Jewish schools must prioritize Jews of color. By recognizing there is a rainbow of diversity within the Jewish community, schools can be places where students become advocates and allies working closely with Jews of color to ensure they feel welcomed and supported. Yet unfortunately, the reality is that many Jews of color feel marginalized and separated from the community.
To explore issues of race and the Jewish connection to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, my synagogue community created a program to engage post b’nai mitzvah students in these issues early. The program this year has consisted of eight classes with guest speakers, teaching from their own personal experience, as well as a group trip to Alabama to further discuss race in America.
All of these classes and trips have touched upon and explored the Jewish connection to issues of civil rights. But one experience really brought it home, making it personal for the students: a Zoom bomber broke into our final meeting, shouting racial epithets into this safe space we’d constructed specifically to learn more about the connections between Jews, Black lives, and racism.
On May 19, 2020, I was leading our final virtual discussion, interviewing Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda and the first native-born Black rabbi in Sub-Saharan Africa. He was ordained through the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles before moving back to Uganda to support and build the Jewish community.
Comprised of approximately 2000-3000 Ugandan Jews, Abayudaya literally means People of Judah. They are primarily located in eastern Uganda. In 2016, Rabbi Sizomu became an elected member of the Ugandan parliament, making him the sole Jew in the Ugandan parliament. He was elected when locals outside of the Abayudaya community witnessed his leadership in stopping the spread of malaria in his community.
Rabbi Sizomu explained to us what was like growing up as a Jew of color. During the conversation, he talked about his disappointment that the Rabbinic establishment in Israel does not fully recognize the Jewish status of his community because they follow Jewish law according to the Conservative movement.
And then, during Rabbi Sizomu’s presentation, voices suddenly descended upon our virtual meeting, shouting racial epithets directed towards Rabbi Sizomu and Black people. I was running the meeting, and once my initial disorientation subsided, I quickly removed the subversive participants. Everyone was stunned and silent. I emphatically apologized to Rabbi Sizomu and, together as a group, we processed the violation, talking about what happened and how it made us feel. We told Rabbi Sizomu how important his work is and how critical it is to welcome and accept Jews of color.
After the Zoom bombing, I filed an incident report with the Mercer Island Police Department, contacted the Anti-Defamation League, and reached out to Safe-WA through the Jewish Federation of Seattle for guidance. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do, although being able to report the incident helped us feel heard.
The entire year up until the Zoom bombing had been full of local guest speakers and learning opportunities that helped to create an ongoing narrative for the students, speaking to them in today’s language. We spoke about wrongful imprisonment and LGBTQ+ civil rights issues with former Freedom Riders and Black Panther members. The coronavirus even helped us speak about the AIDS epidemic.
The stellar group of presenters enabled the students to connect with the dark history of the 1960s in a personal, heartfelt way, learning about both systemic racism and racial discrimination. The Zoom bombing incident couldn’t take away the layers of learning we have experienced all year; if anything, it made the year’s discussions of hate even more relevant.
Jewish schools have so much potential to be inclusive places promoting tolerance, acceptance, and diversity. Classes and trip experiences such as the one when Rabbi Sizomu spoke must continue. They are the glue that holds us all together. Civil discourse is even more important now. Jews of color must have an important place at the table of learning if we are to ensure our community stands for inclusion and acceptance.
Dr. Eliyahu Krigel, CJE is the Director of Education at Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation on Mercer Island, Washington.