On a blustery fall day nearly two years ago, I was walking down Broadway heading to the BJ offices when I noticed a woman walking toward me. The wind was blowing fiercely, whipping her hair into a halo around her head, and throwing her off balance, causing her to stagger slightly.
“Ma’am,” she called. “Excuse me, ma’am!” I must have looked panicked, or maybe even terrified, because she held up her hands and gently said “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” The woman then proceeded to tell me that the wind had caused my skirt to ride up, and kindly suggested that I pull the fabric back down. I thanked her, adjusted my skirt, and continued on my way, slightly embarrassed by my wardrobe malfunction and filled with sadness at my initial reaction to this woman who had only wanted to help me.
Would I have reacted in the same way had she not been Black? I wondered. Was it the color of her skin that caused an unintentional, but obviously reflexive, look of fear in my eyes? Or was it because the wind caused my brain to register her hair as ‘dishevelled?’ Or was I simply wary of any stranger coming too close into my personal space? The encounter gave me pause, leading me to consider the degree to which I have internalized such messages as ‘Black people are dangerous,’ and wondering how much race played a factor in my response.
For a long time, the incident stayed with me. I returned repeatedly to the question of whether I would have reacted differently had the woman not been Black, focusing mostly on my own experience in the exchange. Then, I had occasion to tell the story. As I relayed the details and my subsequent self reflection, I realized that I had hardly considered the experience of the woman who had approached me.
What must it have felt like to reach out to help someone, only to be met by fear?
How many times in her life must that have happened, if she knew to first tell me that she meant me no harm?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that my reaction had nothing to do with the color of her skin. Would that change the fact that I looked at her with fear in my eyes, would it change the fact that this woman lives her life unsurprised that others will be afraid of her?
What must it be like to walk through the world, carrying that sense of how others view you? What does it do to the soul, to the experience of one’s own humanity?
I can only imagine.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
This evolution of awareness about the impact of my actions came over the course of many months. It came because our Race and Us initiative, and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work we are doing as the BJ staff, have provided spaces for me to reflect, to listen to the experiences of people of color, and to contextualize my own behavior and beliefs in the much larger story of race and racism in America.
Some variation of the interaction I had on Broadway occurs multiple times a day in this country, often—as we know—with horrific results. Our Jewish communal spaces are not immune from this strain of the virus of racism; too often, members of predominantly White Jewish institutions perpetrate and perpetuate this stripping of dignity of Jews of color and people of color. Jews of color at BJ have told me that they are tired of having their identity and belonging questioned—either by explicit stares and comments when they walk in the doors of the Sanctuary, or by well-intentioned White Jews who greet them with eager explanations of the service in an effort to make them comfortable— but who, by assuming that they don’t know what’s going on, implicitly reinforce the narrative that ‘Jews of color are not really part of our community.’
What must it be like to live a Jewish life, carrying the message that you do not truly belong? How painful must it be to know that so many see you as an outsider trying to step in? What does it do to the soul, to the experience of one’s own humanity and of one’s own Jewish self?
I can only imagine.
Yet, I want to say to the Jews of color and people of color in our community that I am trying to learn and to understand. You have shared your answers to these questions. You have shared by showing up and telling your stories. And you have also shared by leaving our community, or not coming at all. B’nai Jeshurun, a predominantly White institution, is listening and trying to learn and to understand.
Yavilah McCoy, who has been helping to guide BJ in our efforts, describes diversity, equity, and inclusion work as the work of recovering the humanity of all people. Because when we minimize the humanity of another human being, we strip away some of our own; and when our actions honor the full humanity of another person, we restore some of the humanity of our own selves. Her beautiful framing invokes the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who teaches that when a person walks in the world,
אִיקוֹנְיָא מְהַלֶּכֶת לִפְנֵי הָאָדָם וְהַכָּרוֹזוֹת כּוֹרְזִין לְפָנָיו, וּמָה הֵן אוֹמְרִים, תְּנוּ מָקוֹם לָאִיקוּנִין שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא
“A procession of angels passes before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, ‘Make way for the icon of the Holy Blessed One!’”
—Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:4
This is our work: to build a community and a society that understands that to be human is to be an icon of God, and that acts accordingly. May we each engage in the heshbon hanefesh (soul accounting) that helps us identify how we can be part of creating such a world.