16 October 2016

The Collateral Damage of Love-Bombing

Susan Sedwin forwarded this NPR article  to me:
Black and Jewish

Black, Jewish And Avoiding The Synagogue On Yom Kippur

My first thought is that I do not have an answer that will either heal the deep pain and alienation felt by the author, or, more importantly to me as a synagogue rabbi, that will avoid replicating this experience for other non-white Jews entering our places of worship.

My second is to say to Leah Donnella, "Please come back.  The organized Jewish community is not so good at this, but we are really trying to get better.  If you have the strength, we'd love for you to teach us how to do better."

My third, upon reflection, is to remember a story from our own congregation that comes from a different vector, but really illustrates the same problem.

When I came to our small suburban New Jersey congregation almost twenty years ago, we thought we were a very welcoming congregation.  The truth was that we really were not so good  - for very real, human reasons. A ninety year-old congregation of around two hundred families, our members did not actually know each other that well.  Most members knew some other members, but they did not know everyone.  Therefore, on a given Friday night, one member might be reluctant to introduce themselves to someone else at the oneg (the after service fellowship), because they feared embarrassment in showing their ignorance in not recognizing a long-term member.  People who were guests, because members assumed they were long-term members they just did not know, were not welcomed or sometimes even spoken to.  The bright shining exception was the day a black woman walked into services.  Immediately, she was surrounded by well-meaning congregants who wanted to show her how the prayerbook worked, introduce themselves, explain the blessings before we ate the oneg cookies, and on and on.  [Thank you to April Baskin, VP of Audacious Hospitality from the Union for Reform Judaism for informing me that this sometimes intrusive and overbearing behavior is called "love-bombing".]  I imagine the thought process went, "Well, she's black, so she's not Jewish, so she's not a member, so, thank God, I can welcome her and show us how nice and welcoming we really are."  Thank God, she was not Jewish - otherwise she might have been having exactly the same reaction and experience that Ms. Donnella recounts in the article above.  My point - even though we were attempting from the bottom of our hearts to be well-meaning and welcoming - our assumptions might often give the opposite effect.

The sad truth is that Jews who do not fit the internal stereotype are often supposed not to be Jews by the Ashkenazic majority present in the synagogue.  The reality is that Jews never have and certainly not in today's America all look the same.  We should have learned from my great-aunt Mary that there are many people in our community without Jewish sounding names - now reflected in Hendersons, McNallys, Wangs, and Christiansens listed on our membership rolls.  Jews with Asian ancestry have been telling us for a generation that when they walk in the synagogue and show some familiarity or expertise with Jewish practice others assume that they were adopted or converted to Judaism.  I even admit, as a rabbi, that from the bimah, I have to remind myself when I speak of Jews and our relationship with the African-American community that it is not us and them, but that there are some of us who are both.

[I just interrupted typing this post to step out of my office, this Sunday morning, as I listened to a teacher teaching about American Jewish history, say, "Most of our ancestors came from Russia" to change that to "Many of us", and mention ancestors of all different types from all different places, some Jewish, some not.]

We have a long way to go - and there are some who, justifiably, may have neither the patience for us to change, the fortitude to help us make the necessary change, or the forbearance to deal with those who have not yet heard or will not change.

We - all of us - Jews of all backgrounds - can only try to do what we should in most situations - live up to the dictum to love your neighbor as yourself, by truly placing ourselves in their perspectives.  We need to ask ourselves, how is what we say, in the best of intentions, being heard?  Because we truly want to be welcoming, not to push people away.

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