In a 1963 speech in Chicago attended by Martin Luther King Jr., theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described racism as an “eye disease, a cancer of the soul … making us see the generality of race, but not the uniqueness of the human face.”
The two men met at that assemblage, and from then on, King embraced the Warsaw-born rabbi and writer as an ally in the civil rights movement, calling him “one of the truly great men” and a “great prophet.” In March 1965, they marched together from Selma to Montgomery in support of the constitutional right to vote in the face of racial injustice and segregation.
Heschel said afterward that it felt like his “legs were praying.”
Today many American Jews hold up Heschel as an example of a proud tradition of political activism against anti-Black and other forms of racism. In the summer of 2020, local rabbis continued that tradition by kneeling outside San Francisco City Hall, some wearing tallits and kippahs, during a public protest after the police murder of George Floyd.
But as a new national study commissioned by the Bay Area’s Jews of Color Initiative and released this month shows, American Jews still have plenty of work to do in our own synagogues, schools and community centers.
For us to live up to Heschel’s example, we must start with ourselves.
As J.’s culture editor Andrew Esensten reported last week, the new study found that a vast majority of the more than 1,000 American Jews of color from across the country who filled out the online survey — 80 percent — said they had experienced some form of discrimination in Jewish spaces, be it “microaggressions” or “overt challenges” to their Jewish identities.
One respondent said she felt like she “stuck out” in her predominantly white Jewish community. Another said he felt compelled to keep his “defenses up” in mostly white spaces, preventing him from connecting spiritually as much as he would like. Another said she had to “compartmentalize” sides of herself in white-dominated Jewish places as a mixed Native American and Jewish woman.
Here in the Bay Area, we are lucky to have one of the most racially diverse Jewish communities in the world. And the news is not all bad. The survey also found high levels of connection to Jewish values among Jews of color, and it showed most respondents saying they still feel “a sense of belonging among white Jews.”
Even the existence of Bay Area–based organizations such as the Jews of Color Initiative and Be’chol Lashon (both JOC-led) shows progress, and there’s also a willingness from Jewish philanthropists to back diversity-supporting organizations. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation took a positive step this summer by welcoming four Jews of color to its board of directors.
And yet clearly, work remains to be done.
Describing racism as an “eye disease,” Heschel said it produces strange symptoms; that those of other races, specifically Black Americans, are a “stranger to many souls.”
Based on the survey results, it’s clear that the American Jewish community is not inoculated against this disease — we feel, at times, like strangers to one another.
As a community, we must actively, not passively, embrace who we are as a people and take personal responsibility for welcoming, and including, Jews of color at every level of the Jewish collective.
As Heschel said, “the most practical thing is not to weep, but to act …”
This article was originally published in The Jewish News of Northern California