaders and role models, those who are top of mind for young people when they think of who is a Jew.

I believe that the exercise is instructive, as well, in that it mirrors in a way the truth that too many Jewish people only see – or only want to see – the Jewish community as made up almost exclusively of those who are heterosexual, professional, at least fairly materially comfortable, and without disabilities.

We have become elitists.

We are so focused and protective of establishing a strong Jewish community and identity that we resist encouraging diversity because we think it will weaken us. Well, of course, the opposite is true – diversity, tolerance, giving, and inclusion strengthen us.

Too often we don’t reach out to those in need, to the poor, the dispossessed, people with physical or emotional disabilities, because we think that bringing these people into the fold of the Jewish community and supporting them is not consistent with what we seek to establish and promote as who we are.

We need to fully include people with disabilities in our Jewish community.

We need to do a far better job inviting in to our community those within the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered (LGBT) community.

An inspiration and model to emulate in the cause of full inclusion is the philanthropy of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The Foundation, which does extraordinary work, explains on its website this fundamental tenet of its Jewish community-building work:

“Central to Jewish tradition is the obligation to treat all people with derekh eretz (civility and humanity) and chesed (mercy and kindness). We believe that our rich diversity of backgrounds, passions and interests is a source of vitality and strength.”

For sure, derekh eretz and chesed should be a bedrock virtue of what it means to be Jewish. Jewish people the world over need to be champions for inclusion.

We must be governed by a sense of righteousness that is embodied in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lezeh – “All Jews are responsible for one another.”

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. To stay updated on the Foundation, follow the Foundation’s blog, Zeh Lezeh.