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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Shalhevet Institute Explores Black and Orthodox Jewish Identities

By his own admission, Noam Young, a mixed-race man who converted to Judaism and is looking to find community, was at a crossroads. The call from Ari Schwarzberg of the Shalhevet Institute to participate in a discussion on the intersection between Black and Jewish lives came at an opportune time. 

“Before Ari called me, I was sure that there was a zero percent chance that there is a place for me and my wife and the kids we hope to have one day in the Orthodox world.” Young made this comment to an audience of about 140 Zoom attendees at the Shalhevet Institute’s “Black & Jewish Identities: Opening a Conversation” event on July 27. “And,” he added, “I am still close to zero, but I have some hope and some faith, and I think our faiths are bound up together. So, if you are willing to listen, I’m willing to share.”

Young’s candid admission was one of several frank and not always optimistic statements by the four panelists who participated in the discussion moderated by Schwarzberg and Na’amit Negel. As Black or mixed-race Jews, Young and fellow panelists Chava Shervington, Yonosan Perry and Isaiah Rothstein each expressed strong views on the topic of the Black experience both within the Jewish community and in the country at large. 

The first of the two-night event, titled “Voices,” focused on discussion of personal experiences. The second session, “Texts,” scheduled for Aug. 10, invites attendees and panelists to consider several reading materials, including James Baldwin’s 1967 New York Times essay “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They are Anti-White.”

“The Shalhevet Institute is a space in L.A. that’s interested in bringing people together to study Torah seriously and to think deeply about Jewish ideas, texts and literature in a way that enriches and broadens our community,” Schwarzberg said in his introductory remarks. “Tonight, we are taking a step toward broadening our community and hopefully it serves as a fulfillment of ahavat Yisra’el (love of the Jewish people) and our charge to be mamlechet kohanim (a nation of priests).”

“My white Ashkenazi mom brought me to the [district attorney’s] office to file a formal complaint against whatever officer. I don’t know how many people in yeshiva education are listed in the gang-related book in their town, but I am.” — Yonosan Perry

Despite experiences that overlapped in some respects, the four panelists came from diverse backgrounds. Shervington is a practicing attorney, a board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network and a mother of two. Perry, the son of an Ashkenazi mother and a Black father, is a Chabad rabbi. Rothstein is an Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively about issues of race and diversity, and Young works in software regulatory compliance and the arts. All the panelists live in Los Angeles except Rothstein, who Zoomed in from his New York home in Harlem. Each expressed his or her wish that events such as the Shalhevet discussion would help create a bridge toward building a better world for their own children and for future generations.

Their own upbringings — even within upper-middle-class families — contained early lessons that Black people are treated differently. Rothstein spent holidays in Los Angeles and recounted spending Shabbat with family in Inglewood before meeting up with friends in the Pico-Robertson area. Although he is of mixed-race parentage, Rothstein passed for white. He said as an “undercover brother,” he had a unique view of ways in which Blacks and Jews are treated and the ways they treat one another. 

The mention of Inglewood, for example, would prompt people to say, “My parents don’t let me drive there,” while references to his current home in Harlem elicits a “Yeah, make sure the windows are rolled up and the doors are locked.”

“Because I pass for white, I tend to have a front-row seat to certain things we call micro-aggressions; things people say not to be outright hostile or to treat you in a disrespectful way, but because maybe these things were ingrained in their thinking,” Rothstein said. “I think a lot of us in the 21st century feel in between in different ways, holding dual identities.” 

When asked whether she considers herself more Black or more Jewish, Shervington said she is wholly both and that there is no distinction.

“The reality is that Blacks in America can’t avoid Blackness or racism,” she said. “From the time we’re children, our parents teach us, ‘You have to be quiet. You can’t be loud like your friends.’ For your entire life, there is so much energy in constructing a persona that makes other people feel comfortable.”

All of the panelists recalled having multiple encounters with law enforcement, everything from being stopped constantly while driving to, in Young’s case, being pulled out of kindergarten because a woman accused him of stealing her purse. 

When he was a young teenager, Perry’s father told him to always obey police officers because if he didn’t, “ ‘They will kill you and no repercussions will happen.’ It still didn’t stop certain altercations from coming about, from being pulled over on my lunch break in high school and having to tell my mom what happened,” Perry said. “And my white Ashkenazi mom brought me to the [district attorney’s] office to file a formal complaint against whatever officer. I don’t know how many people in yeshiva education are listed in the gang-related book in their town, but I am.”

Toward the end of the discussion, the panelists were invited to give a constructive rebuke to the Orthodox community for the way that it deals with issues of race. Perry said he would like to see a decrease in the constant questioning of mixed-race Jews about their background. Young, noting that he had heard bigoted remarks at Shabbat tables and in kosher restaurants, saved the largest rebuke for himself. 

“I need to speak up more,” he said. “I hear things way too often and I don’t say anything because I’m afraid of how it will affect my security in different ways. But I need to speak up. We all need to speak up more.” 

Shervington, stressing the importance of education, condemned the politicization of race. “Everyone, regardless of their politics, whether they’re fiscal conservatives, fiscal liberals or whatever it is, should acknowledge that a system of discrimination and oppression is wrong,” she said. “I want to contribute to that.” 

To register for the Aug. 10 session, click here.

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