Tag: Multicultural

Moses Wasn’t a White Boy

I love the look on the faces of our students when I point out to them that Moses could not have had the pinkish white skin that I have. First their brows furrow, then they go wide, then they smile with understanding and agreement.

Since Moses descended from people born in Canaan (with ancestry harkening back to Ur, near the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and he grew up under the hot Egyptian sun. His skin had to be significantly darker than your average caucasian. That means that Cecil B. DeMille got it wrong casting Charlton Heston as Moses, at least with regards to skin color.

Not that skin color should matter. Often – too often – it seems to matter. Especially in Jewish life. But it shouldn’t.

Introducing Be’chol Lashon, Celebrating the Mosaic of Jewish Life 
Thankfully, there exists an incredible organization, Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) which “grows and strengthens the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness. They advocate for the diversity that has characterized the Jewish people throughout history, and through contemporary forces including intermarriage, conversion and adoption. And they foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences.”

Be’chol Lashon’s monthly eNewsletter overflows with insights, news, arts and culture, and a plethora of programs and events. They run kids and family camp, send out speakers, and encourage creative mitzvah projects.  Be’chol Lashon reminds us of the fact that Jewish community has always been a mosaic.

Or Ami Has a Multicultural/Multiracial/Multiethnic Webpage
At Congregation Or Ami (as our “Multicultural/Multiracial” webpage declares),

We celebrate that Judaism has always been mosaic, a beautiful collection of different colored and shaped pieces. We are also “Mosaic” in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people. We rejoice that at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. Recognizing that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, we are pleased to welcome the multicultural/multiracial/multiethnic Jewish individuals, couples and families in our community. 

Some couples that begin with two individuals from different backgrounds need to integrate separate lives into one family. Some families adopting a child from a different culture look to celebrate all parts of the child’s mosaic. Individual Jews, raised in multicultural homes, strive to be accepted as Jews, no questions asked. Remember: you are not alone. 

Congregation Or Ami, our Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Cantor Doug Cotler, Rabbi Julia Weisz and our Reform Jewish movement, welcome you. Congregation Or Ami is already proud to be a home congregation for many multiethnic, multiracial and multicultural individuals, couples and families, and we welcome you to share in the warmth of our community. We invite you to begin a conversation with Rabbi Kipnes to share your hopes or questions about being part of Or Ami. 

Congregation Or Ami offers individuals and couples who connect to multiple cultures, races and/or ethnic groups the opportunity to explore their Judaism in a warm, welcoming environment. We work to empower people to make Jewish choices for themselves and their families and we strive to provide resources to inform educated decisions. We strive to be a welcoming place for people of diverse religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, and ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. We invite you to begin a conversation with Rabbi Kipnes to share your hopes or questions about being a multicultural, multiethnic and/or multiracial individual or family at Or Ami.
[Note: It is quite possible that much of this language was borrowed from Be’chol Lashon publications.

So let’s celebrate: our Jews and Jewish families of all colors, racial or ethnic backgrounds, and cultural connections. You make our mosaic ever more colorful, engaging and interesting.

Tell Your Non-Caucasian Jewish Friends
Check out Be’chol Lashon, and share it, especially, with your non-caucasian Jewish friends. Check out:

And may our synagogues, and federations, and organizations, and schools, and individual Jews, remember the truth: that mosaics are way more interesting when they are made up of all different colors, shapes and sizes.

National Pluralistic Study

The Jerusalem Post covered the National Pluralistic Beit Midrash (House of Study):

The Jerusalem Post covers the CCAR’s
National Beit Midrash unites Israelis, North American Reform rabbis
Mar. 1, 2009maya spitzer , THE JERUSALEM POST

The conference hall was crowded with groups of four as far as the eye could see; the discussions impassioned, the excitement palpable. Hundreds of Jews – American and Israeli, men and women, religious and secular, new immigrants and sabras, right wing and left wing, sat with one another, intensely engaged in the sacred texts before them – studying, challenging and questioning one another and themselves.

The Batei Midrash Network, a group of pluralistic organizations dedicated to Jewish learning throughout Israel, hosted this landmark day of learning at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on Friday, the fourth day of the weeklong Central Conference of American Rabbis Jerusalem 2009 Convention.

The event brought together Israeli Batei Midrash members and a delegation of the American rabbis for a day of hevruta learning, the traditional mode of Jewish study dating back to talmudic times, involving textual analysis and discussion in small groups.

Friday’s hevruta groups, each with two Israelis and two Americans, studied Shabbat, tradition, renewal and Israel-Diaspora relations. With more than 600 participants, this was the largest assemblage of its kind in the history of the young Beit Midrash movement in Israel.

