Counting the Omer Day 48: Connection in Nobility

Yesterday RRC graduated another set of amazing Rabbis. I am so honored to know them. They are my teachers, my friends and my rabbis. Congratulations Tamara, Nick, Ilanit, Ellen, Danielle and Malka, I love you all.

20140602-093109-34269918.jpg

20140602-093110-34270717.jpg

20140602-093110-34270313.jpg

Today is 48 days, which are six weeks and six days of the the Omer

My Story: My Jewish Path and Rabbinic Path

How Am I Jewish?

Upon meeting me Jews of Ashkenazi descent like to ask me a myriad of  questions, from how are you Jewish, to when did you convert, to don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school? These questions never happen in a context of wanting to know me, they are about the questioner’s own curiosity and trying to see how I fit into Judaism as if by answering these questions it will tell them everything they need to know about me.  When people ask me these questions, I never know how to respond, sometimes I will respond “I’m just Jewish,” but often want to respond with something comical.  I might even remind them that Jews have always been a multi-racial-cultural people. And I try to use my energy to educate other Jews about what it means to be Jewish in today’s society, but sometimes it is really exhausting.

I often never get to tell my story in a way that feels safe. I am often made to feel like I am expected to rattle off a simple yes or no answer as if anyone’s Jewish story is that simple. All Jewish stories are complex, and personal.  I’ve decided to tell my story here, a friend suggested that I use this link as a business card, and the next time someone asks I can just refer them here 😀

My Jewish Story

In my Junior year of college I joined the military and I spent most of my twenties in the United States Army as a Military Police Investigator working on cases of child abuse and domestic violence. While in the military I finished my bachelor’s degree, and graduated with honors from St. Leo University. It was at St. Leo University where my first real interest in Judaism arose. I took a class on the Old Testament, taught by Francis Githieya, Ph.D. I needed a humanities credit and Githieya’s class fulfilled that requirement, so I begrudgingly registered. I still remember to this day the first words Dr. Githieya said. He stated, in his very Kenyan accent, “You must read the textbook, and if you do not read the textbook you will fail my class.” Githieya went on to say that we should not come to class regurgitating words that our preacher told us, and if we did we would fail. He explained that this was a scholarly course and we would be studying the five books of Moses.” I remember thinking that I liked this guy, and that I could get an A out of this class, because I was not a Christian and would be free from any biases. I did exactly as Githieya describe and did get an A out of the class. The class provided my first real introduction to the Torah, and I was fascinated by the stories and the rich history of the text. The class also changed my view of religion.

My father was raised in a small black church in Blevins, Arkansas, and my mother never mentioned anything about attending a church or any other religious space when she was a kid. I grew up with very little knowledge of Christianity, I knew very little outside of the Jesus narrative. I was not raised in a religious household and had no formal religious education. My family did not go to church but we would on occasion when invited by neighbors. There were times when we would go more often than other times and then we would stop. Around the age of 12 or 13 I think we started going more often. My parents were having a hard time and I think that my mother saw this as a way to ensure that she retained custody. My mother knew that if they divorced that I would probably go and live with my dad, which would not have been a good thing because my dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict, who cheated on my mother whenever possible. And they had a very volatile relationship. I believe that my mother believed that she had to do whatever she had to do to get custody of my brother and I. At one point she hired a social worker and also she found a minister, who I did not like very much. His name was Rev. Stuart and I saw him as a creepy little man who spouted out homophobic rants, and sexist rants during his sermons. I found it strange as a 13 year old that we went to his church; I always saw my mother as a feminist and could not believe that we had to sit and listen to this guy. She would tell me that she would take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff.

As I got older I learned from my mother that the earliest relative in her family did not come to America as a slave. She told me that he immigrated to this country from Ethiopia and he was a Jew. She later told me that he married a non-Jew and the religion was not passed down. I also vaguely remember her saying that no one believed he was a Jew. This story for my mother and her sisters was a pretty powerful story because it meant to her, that her earliest ancestor was not a slave. We did not eat pork or shellfish and, looking back on it, I’m not really sure why. I asked my mother about this and she would tell me that pork was bad for us. I wonder sometimes: If my mother’s oldest known ancestor had immigrated to this country and found it more hospitable to black people and welcoming to Jews of color, would my story have been different?

After the military, I became a personal trainer and ran my own personal training business. My life also became incredibly Jewish; I had Jewish clients, Jewish friends and a Jewish girlfriend, Laura (name changed). Dating Laura, also introduced me to her family. Laura’s sister, Maggie, Maggie’s husband and their kids always met for Shabbat dinner and always invited me. I loved the rituals and loved watching this very modern family slow down as everyone sat down for a meal. I even loved how this family opened themselves and their home to include me week after week, something that has stayed with me even to this day as I struggle to understand what it means to have a Jewish family and a Jewish home.

