The Shema Room

By Michael Balanoff

Before the end of the 21st century, the United States will have undergone a demographic shift such that people of color will comprise a majority of the country’s population. This reality underpins much of what is happening in our nation today. Jewish Americans will, of course, be part of this transition.

The Jewish people are more diverse than many American Jews may realize. There are African Jews, Latino/Hispanic Jews, Asian Jews, Indian Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and many multiracial and multiethnic Jews. But in the United States, the dominant Jewish ethnicity has long been considered to be both European and white, with the result that many in the Jewish community may lack of understanding of the true ethnic and racial diversity that is the community’s heritage.

Recently, the Jewish Federation of Central New York convened a small group of local community members to weigh in on the subject of diversity and intentional and unintentional racism in our local Jewish community. It was purposefully called the Shema Room, echoing Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks statement that shema “is fundamentally untranslatable into English since it means so many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize, to respond, to obey.” Rabbi Sacks asserts that “Judaism is a religion of listening.” Our Federation believes that today it is more important than ever that Jews listen – to one another, to diverse voices, to voices that perhaps have not spoken out before or perhaps have not been listened to before.

Federation’s Shema Room was a virtual meeting with no predetermined agenda, no preset goals, no fixed ideas or boundaries. We wanted to listen to and learn about and from one another. Our topic was Jewish diversity, by which we did not mean the differences among the branches of Judaism, but rather the differences among Jewish people that are often obscured when we talk about being Am Israel, the Jewish nation.

We had all just listened to the shofar. Now we listened to one another. Seven members of the Jewish community met via Zoom to listen to one another and learn about one another’s experiences. The result was, in the words of one participant, “an awesomely informative and inspiring evening.” The hour-long session was fascinating, moving, meaningful and educational. Our participants came from diverse backgrounds: African American, Jamaican, Chinese, Indian, Oglala-Lakotan, Southeast Asian. They were adults of many ages, young adults and a teen.

Participants described their experiences as Jews of color, of being “othered” and of being looked at and questioned. And there were moments of humor, emotion and shared experience. The prevailing feeling was that what one “looked like” was frequently the occasion for misunderstanding, misguided efforts at “help,” or just general cluelessness about what being Jewish meant, as distinct from “looking Jewish.” But there was also the feeling of being valued, of being accepted and of not wanting to waste time dwelling on the lack of understanding or knowledge that other people sometimes displayed. As one participant put it, “I don’t need someone’s permission to be Jewish, and I don’t need someone’s approval to live a Jewish life style.”

The predominant feeling seemed to be that education was the best way to combat racism, discrimination and antisemitism. As one participant, a professor of mathematics, explained it: ‘When I am asked how to fight antisemitism, I respond that I have students who don’t like math, but I don’t fight them. I teach them.’ Teaching is the modality of choice for another participant, whose words appear below. But perhaps the most important point she stressed is that to say “I am not racist” is not to change anything for the better. As Jews, we must do more than that.

Thelie Trotty-Selzer is a highly-respected retired teacher of social sciences. She wrote the following remarks which she presented at the Shema Room session:

“The Civil Rights Movement occurred over half a century ago. In its earliest beginnings, Rabbis Herschel and Eisendraft aligned with Dr. Martin Luther King and joined future congressman John Lewis in Selma, Alabama in the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge. Since that time, little has changed the nature of the systemic institutionalized racism that permeates American life, regardless of class or ethnic group.

“As a Native American [Oglala-Lakota], the cruelty of racial prejudice has not been absent from my experience. I am a Jew by choice. I chose to marry a Jew. My daughter was raised as a Jew. I understand fully two reminders for the Jew by choice: no one has the power to make me feel non-Jewish without my consent, and it is my responsibility to continue, with my husband, to develop a set of Jewish values and a lifestyle that are meaningful for our family.

“If our commandments have any meaning, we must be seriously committed to tikun olam. It is as important as any other obligation or commandment. We must confront our own racism and begin to emerge dedicated to improving the world, not just a Jewish world. Jews of Color and Jews of Many Hues have advanced this conversation. As we Jews have suffered the plight of being a minority community, so have most communities of color. We must return to the alliance that once existed to collaboratively become the agents of change. Then, as a future of great diversity evolves, we can demonstrate leadership in how to seek a pathway toward social justice, righteousness and a single community sharing this land.

“We must change the paradigm of our own socialization. Let us embrace the wisdom from this quote: Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It is not pie.”

Michael Balanoff is the President/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Central New York.