On Diversity and Belonging
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5782/2021
Rabbi Cassi Kail
In 1997, the novelist George Dawes Green was growing tired of poetry slams. He loved the feel of people coming together and sharing parts of themselves, but he felt disconnected from the high language of poetry. He noticed a moment of high energy and electricity in the room just before the poetry began when people shared stories about their inspiration or their poem. It wasn’t the poetry that kept bringing him back; it was the preamble. He related to colloquial stories of experiences that inspired poets’ art. He realized that there was magic in sharing stories. Green decided to create something of his own, based firmly around storytelling. He “wanted to recreate in New York the feeling of sultry summer evenings in his native Georgia, when moths were attracted to the light on the porch where he and his friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales.” So he created The Moth, a group dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, which now has produced 18,000 stories to standing-room-only crowds.
Something magical happens when we share parts of ourselves with others and when they are received. Storytelling allows people to be seen in a way they might otherwise not have been, and shared experiences or emotions bring us closer together.
In her book “The Art of Gathering,” event facilitator Priya Parker recalls a conversation with Green. She asks him how she can use storytelling to bring people together at events. Green explained that stories of vulnerability, decisions, and pivotal moments in our lives have the capacity to tear down walls between us. They can open us up to new understandings. They can create new avenues for connection as we discover all we have in common. When people share stories, we relate to their experiences, enabling us to connect in deeper ways.
After a most challenging and unusual year, I spent time thinking about what people might need as they prepared for the High Holy Day season this year. After eighteen months of varying degrees of isolation, I decided what we needed most was a sense of connection.
I heeded the words of author Robin Moore that, “Inside each of us is a natural-born storyteller, waiting to be released.” I recalled the beautiful, vulnerable stories so many of you have shared with me over the past two years and hoped that community members would be willing to share them.
I knew it was a big ask; it’s hard sharing a piece of ourselves publicly—even if it was just for the Temple Beth El community, but I knew the payoffs could be huge.
I began to reach out to diverse members of our community—people of all ages, colors, backgrounds, traditions, genders, sexualities, and abilities. I asked each of them to share a story about their Jewish journeys, and the responses, as you know, were outstanding.
Dozens of you told me how much you looked forward to waking up each morning with a new reflection in your inbox. It was an opportunity to get to know someone new or to learn something new about someone you might have known for decades.
There was Dani, who spoke about the privilege of not only growing up at Temple Beth El with best friends but now watching her son develop deep friendships at Temple Beth El with their children.
Jessica discussed how although she may not always connect with the prayer service, she finds great meaning in standing next to friends as they say the mourner’s Kaddish for loved ones, just as they stood next to her when she offered the same prayer.
Several community members spoke about their individual journeys towards conversion or their experiences in interfaith families. Dan, a Baha’i, recalled that the first bris he ever attended was that of his son. Grant reflected on his ease in agreeing to raise his children as Jews, despite his Roman Catholic upbringing.
There were stories about struggling with identity. Jodi wrestled with her desire to be true to her Jewish identity while feeling the need to protect herself and her family from anti-Semitism at work. Rema, a Palestinian, talked about the prejudice she has felt in the Jewish community, and her concerns about raising her son within the temple community. Sarah spoke about being a Japanese Jew, and Ezra gave us insight into his experience growing up in the Jewish community with a rare medical condition, and his desire to be seen and appreciated for his whole self.
We were inspired by Marla’s experience of turning an incident with anti-Semitism into an opportunity to learn more about—and eventually, to fall in love with her Jewish identity.
Eliot recalled how he wrestled with religion after the death of his mother, when he was just a teenager, and surprised he was to find himself not only a member of a temple but deeply immersed in the Jewish community.
Susan bravely talked about her own wrestling with God after a year of loss, illness, and broken bones and how she feels most connected to her faith when engaged in social action and social justice work.
From Barbara, we gained an appreciation for her love of Jewish learning, living, and teaching. David’s story about how saying the Shema gave him calm and inner peace may inspire us to use the Shema in our lives. Anita’s ability to transform an ancient ritual into an intimate experience for an incredible group of women demonstrates the creativity we can all bring to our Jewish faiths. There are a dozen more equally inspiring and moving stories, all from people who are a part of the Temple Beth El family.
Each of our participants bravely and thoughtfully shared their stories. Each one of these individuals—every one of you—belong here in the Jewish community. We are better because you are present.
As I read these community reflections, I was struck and inspired by their diversity. The Jewish community is diverse—perhaps even more varied than we had previously believed. I believe this is a great thing.
In discussing the mitzvah (commandment) of writing a Torah, Moses uses the word shirah, song, instead of Torah. R. Yechiel Michel Epstein explains that this is because, in this respect, the Torah is like music. Its greatest beauty lies in complex harmonies. When we can fully and completely celebrate one another’s place in the Jewish community, together we create music of respect and love.
But that harmony doesn’t just happen on its own; we need to work toward it. As a child, I attended a congregation in Brooklyn, where everyone appeared to be white, middle-class, and Ashkenazi. There were members of the LGBTQ community, including our rabbi, but from my experiences, I had no idea how diverse the Jewish community was. I had no idea until I began to hear stories from people in the larger Jewish community.
Rachel Hall, the project manager for Union of Reform Judaism’s Audacious Hospitality team, shared one moment when she wondered about her place in the Jewish community.