While I was dating Laura, I met a man who would forever change my life, Rabbi Joshua Lesser. Today he is one of my closest friends and one of my strongest supporters. I cannot even begin to tell you the impact he has had on my life. Josh hired me to be his personal trainer. As we worked together toward his goals, our relationship grew and so did my curiosity. I started to ask Josh questions about Judaism, and he invited me several times to come to his synagogue. I wanted to, but I was scared — mostly out of fear that I would be treated differently because I was black. At Josh’s synagogue, Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH), that never happened, in fact it was quite the opposite.

The day I finally made it to CBH there was a potluck. Josh was on the bimah during the service, kids were running around and their parents were listening attentively. I was very fascinated by this, because the children were free to run around. Every church I had been to the children would have been forced to sit still in the pew as if somehow shackled. There was also a helper dog, Chance. Chance during the service was helping himself to all of the crumbs that were dropped by humans from the potluck. I watched with glee as the humans adjusted themselves in their pews so that Chance could get the crumbs. The children running around, the dog, all of this was happening during the service. Then there was this prayer called a Prayer for the End of Hiding, a prayer which begins “we as gay and lesbian Jews…” and the entire community was saying this prayer, even the straight folks. I fell in love with CBH then and knew that I had to be a part of the community.

For over a year I had started to think about conversion. Up until this time I had thought that I would move from Atlanta, I would find a different rabbi and start my conversion. One day it hit me that I should make Atlanta my home and I was not going to move. On Christmas Eve 2003 Josh and I had lunch and I proceeded to tell him that I wanted to be part of the CBH community and if that meant being Jewish then I wanted to be Jewish. I think I had a sense that I wanted full membership into the community and it was much clearer to me that being Jewish meant being part of the CBH community. I also told him that I wanted to work with him on conversion, but I did not want to do it if it meant messing up our friendship.

CBH became my spiritual home, and in 2004 and I officially entered into the Jewish covenant the day before my 34th birthday. Even though I went through a formal conversion, I don’t feel like I converted. I don’t even like the term “Jews by Choice.” I see the term as a fancy way of saying convert and another way to separate out people who are different in the Jewish community. Once someone is Jewish, then they are Jewish. Any attempt to make someone different in the Jewish community, I see that as against Jewish law. I instead feel like I got in touch with my Jewish roots and I am back where my family should have been all along.

So Why Rabbinical School?

One Friday night Josh gave a sermon about Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute for Sex Research in the 1920’s. Hirschfeld lived in pre-World War II Germany during the rise of Nazism. Josh related in his sermon that at this time in German history the Jewish community did not want to have anything to do with the gay community, and the gay community did not want to have anything to do with the Jewish community. Hirschfeld was both gay and Jewish. Josh proposed in his sermon a “what if.” What if Hirschfeld had used his identity as a gay Jew to be a bridge builder, and the Jewish community and the gay community worked together against the Nazis instead of working separately?

After hearing this sermon I recognized in myself that I had several separate isolated identities. I was gay over here, and Jewish over here and black over here. Looking back I guess I felt I would implode if my identities were all in the same place. After that sermon I made a conscious decision to unite all of my identities. In Atlanta, the Jews felt excluded from the black community, the black community was not connected with the Jewish community, the queer Jewish community felt excluded from the larger queer community. I felt that I could use my identities as a bridge builder.

Shortly after making this decision, Josh was invited to speak at the queer memorial service for Coretta Scott King. King was a wonderful friend to the LGBTQ community in Atlanta, and the community wanted to honor her. Josh could not attend and asked me to represent him. He knew that the audience for the service would be made up of mostly LGBT people of African descent. By doing this I would be making a very public statement that I was black, Jewish and a queer. After I read Josh’s words at the memorial service, a woman came up to me and she told me that she wanted to convert to Judaism. The two of us began a conversation that culminated a year or so later at her Bet Din. Josh told her that he had been very disappointed that he could not attend that memorial service, but looking back it may have been a blessing that he was not there because she may not have felt comfortable at that moment telling him that she wanted to convert. Maybe that day it was good that the face of Bet Haverim was another black queer woman.

I used to ask Josh, “what kind of Rabbi are you?” I had never seen a man espouse feminist values, a white man so connected to communities of color or anyone so devoted to helping others. I thought he was this unique individual who also happened to be a rabbi. One day I got the honor of attending the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation Convention and soon realized there was this school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that trained rabbis that were like Josh, and I wanted to go to that school.

During this time I had become a lay leader at CBH and I started to do more interfaith work. I enjoyed working with clergy but I soon began to realize two things: One, if I wanted to effect real change I needed to have the title rabbi. The other reason was I really wanted to bring more attention to the racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community which meant becoming more than just a lay leader, it meant becoming a rabbi.

