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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reflections on the Jewish Multiracial Network retreat

Mini Jews of color at play.


Last year, I begged my husband to take me to the Jewish Multiracial Network retreat. I think he rolled his eyes, asked me how much it cost and then rolled his eyes again. In the end, we didn’t end up going and a friend told us it was for the best, the retreat was mostly for white parents of adopted or biracial children of color.


But the Jewish Multiracial Network is trying to branch out and this year, there were Jews of color of all ages present: from adults to teens to children and babies. Whoever ran programming had been careful to cater to all these populations. The hope is to draw more adult Jews of color to the retreat and adjust programming to reflect these folks.


Friday night there was a treasure hunt and if I had been a kid at heart who is not afraid of the great outdoors and the great big ticks out there, I might have participated. Instead, I cozied up to fellow blogger, MixedJewGirl and talked about how we can deal with some of the obstacles facing Jews of color in the Jewish community. We talked about connecting Jews of color to each other, figuring out which synagogues are welcoming to Jews of color (check out the JMN list on this one and let me know if you have more additions for the list). We also discussed how we can fix a major problem area Jews of color face in the Jewish community: dating.



Saturday morning I got up bright and early, which is totally unlike me, because I wanted to attend some of the morning workshops. I attended one with my husband called “White Parents, Multiracial Families” with Harriet McKinney, who was wearing a name tag that proudly read "Bubbe" the whole time. We learned a lot about some of the issues white parents face raising children of color. Harriet led a fantastic workshop. She was energetic, funny and she had some great advice. I realized that when my husband and I have kids I am going to have a lot of questions for her and the parents I met at the workshop.


You know, hanging around!


Next we attended the workshop “Ashkenazi Privilege Checklist and Beyond” led by Sasha King. I have been using the Ashkenazi Privilege Checklist in my talks on racism and it was great to here the force behind created it to talk about how it can be used and how it has been implemented in anti-racism education in the Jewish community. I was surprised that some people had reservations about it. I think the hardest part for some was accepting that there is white and Ashkenazi Privilege in the Jewish community and how it excludes others.


After lunch, my husband and I gave our talk. First, I did my shtick/performance called “Memoirs of a Jewminicana” where I talk about how and why I converted to Judaism and what it’s like being a Jew of color in a world where people can’t imagine you can be Hispanic and American, much less Hispanic and Jewish. After my 20-minute bit, my husband and I came together to talk about what it has been like for us discussing racism in the Jewish community. Overall people were really supportive as we voiced our frustrations. And someone introduced themselves afterwards and told me that I wasn’t the only Dominican at the retreat because hea and his wife had adopted a Dominican child! I was totally blown away.




One workshop led by April Baskin and Ariel Vergosen was one of the most emotional, awesome workshops I've ever attended in my life. Jews of all colors came together to honestly discuss their personal experiences and their connections to the Jewish community. I learned so much about myself and how others view the Jewish world and their lives as part of it.


We decided to check out on Saturday night so we missed the Sunday morning programming. I really had a fantastic, relaxing time. I felt like I was in an alternate universe all of Shabbat, surrounded by such beautiful Jews of all shapes and colors. It was fascinating to talk to white parents who are raising little Jews of color. It was incredible to hear about the experiences of biracial Jews who had been raised in the Jewish community. I heard the word “ally” used over and over again and I met many of them, so many white Jews who are sensitive to the issues Jews of colors face and were there to support us.


Last year, I tried to convince some of my friends to attend the event with their kids. But there was a question of how this kind of event would work for observant Jews. So, here’s my take on that....

It was really odd to have Shabbat dinner really early (I think the Isabella Freedman Center, where this event was held, has specific meal times). Throughout the retreat, my husband and I davened alone together without a minyan. There were services but I don’t know that an Orthodox Jew would have felt comfortable at them. At Limmud NY and Limmud LA, there were simultaneous services of all kinds but because many of the Jews at the JMN were not observant, there was no demand for a male-led, mechitzah service.


Mostly, people were really sensitive on Shabbat about being respectful of those of us who observed it stringently. I didn’t see anyone talking on their cell phones and most activities were Shabbat-friendly. There were some that were not and I could understand how this would have made many of my friends uncomfortable. I was familiar with these issues after attending LimmudNY and LimmudLA. I truly believe that as more shomer Shabbat people attend this JMN event, accommodations will be made for them.



While perhaps in practice, others at the retreat did not connect to Jewish traditions in the same way I do, I found that most of the people I interacted with were very spiritual and very connected to the Jewish community. So what? For some of the people I met, maintaining a connection to the Jewish community has proved incredibly difficult. They or their children have been routinely ostracized and been on the receiving end of racism way too often. In spite of this, they have tried to change the Jewish community from within to make it a more welcoming place.