“When a teacher told us the class was collecting food for ‘poor people’, it was clear to me not only that no one from a working-class background had planned the food drive but that my school also assumed ‘poor people’ simply didn’t exist in our Jewish community – an experience that led me to think that the circumstances of my childhood didn’t fit into the expected Jewish experience.”
At this moment, Rachel was acutely aware of the differences between her and her classmates.
“I constantly spent energy hiding parts of my life from my Jewish community,” she explains. “my divorced parents; the fact that my mother and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment where she slept in the living room; my dad using food stamps on the weekend when we grocery shopped; struggles with addiction in my family; and so much more.”
My Jewish day school always welcomed me,” she explained, “but I never felt like I belonged. As I grew older, still wondering how and if I belonged in the Jewish world, I wondered, too, how and if my queer identity would fit into my Jewish community.”
Rachel worried that she needed to hide parts of herself to be included. Her family structure, economic status, and queer identity were outside the perceived normative experience, and she worried if she could hold these identities while still being accepted in the Jewish community. No one should ever be made to feel that way.
Here’s the thing about stories. There is a risk in storytelling – for the giver, but also the receiver. When we receive them wholeheartedly, we recognize that we have a role. If we don’t want someone to ever feel othered because of their family situation, economic status, sexuality, or any other part of who they are. In that case, we are forced to recognize that we are responsible for challenging our assumptions, choosing our words carefully, and extending generous warmth to one another.
“I’ve been welcomed in Jewish spaces before, and the intent is nice, but I’ve also felt included, and I know the difference,” says Chris Harrison, writer/editor for the URJ. “Welcoming me keeps me at arm’s length and prevents me from feeling like I’m a part of a community; it also means people feel entitled to ask me abrupt and personal questions because I’m a Jew of Color. Including me, demonstrating that you truly believe I belong, however, tells me that this community isn’t the same without me in it. It means my identity isn’t something to be ‘othered’ or exotified; it’s an equal part of our beautiful Jewish tapestry.”
The larger Jewish community was shocked earlier this year to find out that 8% of all American Jews are Hispanic, Black, Asian, another non-white race, or multiracial, including 15% of all Jews under the age of 29. The Pew study indicated that nearly 30% of all Jewish adults under the age of 30 live with at least one child who is not white; 42% of Jews are in interfaith relationships. According to Bechol Lashon, an organization that raises awareness about the ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity of Jewish people around the globe, 20% of all Jews are ethnically and racially diverse.
And yet, only a small portion of these Jews are members of a synagogue. That begins to make sense when we study the results from an ancillary study from the Jews of Color Initiative, which indicates that 80% of Jews of color have felt discriminated against because of their race or another part of their identity.
We’ve heard the stories of Marra Gad, a mixed raced Jew who was turned away from a synagogue simply because of the color of her skin, or of the sister of Rabbi Angela Bukhdahl, who stopped participating in Jewish life because she was tired of explaining her presence in the Jewish community as an Asian Jew.
If we want to grow our community and be a place of belonging for people from all backgrounds on all Jewish journeys, we need to devote time and energy to address why people feel marginalized and uncomfortable.
Over the past year, a diverse and incredibly thoughtful group of 20 people have been meeting regularly to talk about Diversity, Equality, Inclusion, and Accessibility. This task force, led by Susan Brooks and myself, completed an assessment of the ways the congregation is living up to our inclusion goals, and the ways we can continue to build upon them. Each session, a different participant shared part of their Jewish story. In this safe space, people we able to talk about moments of vulnerability and discomfort. We were able to share moments in which we have felt fully embraced at Temple Beth El, and moments in which we felt marginalized or uncomfortable.
The hope is that by unearthing these moments and being vulnerable with one another, we can pinpoint the areas in which our congregation can continue to grow. The group came up with dozens of ideas of ways our community could build upon its welcoming culture to foster feelings of belonging, and we will soon be moving to the next step of pinpointing a few of these goals on which to get started.
Temple Beth El has always been a warm place and a welcoming place. If we wish to be a community of belonging, we still have some work ahead of us. We cannot rest until the pictures on our walls, and website, the presence on our bima and leadership teams, includes the many faces of Judaism—those who are LGBTQ+, living with a disability, single, BIPOC, intermarried, Jewish-adjacent, working-class, and so much more.
“Rather than being an exception to the rule,” Rachel Hall teaches “those of us who are marginalized want to be acknowledged as part of the foundation – as a key ingredient, our lived experiences understood as indispensable and necessary components that make our communities whole. We want to be relied on to help create our communities.”
So let’s chuck our assumptions at the door. The Jewish community is simply too wide for any of them. Let’s share our stories, and let’s ask generous, accepting questions of one another.
As the DEIA task force moves to the next stages in our project, implementing some of the programs that the group has dreamed up, we will need your insights and support.
The Elul program was one opportunity for sharing our stories this year. There will be others. As you feel moved, we invite you to share yours.
Rav Kook writes, “There is no duplication in the universe. Just as no two people are perfectly alike, so there are no two things, in all of the universe, that are alike. Each person, like the grains of sand on the seashore, has a special quality and a special novelty.”
Each of us has different backgrounds, experiences, talents, insights, and beauty we bring to the Temple Beth El community.
Our diversity is a blessing.
So let us work for the day when it’s abundantly clear: everyone isn’t only welcome. Everyone belongs.
 Priya Parker speaks of this in her book, “The Art of Gathering.”