In Case You Are Still Wondering…

I am Jewish today, and a rabbinical student because a friend reached out to me and invited me to his spiritual home. We need to do more of that. We need to reach out to people and if they are friends invite them to our synagogues, and shabbat meals not to proselytize but to share. I believe Judaism is wonderful why wouldn’t I want to share it with others?

Teaching King and Heschel

This fall I had the privilege of learning about the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I was excited for the opportunity to learn about these two men. I had heard for many years that blacks and Jews worked together on civil rights and at one time the two groups were close. Having heard this for most of my adult life and seeing little evidence of it except in the relationship of King and Heschel and a few other well documented relationships I started to wonder if it were really true.  Now I had the opportunity to learn about two men, one black, one Jewish, both religious leaders. Once the class was over I had the additional responsibility to teach what I had learned to a diverse synagogue in West Philadelphia on the weekend of the King Holiday.

I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s,  we had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches.  I kind of feel like I grew up with the legend of King. My parents were not activist but instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” As I grew up and learned more about King; I learned he was a revolutionary, a visionary and I realized that he was a real and true American hero who gave his life to help make this country a better place for everyone. Before taking this class I felt pretty comfortable in my knowledge of King and really wanted to learn more, but as a Jew I was kind of ashamed at my lack of knowledge of Heschel, even though I saw him as one of the great Jewish leaders

The Class

I had the honor of teaching the class, not just on the weekend of the King holiday but also when Jews are reading about the Exodus, freedom and the first Passover.

The 3rd Selma Civil Rights March frontline. From far left: John Lewis, an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Frederick Douglas Reese. Second row: Between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche is Rabbi Maurice Davis. Heschel later wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

First I passed out the iconic photo of Heschel and King marching arm and arm in Selma.  Many of us know about this photo but I asked the adults in the room if they recognized the photo, some did but some did not. I then preceded to tell them about the marches in  Selma, Alabama in 1965.  And when that famous photo was taken it was the third attempt to March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights. I talked about Bloody Sunday when several hundred civil rights marchers were attacked and beaten by local police and not allowed to march to Selma.

Alabama state troopers attack civil-rights demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

Alabama state troopers attack civil-rights demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

The Selma protest organizers called in King for help, and with King’s help organized a second march which was held while waiting to get court approval for the group to march. With King’s help the courts got involved and soon the same police that beat the protesters the first time were ordered to protect the marchers as they left Selma. That photo of King and Heschel arm and arm has come to symbolize the great moment of symbiosis between and blacks and jews.

Then I shifted to “But how did they meet? I explained that King and Heschel met at the 1963 Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, and after hearing King speak, Heschel wrote in his journal that the “Soul of Judaism is at stake in the civil rights movement.”  The relationship between these two men was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes.

I told the group that what I considered remarkable about their relationship is these were two men with very different backgrounds; Heschel, who was saved from Hitler’s Europe by Americans, was born into a Hasidic Rabbi’s family in Warsaw, he wore a long white beard and Kippah.  He escaped the Nazi death camps by just a few weeks.  King came from a conservative black church tradition in the segregated American south.  Both men came from prominent religious families and were, in my opinion, groomed to take up the mantle of leadership in their communities. Both men believed in a God of compassion and righteousness and both men demanded that America live up to it’s ideals of being a nation for all people not just white Americans.

These two men were connected by the prophets and the Exodus story.  Both of these great leaders preached about the Exodus story.  I explained that King, like the American slaves before him connected with the Exodus story and saw the Exodus story as their own story of slavery and redemption.  King and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement saw themselves also embodying the Exodus:  The Israelites were the black American slaves and in King’s time struggling for equality and the end of segregation. And Pharaoh was the oppressive segregated and racist American society.  In King’s speeches we can hear how King saw himself as a Moses-like figure. In King’s last speech he sounds like Moses  “I’ve been to the mountaintop. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” And like Moses, King was allowed to see the promised land but he knew that he was not going to be allowed to enter. The next day King was dead.  Heschel in his speeches also likened black Americans to the Israelite slaves, and Pharaoh to an oppressive white America.

As the Reconstructionist movement’s only black rabbinical student I have trouble putting into words the effect teaching this class had on me.  It reminded me of why I came to rabbinical school; to educate. Here I am a black person, a Jew, telling the story of King and Heschel. I am someone who embodies both the dream of King and Heschel. And I want to see a future where blacks and Jews work together, and I want to help make the world a better place for all.

Tzedek Tzedek

Operation Understanding 2012

This summer I had the opportunity to work with an organization called Operation Understanding, an organization committed to social justice. OU takes an equal number of Jews and Blacks, boys and girls all rising seniors on a journey to learn about their individual and shared histories so that they can effectively help to lead a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.