The Havdalah ceremony was also really, really early. Probably, this was the oddest non-Shabbat friendly experience for me. We ditched that group activity and stayed in our rooms while it took place. When Shabbat was over, we came out and the staff helped us scrounge up grape juice, candles and a nice-smelling tea bag so we could do our own Havdalah ceremony. At this point, there was already a bonfire taking place outdoors. Yes, it was a little uncomfortable but we survived and it was worth it.


Of course, I would attend the event again, despite the aspects that were not Shabbat-friendly. I cannot explain how deeply moving it was to connect with other adult Jews of color and relate our varied experiences in the Jewish community. At one workshop, I started crying because I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I think I was able to cry in front of everyone because I felt that I was in a safe, supportive space.


Even the goats at the Isabella Freedman Center were multiracial. Here is the proud white papa with his kids. The biracial mama goat (black/brown) is not pictured.



While I do expect to have to raise my children in a Jewish community where most people do not look like them, where they are constantly “Other,” just thinking about it feels incredibly daunting. But I felt like most of the parents there that it was wonderful that one time of the year, at this JMN retreat, our kids could experience a world where most Jews looked like them, where no one stared at them or interrogated them about how they were Jewish. Hopefully, one day the entire Jewish community will be able to provide this kind of positive, safe space for all Jews of color.

7 comments:

  1. Sarah T6:10 PM

    Aliza, thank you for recounting your experience at the retreat. I found out about it only days before it occurred. Now it will be something to mark on my calendar for next year and hope to attend!
    I, too, have the same concerns about raising my bi-racial children in the Jewish community and my future husband and I have discussed this at great length. It is good to know that this type of resource is available and I hope we will, together, make the decision to attend now and in the future when we have children!

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  2. Aliza,

    I wasn't surprised about the resistance toward the checklist. What scares me about the reactions of some of parents is that they are raising Jews of color, and they can't deal with their own privilege. As one appalled parent said to me after the presentation, they were so frightened by the ramifications of your work that they wanted to ignore it.

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  3. Anonymous7:35 PM

    My 9 yar old son is Guatemalan and is quite dark. We have belonged to two Reform synogues in our town, Hollywood, FL. Both have been very welcoming: Temple Beth El and Temple Solel.

    Larry

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  4. Ellen7:55 PM

    I'm glad you want to go back, and I hear you on the issues for more observant Jews, although we're a recon family. I was thinking that havdalah would be kind of shocking that early, followed by the dance party -- last year havdalah occurred after the stars were in the sky (not that you could see them, I think it was raining), but the children were completely pickled. So they changed it. Again, I'm so sorry I missed your session, chasing around my mini JOC, but I look forward to your blog and your posts.

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  5. It sounds like this was a really important experience for you. I can only imagine how powerful it would be to be in a room full of so many Jews of color. I'm glad you were able to go. Seems like the org is dynamic enough to respond to the changing needs of its constituency (i.e. make it more shabbos-friendly as more observant people attend). Isabella Freedman is a really beautiful and accommodating place. When I've been there for Nehirim we start Shabbos a little early and eat dinner around 8 or so Friday PM. Havdalah is at the normal time, with a cold seuda shlishit. They make it easy for observant people to be comfortable, in most situations. So no, they don't have fixed meal times from what I can tell. It's up to the organization to respond to the needs of the attendees by setting mealtimes appropriately I think. The thing with kids is that having havdalah at the normal time means they're all asleep or grumpy - But doing it early puts halachic Jews in a difficult situation. My usual MO is when I'm at retreats like that, I go and do my own thing with other observant folks - It doesn't bother me that the whole group isn't doing it, it's up to me to maintain my observance level - And there are always at least a few other people to do it with, if I ask around. In fact we had an impromptu unofficial Orthodox gender-segregated non-minyan davening group at Nehirim (the LGBT retreat) this year!

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  6. OrthoEbonyJewessNJ12:26 PM

    Interesting article, Aliza. My only objection is to the term Jew of color. I think the term is very divisive. It separates Jews with darker skin from those with lighter skin. Most people may not agree, but as a woman with a coco complexion (sorry Aliza, IMHO, you are too light to be considered dark)I can tell you that my experience in the Jewish community is radically different from that of Aliza's. I commend this organization for their efforts, I just hope they cease using that term, because we all need to be united as Jews.

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  7. OrthoEbony,

    I agree with you that it's rather sad that people consider me dark-skinned. :) I've been called 'a dark white' which my guess means, 'olive-skinned.' I can get dark-skinned if I stay out in the sun but my family was always gave me a healthy fear of skin cancer from age 2.

    Yes, your experiences are different and I hope that you're sharing them with people. I think people need to know this. I have a friend who is a African-American Jewess and I stuck her in a room with an African-American Jew (male) and they were amazed at how different their experiences her. (His were better.)

    I've heard this claim before that the term Jews of color divides people. Another reader said perhaps Jewish person of color would be better. But I wonder if this is the same argument as the people who tell me I should stop calling myself an American Jew or a Dominican Jew because I'm just Jewish. But I'm not. I'm a Jewminicana and yes, sometimes, depending on who I'm standing next to...a Jew of color. ;)

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