Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Racist Attitudes Among Us

Chava Shervington (JTA)
There are 2 things that I have very strong feelings about which seem to elicit an opposite feeling from many of my Orthodox Jewish coreligionists. They are the concept of Ahavas HaGer - the commandment in the Torah of loving the convert - and racism. In the former there is really not a lot of love of the convert among my Orthodox peers. Oh, there may be lip service paid to it, but try setting up a Ger or Giyores with a Shidduch.

Not exactly the easiest task in the world. Mention to a Shadchan that boy or girl is a convert, and you may as well write them out of the Shidduch scene. They do not want to get involved with someone that came from a non Jewish world. They believe that converts bring with them baggage that will end up harming them and their children. And who wants to have Christians as in-laws, anyway? That is embarrassing to them, to say the least.  

But this attitude clearly ignores the Torah’s clear commandment to treat converts with love. They are Jewish in every respect and to be treated no differently than those of us born Jewish.  And yet too many of us don’t.

Another problem among Orthodox Jews is racism. It’s there, whether we like to admit it or not. And it a source of shame and embarrassment to me. When these 2 issues combine - the outrage I feel is apoplectic!  

It is hard enough for a people who look like us to convert and change their entire lifestyle. But when they don’t look like us it makes it doubly hard. And doubly admirable.

Imagine what it must be like for a black person to change their beliefs and their lifestyle so drastically and enter a community that has very few people that look like them.  Why would they subject themselves to that?  There is only one explanation for it. They have found the truth. And they are willing to sacrifice greatly to live their lives that way.

I have always looked up to the convert.  They have changed their lives drastically because they saw it as the right thing to do. They had to think about it… and wade through the pros and cons of conversion. And they had to study a system of laws that are numerous and  complex. They have to abandon a lifestyle of far more freedoms than they have now. Keeping Shabbos (and all its restrictions that are new to them) is extremely difficult to learn and get used to doing after you learn them. Especially after a lifetime of having no restrictions at all on that day. Keeping Kosher eliminates eating foods that in many cases they have come to enjoy and used to look forward to eating, like lobster.

Going out to a restaurant is limited to a handful of Kosher ones… and that’s only if you live in one of the big cities that have them. McDonald’s and Burger King are now off limits. I could go on but I think that illustrates the kind of changes a convert has to make.

And then there is the social aspect of not really being fully accepted in the Orthodox world. Add to this a convert whose skin color is different that that of the typical Jew and you are really fighting an uphill battle of acceptance. If you are black I can’t imagine what it like to be called ‘a Shvartze’. If you are a black convert, it must be doubly hard hearing that word! And please let’s not say that word Shvartze just means black. It has become a pejorative plain and simple.

There is absolutely no place for racism of any kind in Judaism.  Not even for non Jewish blacks. Let alone for Jewish ones. I cannot protest loudly enough at this unfortunately very real problem in our midst. Just put yourself in Chava Shervington’s  place. Ms. Shervington is a black convert  who has written a very poignant article about her experiences and what she believes ought to be done about them.  Here are some of the things she and other converts like her has had to endure. From JTA
“Why is the goy here?” one black Jewish parent overheard when taking her child to a Jewish children’s event.
At one yeshiva in Brooklyn, the mother of a biracial student was asked to stay away from the school because it made the other parents uncomfortable.
An African-American acquaintance told me he overheard a worshiper at morning minyan talk about how he didn’t want to daven with a “shvartze” – while my acquaintance was putting on his tefillin. 
And she adds: 
Orthodox Jews of color constantly have to demonstrate our authenticity and belonging. It’s frustrating, exhausting and, frankly, heartbreaking. 
It is heartbreaking for them, no doubt. But it makes me angry beyond words. I cannot tell you how many times I hear racist comments among some of my Orthodox Jewish friends. That has to stop. When it is said about a black convert it is hurtful to the very people that we should be standing in awe of. Those of us born into Judaism and raised to be observant  cannot even stand in the shadow of anyone that comes to Orthodox Judaism by choice. We can’t hold a candle to them in their sincerity and belief.

Many of us that were born Orthodox have become rote in our observances. And many of us don’t even think about matters of belief. For the convert nothing is rote. And belief is what motivated them to become observant and motivates them to continue despite the rejection they might feel.

After going through all the hoops and hurdles of the conversion process - their commitment to Judaism is generally far more sincere than those of us who have been raised in it. And if a convert is black, I can’t imagine what they must go through and yet ‘stick with the program’ .

The black convert is the most laudable convert of all. He is the role model of commitment for us all. He is the one we should be looking up to for inspiration. He is the one that should be teaching us what it means to be a Jew.  

I am proud to say that I know several Orthodox black Jews here in Chicago.  They are exemplary Jews in every respect. 3 of them are women and are happily married to white Orthodox Jewish men. I look up to these people with awe and admiration.  They are role models for me. That is the way they should be seen by all of us.  And the word “Shvartze’ and the attitude that goes along with it ought to be eradicated!  It is long past due time that we become truly colorblind and judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin!