Beyond the Mission Statement

by Erika Davis

My path to Judaism is similar to most Jews by choice. After years of spiritual searching and longing, I turned toward Judaism because of the tradition, because it is the seed of monotheistic religion, because it’s where I was able to connect to G-d in a real and powerful way. My excitement was met with trepidation: Having grown up Christian with minimal contact with Jews, I wasn’t sure if I’d fit in. I saw only pale faces and felt out of place, unsure how I would be accepted with my brown skin.

Doing most of my research online and in the small Judaica section at Barnes and Noble, I found the Reform Movement seemed to fit what I was looking for – an open stance on LGBTQ individuals, an open-tent mentality to interfaith families, and a focus on inclusion of Jews by choice and Jews of color. I continued my search for the perfect Reform synagogue based on my shul shopping list.

I started where most Jews by choice start – online. I looked for synagogues based on their mission statements, bookmarking those that used the words “inclusion,” “diversity,” “open,” or mentioned LGBTQ individuals or Jews of color. After reading the mission statements I looked for any other indicators of diversity; female rabbis, ethnic diversity in community photographs, or an LGBTQ group. If a synagogue passed these tests, I visited. I determined it was best to ignore most communities’ advice to call ahead to assure that someone would greet and welcome me; I wanted to see their words in action.

I hate to say that many New York synagogues failed the test. I received gruff treatment by security at the door, while others seemed to walk right in the building. I sat alone in pews of vast worship spaces while congregants sat everywhere except for next to me. I stood alone at many a Kiddush and even had people hand me their dirty dishes Determined to find a Jewish community that met my needs, I dug in my heels and continued my search. I found that most synagogues didn’t live up to their mission statements.

I am thrilled at the prospect of reaching Jewish leaders, educators, and executives to help move the Movement forward in terms of truly living the mission statements we post on our websites. Moving beyond mission statements means getting our hands dirty; it means serious self-reflection; it means taking a hard look at our communities and making changes that seem difficult. Just like anything worthwhile, it also takes time, patience, understanding and resources.

When I converted to Judaism, I looked around my community and saw that changes needed to be made. I have hopes of starting a family with my partner, but the idea of bringing black, Jewish children with two moms into this community scares me. Fortunately, there are small changes synagogues can undertake to be more welcoming. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take a look at picture Bibles, assuring that the Jews portrayed in it are ethnically accurate.
  • Make sure educational materials are comprehensive representations of Jewish cultural and ethnic history, rather than through the typical Ashkenazi/Sephardic paradigm.
  • Incorporate diverse holiday celebrations into school curriculum, highlighting culinary and cultural similarities with Jewish holiday traditions to make the school year more vibrant.
  • Committ to hosting a “Kiddish Around the World” event for a full calendar year using a map of the world and pushpins to indicate countries where Jews live.Feature speakers from varying Jewish cultures, spicing it up with foods, music, and traditions specific to those countries..
  • Invite a Jew of color to be scholar-in-residence for a Shabbat service, a semester, or a quarter.
  • Recruit rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educator from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Do the same with teachers – even if they’re not Jewish.
  • Use your resources. Jews of color make up 10% of the Jewish population, and many of us would love to work with and within your communities to take a critical look at education materials, syllabi, and synagogue schedules to help congregations make strides toward inclusivity.

August 17th will mark my first anniversary as a Jewish woman, a process nearly three years in the making. While I’ve started to worship in a Conservative synagogue as well as a great Reform community, my view of who is and who is not a Jew has evolved based on what I’ve learned and who I’ve met.. When I hosted Pesach this year, we heard the Four Questions in five different languages, and the brown faces outnumbered the white faces. I feel blessed and privileged to be a member of the community of Jews of color and Jews by choice.

Change cannot simply be words printed on a brochure. Change cannot stop with mission statements. Change does not happen without doing work and real change only happens over time. The beauty is that change can happen. It’s up to us to want it enough to work toward it, for our children and for our grandchildren.

Erika Davis blogs at Black, Gay and Jewish.

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