This September, our son Isaac Ray will turn 5 years old.
While we have similar hopes and aspirations for Isaac that our friends do for their children, we know that as a Black child, he will face challenges in reaching those goals that his white peers will not face.
Yes, this child of ours happily visits with staff members at his dad’s synagogue before going to school.
Yes, when he visits a new synagogue, he will politely demand to see its Torah scrolls.
Yes, a lay leader dubbed him a member of the congregation’s building and grounds committee because of his knack for spotting something out of sorts, even from a mile away in the sanctuary.
Yes, he enjoys donning a PJ Library apron to bake classic Jewish and Israeli recipes alongside his mother.
All of this sounds good – except when it’s not.
At an event in our Jewish community, what happens when an older individual mistakes Isaac for the son of a maintenance member?
What happens when we are at the JCC pool with Isaac and a woman picks him up thinking he has been separated from his family (even when he’s playing right in front of us)?
What happens when folks in our communities approach us about racist experiences they witnessed, or their own racist experiences as Jews of Color? What happens when they seek someone to listen to them or guide them, due to our visibility in the Houston community as a multiracial family?
When we committed to adopting Isaac, we felt we could shoulder both the responsibility of being parents and raising a child of a different race.
Simply put, we knew the work would be hard, and hard it has been.
As we have walked the path of antiracism, we’ve made mistakes. We’ve had to learn to be vulnerable and turn to experts, the Jews of Color who have lived these experiences. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been worth it, especially since our son’s life, in many ways, depends on this learning. It has opened our eyes in so many ways, and we are forever grateful.
Due to our personal experiences and our roles as Jewish leaders, we’ve always wanted to be stewards of information, to educate other white people, and provide whatever resources and knowledge we can to combat systemic racism and help create a society accepting of all races, religions, sexual orientation, ability statuses, etc.
The murder of George Floyd in Minnesota was a harrowing reminder to bring light to these issues – not just for Isaac, but for all who have hurdles in front of them that should not exist.
How can other white people play a role? We are certainly no experts, and our mission will always be to elevate the voices of those who have given us their time and energy, but here’s where we suggest white people can begin:
1. Learn from Jews of Color who have stories to share.
An excellent starting point can be found in Kveller’s “13 Jews of Color to Follow on Social Media Right Now.” As the article suggests, “listen to Black Jews, learn from Black Jews, but don’t ask them for help – they’re asking for ours.”
We should not expect People of Color to do the heavy lifting on your personal journey to make a change, but instead turn to these Jews’ existing resources and insights to reach what you aspire to accomplish.
2. Make your organization or synagogue talk about racism.
Perhaps your synagogue is struggling to start the conversation. Ask yourself: Did you see a program of interest at another synagogue or organization that will be streamed online? You can expand the reach and bring those resources home to your community.
Recently, our congregation in Houston found out about a “Timely Discussion About Racism” program created by Temple Sinai in Atlanta, GA. A few phone calls and emails later, this program – which featured a community activist, a pastor at the heart of the civil rights effort, and a rabbi – was not only broadcast in Atlanta but found its way into the homes of Houstonians.
3. Include – but do not tokenize – multiracial families in your communities.
Including Jews of Color or multiracial families for the point of “checking it off the list” needs to “bite the dust.” Multiracial families do not want to be ignored, but neither do they want to be seen as a way to achieve some sort of board directive.
Yes, we are a multiracial family, but the goal of congregations should be to form relationships, regardless of who people are. Further, white parents of children of Color should not replace adults of Color when it comes to honoring inclusion.
As Amy Asin, the URJ’s Vice President of Strengthening Congregation said at the 2019 URJ Biennial, “Many of our congregations do not reflect this diversity because we haven’t yet been open to the change we need to make in order for people who do not look or act like us to feel at home.”
If these families are included, there will be a more natural progression to leadership and involvement within your communities. In turn, the congregation’s leadership will reflect the diversity that is becoming of the Jewish community.
4. Learn about resources available to Jews of Color and multiracial families.
When we welcomed Isaac into our lives, many in our own community knew little to nothing about the resources available to Jews of Color or multiracial families. Jewish synagogues and organizational professionals are still learning what resources are out there.
According to the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, Jews of Color represent 12-15 percent of the Jewish population. In areas like San Francisco, those numbers jump to 25 percent of households in which a member considers themselves a Jew of Color.
If we are truly striving to be inclusive, it’s important to look internally within the URJ at the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit, the Community Assessment, and to also learn about other organizations.
As a young family, the two organizations that have provided us the most guidance are Be’chol LaShon, which provides useful book lists, camp offerings, and speakers, and the Jewish Multiracial Network, which provides book lists, trainings, and workshops.
These are just initial steps to “on-ramp” yourself to the conversation with a very low barrier. The key is to keep the conversation going and not just create a vicious cycle where we need another incident like George Floyd’s murder to start the conversation all over again.
Jason Plotkin is the program director at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX. Jason is the membership board member of the Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism (PEP-RJ) and also is a member of the National Association of Temple Administration (NATA). Aliza Plotkin is a national board member of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and is completing her term as president of NCJW's Greater Houston Section. Recently, Aliza was named the Barbara & Harold Falik Young Leadership Award recipient by the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.