By Robert Bank
“Diversity” might not be the first word that comes to mind when we think about living a Jewish life – but it should be. Our heritage’s creation story – human beings created in the image of the Divine – makes an unequivocal statement that all people, whatever our race, ethnicity, class, culture, language, ability or identity, are infinitely valuable and equal. Our history of oppression teaches us to stand up for – rather than exclude or marginalize – minorities. And even the tradition of reading the Torah aloud, with one voice and many listeners, began with a commitment to embracing the unique differences in how each and every one of us views the world.
The book of Nehemiah tells how Ezra the scribe brought the whole Jewish community together to hear the Torah for the first time, and while the people listened, 13 “interpreters” fanned out into the crowd to interpret the text and make it meaningful to each. From the very beginning, this tale teaches us, the Torah was not meant to have just one meaning; it was intended to be adapted, interpreted and transformed for each listener’s worldview.
I was blessed to learn this deeply moving teaching from Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder of Lab/Shul and a Global Justice Fellow of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), at a thought-provoking gathering with leaders of 26 organizations convened by the Jim Joseph Foundation. We were a diverse group representing organizations from across the Jewish community: There were fellow social justice organizations like Bend the Arc and Hazon. Youth and young adult engagement organizations like BBYO, Hillel and Moishe House. Foundations like Wexner and Schusterman. And religious institutions like Union for Reform Judaism, Jewish Theological Seminary, and IKAR.
Like the Torah interpreters of Ezra’s day, each of our organizations was interpreting the stories and lessons of our tradition and applying them to respond to the particular challenges of our day. To take just one example, some of the groups represented at this gathering are using the lessons of Jewish history to inspire solidarity with others seeking freedom – from the Rohingya Muslims of Burma who are being subject to crimes against humanity, to the thousands of asylum seekers crossing our southern border in the hope of a safe life in the U.S. Other organizations are engaging youth to connect with Jewish text, or creating new rituals for observing Jewish holidays in the 21st century.
While the gathering celebrated the beauty of this rainbow of Jewish organizations working on a multitude of different goals, it also highlighted the ways in which we are falling short of our obligation to respect and embrace the diversity among us.
In a powerful session lead by Stosh Cotler, Yavilah McCoy, April Baskin and Cheryl Cook, we heard about the devastating experiences many Jews of color have within our institutions and communities. They recounted people asking Jews of color, “how are you Jewish?” or arriving at synagogues only to be mistaken as janitorial staff because of the color of their skin. Some described their yearning to have Jewish role models who look like them. And others shared a desire to hear more music of their own heritage – from gospel music to Sephardi or Mizrahi Jewish tunes – sung in synagogue and other spaces of Jewish life. We were reminded of the racial and ethnic diversity of the American Jewish community, and the continued work we have to do to embrace our full spectrum of lived experience.
Crucially, we also focused on how we, as Jewish leaders, can promote diversity in our own organizations and programs, first by understanding the various ways – personal, cultural and structural – that people are being marginalized; and then by creating initiatives that foster diversity and proactively work to transform our organizational cultures to address these problems.
Since I’ve returned from this gathering of American Jewish leaders, I’ve been thinking more and more about what it means to embrace the pluralism and diversity within the American Jewish community, in light of my organization’s work to create a truly pluralistic world in which all people of every race, faith, gender, identity, ethnicity and ability can live with dignity and human rights.
In our work at AJWS to promote human rights in 19 countries in the developing world, we work with grantee partners of diverse races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds worldwide – Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, secular intellectuals, feminists, and many others. This is fundamental to our mission, since AJWS is inspired by the core Jewish notion that all people were created b’tselem Elohim – in the image of God. To create a world in which every person’s dignity is upheld, we promote gender equality in India, supporting girls and young women to make their own choices about marriage, careers and futures. In Kenya, we defend the rights of LGBTI people, supporting organizations that combat homophobia and violence, ensuring that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities can live with dignity. In Mexico, we support a movement of indigenous farmers working to stop discrimination against indigenous people and halt land grabs that rob them of the farms and resources they need for survival.
Just as we work with diverse partners around the world, we are blessed with a relatively diverse staff, with members of our staff from many cultures, faiths, intellectual traditions, and sexual and gender identities. We believe that diversity is not just about who is on our team, but how we tap the talents and different experiences they bring to our mission and work.
To do this, we have begun a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative to continue to build and sustain a diverse, just and inclusive work environment where all employees – of all races, religions and identities – feel safe and respected. We are celebrating the ways in which we are succeeding, and taking a hard look at the ways in which we are falling short, in order to be a community truly rooted in our core values.
As we work to achieve a diverse, pluralistic and respectful world for all people, we must do the same in the Jewish community. This means we must understand the wide scope and respect the full diversity of diaspora Jewish cultural groups – from the many Ashkenazi traditions, to Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, to Sephardi Jews of Spain – as well those in multi-faith, diverse and hybrid families. That also means respecting religious and secular Jews in their many varieties, and Jews of various world views and ideologies.
To create the kind of pluralistic world we want to live in, we must include those who have never been fully included before, in every society, including the Jewish community. We must challenge restrictive norms that oppress women and foster violence against them. We must take on institutional racism, conscious or not, that affects how we look at (and too often limit) people of every background. We must embrace the dignity of LBGTI people. We must be truly open to “the other” and “welcoming the stranger” in our community and in the broader world.
Just as we are learning, in this authoritarian age, that one authoritarian abets another, we understand that diversity anywhere can catalyze diversity everywhere. That’s our work. Those are our values. That’s who we are. In fact, part of creating a diverse and pluralistic world is creating a diverse and pluralistic Jewish community. And to create a diverse and open Jewish community, we must be situated in a diverse and open world community. These goals cannot be separated and cordoned off from one another. They are one.
The Jim Joseph Foundation gathering provided a significant opportunity for these conversations to take root. I left thinking how powerful it would be if each of the 26 organizations in attendance would take up this mandate, together and in our own communities in real and authentic ways, and to challenge our colleagues throughout the Jewish world to do the same. This would mean a stronger Jewish community for ourselves and a better world for all.
Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service.
Cross-posted on Jim Joseph Foundation Blog.