For the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Beit Midrash was symbolic of the growth and success of the Progressive (Reform) Movement, and of Jewish pluralism as a whole in Israel. “People from all over Israel have come to Jerusalem to study with Reform rabbis,” said Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the Central Conference.

Against the backdrop of the state’s refusal to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, the event demonstrated the solidarity of the worldwide Reform movement, said Rabbi Miri Gold, who is currently embroiled in a fight with the government for recognition as rabbi of Congregation Birkat Shalom in Kibbutz Gezer.

“We have a long way to go,” said Gold, citing the Boston Tea Party’s slogan of “no taxation without representation,” “but the existence of the Beit Midrash shows the strong presence of pluralistic Judaism in Israel, a presence that needs to be recognized.”

“There has been longstanding, unfortunate discrimination, but we’re being proactive, working on advocacy against it,” said Rabbi Yoel Oseran, vice president of international development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

He said there was “clear evidence” of the movement’s success in its newfound visibility: the large number of wedding ceremonies performed, the Progressive synagogues now in every major city in Israel despite lack of government funding, and the strong growth in their kindergarten programs. “Certainly the Beit Midrash is reflective of the direction of Reform Judaism and its growing embrace of Jewish scholarship,” Oseran said.

“The goal of this convention is to engage experientially, in a meaningful way, Israel and Israelis. Today we created the largest national Beit Midrash, and with Torah and love of the Jewish people in common, we hope to forge meaningful personal connections,” said Rabbi Donald Rosoff, chairman of the Central Conference convention committee.

The Reform American rabbis from the Central Conference studied alongside their Israeli hevruta partners, united by a dedication to Jewish learning and a belief in its relevance to contemporary concerns.

In hevrutot, “we find ways to integrate modern life and ancient text, bringing the wisdom, humor, philosophy, and halachot of the texts alive in our lives now,” said Roni Yavin, the conference’s Israel chairwoman. “We are maintaining the tradition of Jewish learning from talmudic times and bringing new life to the text at the same time. Israelis want to touch the Talmud themselves.”

The rise of such Beit Midrash-style learning lies at the heart of Israel’s growing Jewish Renewal (Hithadsut Yehudit) movement (no connection to the Jewish Renewal movement that began in North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s), in which people seek to “take more active responsibility for their Judaism,” Yavin said.

From cities to kibbutzim and moshavim, Israel has seen a rise in Jewish Renewal activities: pluralistic study of Jewish texts in batei midrash, communal holiday celebrations and Kabalat Shabbat activities, not associated with specific streams of Judaism.

The Beit Midrash’s planners hoped it would initiate a wider dialogue between the North American and Israeli Jews. “We hope this serves as a big bridge between our communities,” said Yavin. “This process will enable many Israelis to create meaningful personal relationships with our deep and rich Jewish culture. It can enlighten and help us grapple with the existential questions and current challenges facing the individual and the general Jewish public in Israel and abroad.”

“In the past, Israelis thought that Americans would come here to learn from them. It’s been my experience that Israelis now understand the mifgash [encounter] is two ways, and that’s really inspiring. Lilmod ulelamed [to learn and to teach] each other,” said Michael Weinberg, the Central Conference’s chairman of the Beit Midrash.

A number of conference participants attributed the rise of the Jewish Renewal movement to a perceived void and spiritual yearning among secular Israelis. The uptick in mainstream hevruta study and similar activities “symbolizes an evolving Israel,” said Rabbi Mary Zamore of Westfield, New Jersey. “Those who are secular recognize something is missing from their lives. They are yearning for text, yahadut [Judaism], and realize they can do that and still be modern and educated at the same time.”

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto, who runs Kolel, one of the few such batei midrash in North America, sees a parallel lack there, and hopes to spur the transplantation of similar institutions overseas.

“As much as Israelis realize they need an outlet for spirituality, American Jews are feeling the same way and saying, ‘You know what, I don’t know that much about Judaism, and I’m not willing to go to a place where there’s only one point of view presented.'”

The Batei Midrash Network, which was established in 2003 by five batei midrash, now includes 21 of Israel’s 30 Beit Midrash organizations. More than 3,000 Israelis take part in Batei Midrash Network’s yearlong programs, and 10,000 participate in its short-term programs.

It is primarily supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Avi Chai Foundation, and the Metro-West Federation of New Jersey.

Breaking Down Barriers in Tel Aviv

K’sheh nichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha. When the Hebrew month of Adar begins, joy is increased! How true, at least from my seat here in Jerusalem.

I lay down for my pre-Shabbat schulfee (nap), only to be so filled with memories and stories that I could only sleep for a few minutes.

