Last month, I had the joy of attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention. I’ve long enjoyed these gatherings. I have the chance to see friends who I never see enough of; colleagues from around the world; congregants from previous positions. I have the pleasure of working in this congregation, which makes attendance at this convention a priority—so that the entire senior staff attends, along with several lay leaders. It is wonderful to see Biennial through their eyes, while simultaneously experiencing it through my own lens.
Throughout the convention, we hear inspiring speakers; hear fantastic Jewish music; meet new people and make new connections; learn Torah from a variety of scholars and teachers; and my favorite part—celebrate Shabbat with 5,000 other people. There is great meaning in standing and singing the Sh’ma together—knowing that everyone else in the room is also there to find meaning in our shared tradition.
Some have referred to it over the years as the family reunion of the Reform Movement—and that idea resonates for me. I feel a connection with the other participants—even the ones I’m meeting for the first time. It feels like home.
And I also know that not everyone at Biennial has that same experience. Marra Gad, a television and film producer and author, came to this latest Biennial not only as a life long Reform Jew, but also as a featured presenter for Shabbat afternoon. Following the Biennial, she reflected on her experience in a public facebook post. Not wanting to paraphrase, and risk inaccurately portraying her lived experience, I’m instead sharing an exerpt:
When I went to pick up my credentials, I was told that the “REAL” Marra Gad needed to pick up her badge. And when I replied that I was the real Marra Gad, I did not receive an apology. Instead, the person behind the desk said, “Really!?”
When I was eventually given my very bright orange badge that clearly said PRESENTER across the bottom….
I was assumed to be hotel staff. Twice. While wearing my bright orange badge. And told that I needed to do more to get room service orders out more quickly.
I was aggressively asked repeatedly WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? And when I would reply that I was a featured speaker on Shabbat afternoon, I was then asked what I could possibly have to speak about.
I ended up in an elevator filled with attendees who elected to whisper about me. What I was doing there. And, again, what I could possibly be presenting about. LIKE I WASN’T THERE.
Stared at. Confronted. Whispered about. And assumed to work for the hotel….It all grew so uncomfortable for me to be out with the general population that I had to be escorted from place to place by URJ staff (to whom I remain profoundly grateful), who saw for themselves the looks that I received simply being in the hallways. When others were at Shabbat services….or dinner….or song session…I was in my hotel room alone. Crying. Because I did not feel comfortable and safe being out with my own people.
Her own people, the Reform Movement—which at this very convention, talked so much about being welcoming and inclusive, did not succeed in creating that environment for Ms. Gad. Because not only is she a Reform Jew—she is also a black woman.
And she was pointing something out to our community that is important for us to realize—that no matter how much we try, no matter how much we think we are welcoming, we’re still learning what that really means—and we have a long way to go.
Ms Gad had spoken about this experience in her Shabbat afternoon workshop—I was in a different program at the time, but spoke with several people who were there. They each echoed how powerful her words were—about how eye opening it was. And several also spoke about one piece that Ms Gad herself described:
I shared these stories during my session, and while most people asked very thoughtful questions and were empathic and supportive, as a final moment, a woman chose to interrupt the discussion to forcefully demand to share what she had been thinking about the entire hour. And she used her time to turn everything around on me, stating clearly, offensively and without apology that I could have made it all better for myself if I had chosen to confront the people in the elevator and EXPLAIN MYSELF. Create comfort for them. I should have made it a “teachable moment” and taught them that I was Jewish.
And in response to her public post about her experience, many people responded with appreciation for her words. And commitment to change. Others responded differently, though:
I have also received messages suggesting that I have done myself and the Jewish community no favors by “embarrassing” us in public by sharing my story of what took place at the URJ Biennial. That if I want to be “accepted” and “embraced” I should have been discreet and not made “a big deal” out of what happened. That I should “understand” that I’m different and that people are not always comfortable with what is different.
We cannot tolerate this lack of acceptance of difference. Not in the Reform Jewish world, or in the Jewish world as a whole, or in any community—including our own. Because her story happened to happen at the URJ biennial—but it could have happened anywhere. And this isn’t just about race, but about any sort of difference. As Ms Gad writes:
I have received dozens of phone calls and emails so far from friends and strangers alike sharing their stories of the trauma of being other-ed in the Jewish community. For being LGBTQ. For their socio-economic status. For their uniquness. Certainly for being of color/non-Ashkenazi.
I said in the room at the URJ Biennial last week that, while we clearly have a racism problem, the discussion is about far more than people of color and how we are treated. It is about all of us and how we treat one another. It is about seeing the sacredness in one another simply because we are human and we are here. And these messages have only affirmed that for me.
Marra Gad held up a mirror for our community, and the way we see ourselves in that mirror is how we can learn, grow, and change—as individuals and as community.
As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in his public apology to Marra Gad:
We must all acknowledge that racism isn’t only “out there somewhere.” Racism lives as well in our Jewish communities, and it lives in each of us.
We can’t work to dismantle structures of racism in our society until we acknowledge that. The change we are tackling requires our commitment to go very deep at the very moment when hate, bigotry and racism are being fomented all around us. This change we desperately need will not happen quickly but what’s at stake is our integrity as a Jewish community.
I hope in the coming months and years, all in our Reform Movement will commit to doing this work together.
Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to do this work. On the Shabbat of the weekend on which we celebrate Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, we must commit to creating the change necessary to accept those who are different, with no exceptions.
And I believe we can. We as Jews, after all, have a long history of working with the Other around civil rights. And we are given the Mitzvah, the sacred obligation, more than any other mitzvah in the Torah, that we must care for the stranger for we ourselves were strangers. Abraham Joshua Heschel marched many times beside his friend Martin Luther King. Kivie Kaplan, a Reform Jew from the suburbs of Boston, was president of the NAACP for nearly a decade. Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke before King’s I Have a Dream speech, saying, “Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.” Indeed, it is a moral concept for us to preserve the dignity and integrity for our closer neighbors, as well. We must make sure that the strangers we care for include those within our midst.
In a piece known as “Why We Went,” written as a letter from a jail in St Augustine, in which 16 Reform rabbis and one Reform lay leader spent the night with Dr King after protesting injustice, the rabbis wrote:
We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at t time when silence has become the unpardonable sin or our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had don before and often.
Let us take those words as our own call to bring true liberty and real justice for all—outside of our walls and within them. Let us work together, towards a time when we realize King’s dream, so that we can all, in King’s words, “join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” And on that day, truly, God’s name shall be One. It is upon us to achieve that.
And so let us turn to page 282 for our prayer which reminds us of our duty, and let us rise—spiritually or physically—for Aleinu.