Sunday, January 23, 2011

Orthodox Racism: Why not?

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg

One of the rarely-spoken-of but important underlying principles of Judaism is that the belief in Reward-and-punishment has a corollary: Like over-ride commissions, if you were a causative factor in one’s doing a mitzvah, you get a little piece of the reward for that. That carries on ad infinitum, as long as that person keeps doing what you taught.

This is part of what makes Kiruv attractive and likewise for Chinuch (pedagogy) in general. It’s part of why we allow Sabbath violations for doctors to save lives. It’s also what makes the Mourners Kaddish possible- otherwise, how can a child’s actions affect the deceased? It’s the parent’s credit for teaching them or for paying tuition.

My wife and I have been extremely privileged over recent years to be the founders and facilitators of a support group for Gerim-in-process. I have never written of this because there was no reason to. That changed last week, because of a short comment in this forum.

First, let me explain the group Unlike the mandatory conversion classes all would-be Gerim are required to attend, coming to the group is totally voluntary. Attendees hail from every part of the world and every race: We have Japanese, Dominicans, Albanians, Greeks, Argentineans, French, Germans, and more. The largest group is the people of color, which includes Africans, Trinidadians, Dominicans, Haitians, and more.

While not highly visible in most places, there are hundreds of Gerim-in-process in the metropolitan New York City area alone. (I now interpret the ingathering of the exiles as an ingathering of the holy souls that heard the Giving of the Torah and were spread amongst the future converts, as the Medrash relates.) The group is run like an open forum, and any topic is allowed. The most common issues are dealing with non-Jewish family, relationships, choosing a Kehilla/Nusach to attach to, and….Jewish racism.

We truly do consider ourselves to be very privileged to be involved in this. Quite aside from the Chesed we get the opportunities for, we are inspired by the behavior we see exhibited by those inspired to seek a place under the wings of the Shechina.

Amazing things can be seen from this group, things that give “Mesiras Nefesh” and dedication an entirely new meaning: The 38-year-old African Black man who undergoes circumcision, those who convert fully aware of the great difficulties that they will have ever finding a Jewish soulmate, those who join us despite the alienation they will get from their families.

In one case, a 15-year-old converting with his mother found out at the last minute that because his Bris had been done by an Orthodox Mohel (His mother had first converted Conservative), he wouldn’t have to have another ritual drawing of blood. His reaction? Instead of the expected sigh of relief, he cried, because he had looked at that ceremony as a “sacrifice” he was bringing to Hashem, out of love. Is that any less than a contemporary Akeidah?

These Gerim, as a group, are amazing people. Obviously, they are highly spiritual, and they are so driven and dedicated that they are abandoning everything and everybody they know to step into a totally new and strange world. Perhaps you think keeping kosher is a big sacrifice- You’d be wrong, as kosher is a small thing compared to abandoning your family, or dealing with a grandmother who cries because you’ll be forever damned for denying their God, or knowing you’ll not be able to attend your sister’s wedding in a church.

So why am I breaking my silence on this topic?

A week ago, in a comment that slipped by the usually very careful moderator, an extremely racist anti-Black comment was posted. There were rebuttals posted, my own amongst them, as well as an apology for allowing the post by Rabbi Harry. Despite this, the opinion exhibited and the fact that it could even exist in a body that considers itself religious, keeps me from sleeping. It’s akin to the “TV Sheitel case” a few weeks ago- apparently either you “get it” or you don’t, but this issue is more important than deciding if Heidi and husband are idiots or criminals, it’s a question of the very soul of the Jewish people.

As stated, the issue that most often drives away Baalei Teshuvah (I have been teaching BT’s for decades, too) and potential converts, is perceived Orthodox racism. I can offer dozens of examples:

* The pretty young woman, totally “eidel” and devoted, who enters a new Shul and the Rebbetzin says to her. “So you have a Jewish boyfriend?”

* The Black man who reads the Israeli news daily and is reconsidering his conversion because of all the reports of racism in Israel.

* The young Black man who went to a dozen Shuls before he found one where he was offered a Siddur and a smile.

* The women who report that Orthodox men hit on them more after they announce they aren’t yet Jewish.

Many, too many, drop out of the conversion process because they cannot abide these nasty or hurtful comments. Sadly, some of these dropouts occur after conversion, causing (from a Halacha perspective) a lifetime of sin. (Yes, it shouldn’t happen, but evaluating converts is an imperfect science.)

Recently, one of the women from the group went on the Zev Brenner radio show to tell her story. Someone with a heavy Brooklyn/ Yiddish accent called to offer "Shadchan” (matchmaking) services, and got her number. After the show, he spoke with her off-air and made all sorts of increasingly obscene suggestions. What could he have been thinking? For his moments of perverted thrill, he could have a lifetime of sins that he’ll have a part in!

My point in posting this is simple: I believe that the converts in general and the African-Americans in particular are offering the Jewish people an important asset, an expanded gene pool and a chance to actually start the process of judging people by what they ARE as opposed to what their skin color (or hat color!) is.

Equally important, in the same way that in teaching or saving someone’s life, a part of that mitzvah accrues to you, I am sure that if your racist or insensitive comment causes someone to NOT convert, to NOT become a Baal Teshuvah, or to go off the derech, then a part of every mitzvah that they DON”T do, every sin that they do, also accrues to you. Imagine: for a single stupid comment that caused someone to either leave Judaism or not join, you could be accumulating sins daily. Forever.

To be clear: I am not arguing that racism can come back as anti-Semitism, or that it can cause Chilul Hashem, or the other myriad reasons. I am trying to make the point that from a purely self-interested point of view, if you cause a person- any person- to sin or to not do Mitzvoth, even if you do so obliquely, you will get a small part of that person’s sins on your account, forever.

I cannot hope to control what small-minded people think, but I truly hope that at least the consideration of potential consequences will stop them from saying it out loud.