I’m eight years old, riding in the car with my friend Sam and his mom. They’re both Jewish, too. It must have been December, since I remember Christmas lights on all the houses going through the hills in Los Angeles. Sam’s mother asks me inquisitively, “Eric, is your family going to have a Christmas tree this year?” The answer to that question was yes, but I was embarrassed by it, so I lied and said “no.” And then Sam asked me, “Your father’s not Jewish, right, but your mother is?” “Yes,” I answered. “Ok,” he wondered, “so technically you’re Jewish.”
That “technically” stayed with me a long time. Sam didn’t mean anything by it; he was just a kid. But I picked up a sense that, because of my own interfaith and mixed-race background, I was somehow “less-than.”
Today, as a rabbi, it is my calling to ensure that nobody feels “less-than” in our syn- agogue worlds. I’ve met so many people over the years who have been hurt by syn- agogues or Judaism, particularly around questions of identity or background, and I know that the Jewish community has to—and can—do better.
As the rabbi of BEKI, a New Haven synagogue that shares this calling—not simply to be inclusive or welcoming, but to help people feel a real sense of dignity and belong- ing—I am blessed with a team and community of people who want to make our world better in this way. Though there’s a long way for our society to go, I’m part of a com- munity of people who are working to be the change they want to see in the world.
But I also want to remind you that you, too, can be the change we need. If you’re a person who has felt hurt by Judaism or excluded by identity, tell a rabbi. Reach out to any local rabbi and express your feelings. Oftentimes giving voice to things, especially when they have to do with questions of identity or shame, is a necessary step toward healing. We rabbis are here to listen.
And if you’re a person who is very “in” the Jewish community, there are things you can do, too. Don’t put people on the spot to share their background; that can be stressful.
Don’t assume that “everyone’s bubbe made kugel.” Maybe they weren’t Ashkenazic; maybe they never met their grandmother; maybe their grandmother wasn’t Jewish. Remember that many aspects of Jewish culture, while beautiful and meaningful, are not universal and can sometimes exclude.
Our society is growing in this area, becoming more aware of how we speak about gender and racial difference. How can we bring some of that wisdom into the Jewish world to make it more full of love?
May we all find this winter the warmth of connection, meaning, and Torah.