“You should not oppress the stranger, because we were strangers…”: Race, Justice, and Freedom at Hebrew School
by guest blogger Ari Lev Fornari
Standing in front of a room of about 140 K-seventh grade students and their parents on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Junior Day, I introduce the topic for the day: Race, Justice, and Freedom.
This past fall, I had convened a parent committee to organize this year’s Social Justice/Tikkun Olam Day within our Hebrew School community. A driving question for them was:
“How should we talk about #BlackLivesMatter with our children?”
I ask the room:
“What do you think is the most commonly repeated phrase in the whole Torah (Five Books of Moses)?”
After a few good, but incorrect, guesses, I tell them: “You should not oppress the stranger, because we were strangers…” I then add: “We have a Jewish narrative of having been slaves, and we also have a narrative of slavery in the United States.”
I am preparing them to hear a one-woman show by performance artist Anike Tourse, who herself is Black and Jewish, about Sojourner Truth, feminism, and slavery.
Just as I am getting ready to introduce the performance, a White fifth grader raises her hand. Nervously, I call on her.
“What is racism?” she asks.
I take a deep breath. I am both relieved and terrified. This is the question I wanted her to ask and the question I was afraid she would ask. I am aware that there are a few dozen people of color in the room, some parents and some students (but no staff).
I take a deep breath and I teach the words of Rabbi Shai Held:
“The first chapter of Genesis reads like an ode to biodiversity: God creates an astonishing array of living things—fish “of every kind,” birds “of every kind,” cattle “of every kind,” creeping things “of every kind,” and wild animals “of every kind.” Then, finally, God creates human beings, and the recurring phrase disappears: We never hear that God creates people “of every kind.”
With this subtle omission, the Bible makes a stunningly simple point, one which—three thousand years later—we still have not learned: There are no kinds of human beings. The Bible will go on to celebrate and defend human diversity, but first it wants to remind us of what unites us: We are all human beings created in God’s image.”
I explain that racism is the incorrect, fear-based, hateful belief that there are “kinds” of people based on the color of one’s skin.
Then a parent raises her hand, a woman who herself is of Native and African descent, with a child of African descent.
I eye the clock. The performer is set to go on in one minute. But this is the work of the day. I take her question.
“Can you clarify that racism still exists?”
“Yes,” I say, feeling breathlessly unprepared even though I have spent the last 10 years learning about White Supremacy and engaging in racial justice organizing. “We are here today because racism still exists and because of the grassroots movement #BlackLivesMatter.”
A brown fifth grader raises his hand and makes a comment about police brutality and then clearly says, “Racism still exists.”
In that moment, several other students raise their hand. I call on one White student,
“Yeah, I just wanted to say that racism still exists.” There is energy and feeling in the room.
At this point, I am watching the clock closely, aware that we could talk like this for the rest of the day.
“This is just the beginning of the conversation. All of your questions and ideas are right on. Now you can go hear from ‘Sojourner Truth’ about her experience and see how her story relates to yours.”
I had spent so much time working with the parents who planned this day discussing what makes it hard to talk about racism. And in an instant, I realized that we, White adults, have been taught that it is hard to talk about racism. But this multi-racial student community is learning otherwise. When given the opportunity, they were full of honest curious questions. Questions it seemed they had been wanting to ask for a long time.
As the students left the room, a White parent (who has children of color) approaches me.
“Thank you,” the parent shares. “This is a really hard topic and you handled it really well.”
As the rabbi and director of an independent Hebrew school and the parent of a one-and-a-half-year-old, I am learning alongside my children how to talk about race. I feel in my gut the silence and stigma around this conversation and how it keeps me complicit with White supremacy and limits my ability to be in meaningful relationships with people of color.
The Jewish community is, and has always been, multi-racial. In Hebrew Schools in the United States, we know that through adoption, immigration, and multiracial marriages, when we say #BlackLivesMatter we are speaking directly to members of our congregations and communities.
I am excited about the rise in leadership from Jews of Color, and eager to support White Jews to challenge their own sense of who “looks” Jewish as a fundamental organizing principle.
Ari Lev Fornari is the Rabbi and Director of the Boston-area Jewish Education Program and the parent of a one-and-a-half-year-old. He is a White, queer, trans person, of Ashkenazi and Italian descent. He works part-time as a prison chaplain, which is integral to his social justice ministry. He is most inspired at the intersections of education, activism, and healing.