Yesterday, Thursday, was Tel Aviv day. This would be my second full day in Tel Aviv/Jaffa this trip; possibly only my third week or so total in my lifetime. I’m an Oheiv Yerushalayim, a lover of Jerusalem, by nature. When the Psalmist wrote, Eem eshkacheich Yerushalayim – If I forget thee, O Jerusalem – I seem to have understood this to mean that I must remain focused on the Holy City. Yet these recent trips, spurred on by Tel Aviv Progressive Rabbi Meir Azari’s challenge to open myself up to Jewish life outside of Jerusalem, has led me to appreciate, even come to love, this modern Jewish city.

We heard Tel Aviv mayor speak of the importance of Progressive Judaism to Tel Aviv. Incidentally, he has been a major supporter of Beit Daniel and its community center, helping allocate land and allocate funds.

We took a walking tour of Jerusalem, led by two guides: an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab of Israeli citizenship. Note the new way of speaking about the second: not an Israeli Arab, but a Palestinian Arab of Israeli citizenship. It is about identity. Years ago, many blacks decided to self-identify as African-Americans, instead of blacks, in order to grasp hold of their African descent. As we walked through Yaffo/Jaffa, we learned about the history of the port city from the perspective of two narratives: that of the Israeli Jew and that of the Palestinian. How to reconcile two “truths”? How to honor the reality each experienced, bringing wholeness to both communities?

The afternoon was a combined celebration of Israeli/Tel Avivi culture and arts, as well as a reflection on issues of social justice. Any Bar Mitzvah student will tell you that when the Torah instructs us in Leviticus 19:4, “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind…”, it was urging ethical action toward all those with disabilities. Our actions must be more than just not placing a block; we must work to embrace those with disabilities. Thus, the production of Not by Bread Alone, a play whose theater assembly is comprised of people who are deaf and/or blind. A majority of the actors suffer from an inherited genetic disorder called Usher Syndrome which initially results in acute deafness and which is followed by loss of vision. Their production was moving, engaging and thought-provoking. Rather than worrying about the stumbling block placed before them, these “disabled” actors removed the block that keep so many from seeing “disabled” as merely “differently abled.” Bravo to the CCAR for providing us with an artistic experience, a social justice encounter, and a wonderful day!

More reflections on the CCAR conference at Ima on (and off) the Bima (Rabbi Phyllis Sommer), Divray Derech (Rabbi Rick Winer), Desperately Seeking Sinai (Rabbi David Cohen). Also check out the official CCAR Israel Convention blog.

Any other CCAR rabbis blogging the convention? Email Rabbi Paul Kipnes, and we’ll link your blog to the CCAR Israel Convention Blog.

Everyone Does Better When Everyone Does Better

This from American Jewish World Service’s D’var Tzedek on Parshat Vayetze:

The bumper sticker on my brother’s car reads, “Everyone does better when everyone does better.” This statement brims with optimism: it is a vision of shared work and shared gain. Yet as I repeat this phrase, the terms begin to flicker: Is the “doing better” economic or moral? Who is considered to be part of “everyone”? Jacob finds himself part of a quotient of work and gain in this week’s parshah that helps illuminate the nuance in this slogan.

Jacob is a migrant worker. He flees from a dangerous situation at home and takes refuge in Haran.1 In this foreign area, he does arduous agricultural work for his uncle, Lavan, who assumes the role of deceptive and abusive employer. Because Jacob arrives destitute, Lavan easily takes advantage of him. From Lavan’s perspective, this presents a wonderful opportunity for economic growth, both for himself and for his community.

According to Midrash, the Haranites are cognizant of this exploitation. Lavan gathers everyone and reminds them that Jacob’s labor has improved their economic situation. “Do as you think fit,” the people respond. Lavan then announces that he will dishonestly persuade Jacob to stay seven more years. “Do whatever you please,” they say.2 The community tacitly encourages Lavan. They believe that their prosperity will be multiplied collectively: Everyone does better when everyone does better.

Millions of migrant workers today suffer the consequences of this thinking. They are exploited in much the same way as Jacob, and this exploitation is supported by the communities around them—either explicitly or implicitly. In Thailand, Burmese immigrants work long hours for little pay in unsafe, abusive environments.3 In the U.S., Mexican born farm workers toil in dangerous conditions,4 and many earn incomes below the poverty level.5 Powerful nations reap the benefits, gaining a flexible labor supply and avoiding social costs of health care, fair wages and overtime pay.6 Our country, and each one of us, depends on migrant work being done cheaply across the globe.

This system is possible because migrant workers, like Jacob, are perceived as marginal, invisible. They are not part of “everyone.” Because rights are not granted or acknowledged, the migrant worker has no recourse and must accept whatever horrendous situation an employer offers.

