by Jen Chau
Someone who I hardly know gave me a present last month. It is one that I will never forget.
We give presents for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, wedding showers, just-born-babies, and new homes. We even leave money under pillows for little ones for their lost teeth. But very rarely do we give gifts to thank those who really dedicate their lives to bringing about positive change for our world. Maybe we don't because we wouldn't know what to give them...I mean, what do activists need? Great cardstock for making signage at the next protest? Sharp business suits for networking meetings? Books and books on revolution? Blog space? :) Donations to their favorite organization?
This is silly to even think about because activists are probably not doing the work they do for presents. :) I surely don't do the work that I do to get thanks or praise. I do what I do out of a feeling of responsibility and a passion for the issues. I envision a world that looks very different than the one in which we are currently living, and that inspires me to work for change. That said, sometimes it gets tough. Just like the work of teachers and other social service workers, the work of activists is mostly thankless. But that's what makes the kind words of one person that much more impactful. I was recently given the best present an activist could ever hope to receive.
At the end of last month, I spoke at the JCC on a panel about Jews of Color. I have done countless talks such as this one, and I remember talking with my boyfriend about this a few days prior to the event. I wondered with him if I should even be doing this work anymore. The truth is that I don't feel personally connected to Judaism -- the religion, the greater community, the faith. But, I do see the importance of sharing my story. Still, after about ten years of speaking out and not seeing much change, I wondered if it was useful for me to do this work. I have learned to be more strategic with my time (aka not saying yes to absolutely everything :)), so it made sense for me to ask myself about this commitment moving forward. Was it worth my time to continue sharing my voice with the Jewish community? Was I having an impact? Was I needed?
Now, I don't doubt that people care. Sure they do. I am pretty sure that I am continually invited to share my story because it is one that the Jewish community feels is compelling and didactic (I know that I haven't talked explicitly about my experience growing up Jewish on this blog, but I will definitely write more about this in a future post). After each speech, each panel, each discussion, dozens of people will approach me and thank me for sharing, give me their email addresses, invite me to shul with them, tell me that I am brave, give me well wishes, hug me (even though this is a nice gesture, I usually leave smelling like a combination of at least ten people's cologne and perfume. I like to call it Eau d' Audience ;)), and sometimes even invite me to bar/bat mitzvahs or their homes for the sabbath. Judging by this reception, I know that people are grateful for my voice. I wonder though, what the limit is. How many times do I tell the same story? How many times do I explain the same things to different people, but people who have the same level of consciousness as the audience that I spoke to about the same issues in 1999? Really, the question is -- is there enough leadership? If we are only using the stories of a few and cycling them through the entire Jewish community, that is going to take some time, and those few speakers will eventually burn out. Who else is talking about issues of inclusion and racism within the Jewish community? What responsibility are Jewish institutions taking to remedy this situation? One note -- I realize that there are many Jewish spaces that are entirely inclusive and welcoming to Jews of color, and that Jews of color out there have wonderful experiences. I am just speaking from my experience, as someone who has experienced her fair share of discrimination and racism within Jewish organizations/communities.
During the evening's event, there would be a presentation by my colleague and frend, Joel Sanchez. He identifies as a mixed Jew of color, like me, and would present the research that he conducted on Jews of color. We need more Joels out there! I so appreciated his work to really show that there are patterns and that there is an experience of exclusion that needs to be addressed. I believe that his work really gave validity to the experiences that many of us have had. Joel is wonderful. Then, he would turn it to the panelists, other Jews of color, to share their experiences and answer some questions and interact with the audience.
I spoke first. These were my main points:
- Jews of color still struggle to be seen as Jews. Many of us deal with relentless questions about who we are and why we are at xyz Jewish event. We are told we don't look Jewish and sometimes face blatant discrimination. While many Jews of color do have positive experiences, I think that as long as we have some who continue to be subject to racism in the Jewish community, then we have a problem on our hands.
- It is not enough for white Jews to attend an event like the one last month, think about how terrible racism in the Jewish community is, and then expect things to improve because they have engaged for ONE night. If those attendees care, it is up to them to take action as well. Conversations must continue, questions must be raised within the context of synogogues and other Jewish institutions, and everyone must continue to examine their own biases.
