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Letter | A Public Thank You to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, or The Losses We Sustain When We Think of Jewishness as a Race

I am grateful to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl for her recent Yom Kippur sermon, which touched on the intersectionality of race, ethnicity and religion, and turned on its head the old notion that Jewishness is a race. Instead, Rabbi Buchdahl explained, we should take the more expansive view of Jewishness not as a race, but as a family.

My mother converted from Christianity to Judaism before marrying my Jewish father, and I have been told too many times that my blonde-haired, blue eyed mother and brother didn’t “look Jewish” or that I was “only half Jewish.”

Just as often, I’ve been told I have “one Jewish son and one Irish son” because my Irish Catholic wife and I have a brown-haired, brown-eyed son Jacob and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed son Liam. “No,” I say, over and over again. “I have two Jewish sons and two Irish sons.”

What I have been thinking about since I watched Rabbi Buchdahl’s sermon is the collective loss we have suffered because we have for too long thought of Jewishness as an immutable, homogenous characteristic. The social construct of Jewish identity as race harms us all in myriad ways, most of all, in the systemic racism that so many people of color have encountered in exploring Jewish life, and also, in the Ashkenormativity that made my family and countless others feel as if we might not ever truly belong.

How many people left Jewish life because they didn’t want to be asked one more time if they are Jewish? How many people left because they were tired of being followed by the security guard, mistaken for the janitor or the wait staff, or simply made to feel they didn’t belong? Even one neshama, one soul, is too many.

It’s not only families of color, multiracial families and interfaith families who lose out when there is a narrow construct of who belongs in Jewish life and community; it is Jewish life at the synagogues and Jewish institutions that haven’t included them, too.

The narrow view of who gets counted has meant that myriad Jewish institutions and synagogues have not been the beneficiaries of the wisdom, love, leadership, beauty, resources and knowledge that families on the margins could have been bringing to them all this time. A shonda, a shame; our institutions and synagogues are weaker for it as a result, and many are now at or past their breaking point.

If you have not had the opportunity to see Rabbi Buchdahl’s sermon, or read her words, I hope you will do so. I hope that the words of her sermon continue to resonate and reverberate in Jewish communities around the country and inspire us all to reimagine who is included in our conceptualization of who is part of Jewish life and community.

At 18Doors, the organization I lead to support all interfaith families in their exploration of Jewish life, we are committed to doing the hard work of cleaning up our own house. We have begun to and will continue to look inward, examining our policies, practices and programs. We are doing this in consultation with our staff members of color and in interracial families, and with the help of outside experts on race in the Jewish community like Yavilah McCoy and her team at Dimensions. I am joining with CEOs of other Jewish organizations, convened by Leading Edge, to think about leadership through an anti-racist lens.

We are doing this work now because it is urgent, for our organization and for the Jewish community. I may be guilty of not having taken action sooner, but I am committed to building toward lasting change, and putting the time, effort and resources into doing so. If you have not begun your own work yet, I hope you will join me. We have so much to do.

Jodi Bromberg is the CEO of 18Doors, formerly InterfaithFamily.

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