This story takes the optimism out of what I originally thought was a buoyant bumper sticker. Yet Jewish tradition responds. It condemns exploitation such as that experienced by Jacob. Deuteronomy teaches, “Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates.”7 Our tradition mandates that we not exploit workers—foreign or domestic. As employers, we must embrace ethical labor practices. Our tradition is telling us to read the slogan differently: to “do better” is to act in a moral way. In this case, when we act ethically, we improve ourselves: Everyone does better when everyone does better.

Secular labor law similarly concedes that treatment of workers is primarily a moral issue. This is evident in the language of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW). This document focuses on human rights and “the inherent dignity of every human person,” rather than on economic concerns.8 Yet it is telling that only 27 countries have ratified the ICMW, none of them major migrant worker-receiving states. Greed is trumping morality in our world. Migrant workers in our own country
and across the globe lack basic legal protections.

Unless we actively defend the rights of migrant workers, we are as complicit as the residents of Haran in the suffering of others. We cannot expect the millions of migrant workers to be their own advocates—their situations make them highly vulnerable, leaving them with too much at stake. Jacob is unable to effectively challenge Lavan until he is independently wealthy, a mere fantasy for most migrant workers.9

From the perspective of economic greed, it may seem wise for us to turn a blind eye and let this unjust tradition of exploitation continue. But perhaps there is a reason it is our own ancestor who was exploited, a role that has repeated itself in other places in Jewish history. It is incumbent upon us to speak out on behalf of migrant workers, the collective descendents of Jacob’s experience, domestically and internationally.

Everyone does better when everyone does better.

This bumper sticker is not about imbalanced economic growth. It is about finding our own humanity.

1 Genesis 27:41-45
2 Bereshit Rabbah 70:19
3 Amnesty International. “Thailand: The Plight of Burmese Migrant Workers.” June 8, 2005.
4 The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration lists agriculture as the second most dangerous occupation in the
United States. PBS, “On the Border,” NOW, May 28, 2004.
5 US Department of Labor. “Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS).”March 2000.
6 December18. “Migrant Workers: Issues and Concepts.”
7 Deuteronomy 24:14-15
8 General Assembly of the United Nations. “International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.”
9 Genesis 31: 38-44

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute and The Conservative Yeshiva. Sam’s passions include backpacking, meditation, friends and family, writing, dancing and social action. He believes that mindful engagement with Torah can be a way for us to encounter ourselves and others more intimately. Sam can be reached at samshonkoff@gmail.com.

Joon: Reveling in the Rich Flavors of Persian Jewry

Editor Rob Eshman, in the Jewish Journal, wrote Joon, an explosively honest essay about the integration of the Persian Jewish community into the LA Jewish community. Wrote he:

For as long as I’ve worked in the Jewish community — 14 years — I’ve heard insults leveled at Iranian Jews.

They’re pushy, acquisitive, flashy, nouveau riche, cheap. They’re grasping, insincere, clannish, suspicious, old-fashioned. “They’ve ruined Beverly Hills High.” “They’ve invaded Milken High.” “They’ve taken over Sinai Temple.”

I repeat the invectives by way of making one point: Enough already.

Eshman continues:

As for the established Jewish community, I’d like to believe we have become 100 percent accepting. I’d like to believe that on the occasion of this 30-year anniversary, those of us who still default to — I’ll be blunt — racist generalizations, take the time to learn the remarkable recent history of Iranian Jewry — a story as compelling, frightening and death-defying for those who lived it as any our own relatives experienced.

I’d like to believe we’ll come to understand that there was exactly no — zero — difference between our antagonism of this greenhorn community and the cold-shoulder with which established German Jewish communities in America greeted the waves of our Eastern European ancestors 100 years ago.

At Congregation Or Ami, we have a handful of Jews of Persian descent. They are some of the warmest, most expressive, wonderful members of our congregation. Two became Adult B’not Mitzvah last year and gave Divrei Torah that captured so vividly the love of Torah and Judaism that they brought tears to the eyes of everyone in the sanctuary. They represent the best of our Jewish people. I cannot imagine Or Ami without these two or their relatives.

My kids went to school elsewhere and had wonderful Persian Jewish friends. Michelle and I loved experiencing the rich Persian Jewish culture, food, and family. We supported those friendships wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, not everyone felt the same way. The level of animosity – stereotyping bordering on racism – by Ashkenzi Jews toward the Persian Jews was astonishing. At times, I recall responding to someone’s borderline racist comment about “Persian Jews” by saying sarcastically “they’re almost as bad as [insert racist slang for another group here]”. It was the only way to show them how offensive their comments were.

We take pride in Or Ami’s acceptance of the multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial uniqueness of many of our families. Each brings delicious new flavors to our smorgasbord; each weaves colorful threads into the tapestry we call our community. We even have a page on our website devoted to our openness to this uniqueness. We can only hope that the rest of the Jewish community follows suit too!