- It is important for white Jews to pay attention to the ways in which they interact with Jews of color. Part of what it means to be privileged is to feel that you don't have to think too hard before you speak. You might blurt out that which you are thinking and then expect the listener to be lenient if you wind up offending them. I challenged the white Jews in the room to think about how they approach Jews of color. How do they welcome them? What kinds of questions do they ask? Thinking before speaking could mean the difference between making someone feel absolutely welcomed and terribly excluded.
- Finally, I challenged the audience to think about why exactly they want Jews of color to feel included. Over the years, I have heard a lot of Jews worry about "the dwindling numbers." I explained that if they were interested in creating a welcoming space for Jews of color in order to keep our "numbers up," that that would not work. The most offensive thing is to feel that you are important to the community because you are one more person that the Jewish community can count their own. Creating this feeling is the exact opposite of making Jews of color feel like important members of the community.
Once I concluded, several hands were raised. I knew this would be a lively conversation! Joel asked people to hold their thoughts until the other panelist spoke. Once Juan Mejia (Student Rabbi at Temple Emanuel at Parkchester) finished, even more hands were raised. The second or third question is the one on which I will focus. It was a question to respond to my statements about not being affiliated and involved with Jewish life in any formal way. I find time to celebrate with my family and Jewish friends and honor traditions that way. A woman directed her question towards me -- she said, "Do you feel you have progressed enough that you can now affiliate with a synogogue?" I was a bit offended, and tried to be as gracious as I could be -- I know that she had only good intentions. At the same time, this was exactly the kind of laziness in language that we were talking about all night! Usually, Jews of color are thought to be out of place, and the problems are usually placed with us. This was yet another example. I said something like, "'Progressed enough?' I have been fine. I have been fine this whole time. The problem has not been with me. It is the Jewish community that needs to progress." She looked upset with my response, and several audience members cheered me on. I felt flushed. Did she not get it? This is exactly the kind of response that leads me to wonder if and when people will ever get it.
I don't want to villify her -- but I also stand by the fact that if we are going to get to a better place in this country (and I'm not just talking about the Jewish community here), we all need to be more deliberate in how we think about issues around diversity and speak about these issues. Now, everyone should be able to feel free to say what is on their minds, but the truth is that if you deliver something with sloppiness (without really thinking and giving thought to how it will make the listener feel), then expect mixed consequences. Maybe the person will be gracious and let you off the hook; maybe they will be upset with what you say; maybe they will shut down and never talk with you again. No one should feel privileged to the point that they feel they can say anything and be understood or excused. The woman's question implied that I was the one with the problem. If that is not what she meant, the burden is on her to explain herself more clearly. A mentor of mine once told me (when I was frustrated with a colleague who didn't understand me) that the burden of communication was on me. If the other person didn't understand my message, there must have been something wrong with it, and I would have to try harder to get understanding. And he was right. That really pushed me to figure out how to create messages that communicated exactly what I wanted to get across.
After that exchange, another woman stood up and walked toward the panel to get the mic and ask her question. She extended her hand in my direction and said that she wanted to make a comment about me. She looked familiar -- and the younger woman with her also looked familiar. I saw them come in at the beginning of the evening and I remembered thinking that I must have met them before. She began to tell the story of how she and her daughter, Eliana, first heard me speak. It was about seven years ago (I think), also at the JCC, also to discuss issues of race and Judaism. She told the room of seventy that after hearing me speak back then, that she and her mixed daughter talked about the presentation. She recounted that her daughter (about 10 at the time?) expressed thankfulness. That finally someone had verbalized a lot of what she had been feeling but couldn't verbalize herself. This woman said, as she looked right at me "perhaps you feel that the time has passed for you -- that it is too late for you to be involved, but know that your work is making it possible for others to be involved and have positive experiences."
I don't know if I can put into words how that made me feel. All at once, I understood again why I was doing what I was doing. Earlier that week, I wasn't sure if the connection was still there. And with this one gift -- the gift of knowing that I made a difference for one person -- I remembered that I began to speak out about my experiences as a Jew of color to make things a little better for those who would come after me. I got choked up...my heart was racing. Here was someone to whom I had spoken seven years ago...in front of me, thanking me. I never expect to know how my words or my work influences others, but when I do receive this kind of feedback, I am so grateful. It helps me to know that I am on the right track. It helps me to know that my work does matter. It helps me to keep going. Knowing that just one person's life has benefitted from my story is all I need to know in order to continue.
Thanks to Eliana and her mom for a present that I will never, ever, forget and carry with me always.