The organization was founded in 1985 by an African Congressman and a Jewish businessman. These two men came together over mutual concerns about the strained relations between Black and Jewish communities.  Both men became convinced that exploring their histories together might begin a powerful, constructive dialogue.  Together, they conceived of Operation Understanding.

My work with OU began late June and we left Philadelphia, and headed to a place called Fellowship Farm, hung out there for a couple of days for some team building, then set out on our journey, to New York and spent time in Harlem and Crown Heights, Park 51 and the World Trade Center Memorial site. We met a Queen, Queen Quet, leader of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, we went rafting in Atlanta visited the Martin Luther King Center,  learned about the Leo Frank Case. We visited the Paper Clips Project, in Tennessee, learned about the horrific tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys; nine black teenage boys accused of raping two white women Alabama in 1931, when their only real crime was catching a free ride on a freight train. We got some serious experiential education on slavery by being made slaves ourselves and being put on a slave ship. We crossed the  Edmund Pettus Bridge and learned a first hand account of what happened Bloody Sunday March 7, 1965 in Selma Alabama; and what it was like to be a freedom rider.  All of this information you will never find in U.S. History text book. We popped into the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tuskeegee, help to build houses in New Orleans and learned about Jewish life in New Orleans. We hung out with the Jewish community of Jackson Mississippi. We had lunch with Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles the last person to see Dr King alive and our last stop was DC before heading home. Along the way we attended Muslim, Jewish and Christian services. Visited civil rights museums, a holocaust museum and learned about Israeli, Jewish, American, black and African cultures.

This week’s Torah portion urges us repeatedly to pursue justice.  I could not help but go back to the phrase  “Tzedek tzedek tirdof”  צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue”) The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. It teaches us to pursue the goal of Justice through means that are just and teaches us: Justice for ourselves and justice for the other.

The kids I worked with learned a lot on this trip about the tragedies of the past and hope for the future. I also learned a lot. After a rough first year of rabbinical school and wondering if there really was a place in the Jewish community for me as a Rabbi. These kids and Operation Understanding helped to remind me that there is a place for someone like me in the Jewish community and for me Tzedek Tzedek צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף  represents my two communities, both seeking and pursuing justice.

Why Does the Torah Not Abolish Slavery?

In Parshah Mishpatim we transition in Exodus from a narrative, a story of a people, their enslavement, and their journey to freedom to

“now these are the laws that you Moses, shall set before them.”

Why do we care about this? The Israelites didn’t know how to act as a free people after all they had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. And needed guidance on how to behave as free people. Since the Israelites had left slavery it should not be surprising that the first set of laws mentioned in this parshah are laws about slavery. Exodus 21:2-6 says:

If you buy a Hebrew slave he is to serve you for seven years. But the seventh year, he shall go free.”

What is surprising to me is that the Torah does not abolish slavery. Instead it lists a serious of laws on protecting the slave. The legalized slavery of the Torah only comes to correct some of the pitfalls of slavery. Slavery did exist during this time as an institution, as long as it existed, the Torah gave us laws to protect slaves from abuse and mistreatment. It’s almost as if the Torah could not imagine a world without slavery. Why doesn’t the torah just abolish slavery? Jonathan Sacks says:

“The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: Time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia….So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of Gods relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, to abolish it of their own accord.

Slavery, has existed probably since the beginning of time. Before modern era, slavery was not based on race, it was based on debt, crime or war. In the case of war, when one group of people defeated the other group, they would often enslave the loser and often these were women.

When slavery came to the New World, there was such a demand for labor that slavery became a whole new animal. Slavery in the United States was not based on debt, war, or a crime, it was only based on biological traits, what we now call race. And slavery became inheritable. I mention this because slavery in this country was wrapped in religious conviction. Meaning that on one hand according to Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography the cruelest slave masters and overseers were devout Christians, usually folks that had some kind of a conversion experience or today we call them born again. Further reading of Douglass’ does not imply that he believed christians were evil. He makes a clear distinction between Christianity of America and the Christianity proper. These slave masters used text in the Torah, to justify slavery. On the other hand you have folks like the Quakers, Methodist and the early evangelicals, campaigning to end slavery. These devout christians were also driven by religious conviction, inspired albeit by the narrative of the Exodus story.

As an American, a woman, a Jew and a person of color I feel intimately connected to the history of slavery. Not only the slavery mentioned in this weeks Torah portion but the history of slavery in the United States and the slavery that continues today. These verses in the Torah reflect the time when the Israelites had crossed over the line and moved from slavery into freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people and never allowed to forget the experience of slavery.

The laws embedded in this week’s portion, and the ones that will follow stress, that we are to cherish freedom, abhor oppression and deal honestly and equitably with both those whom we love and those whom we hate. We are called upon to build a society that promotes individual responsibility and provides legal protections for all its members.

New Beginnings

This is for my rabbinical school cohort

May it be Your will, O Lord my God to lead me in peace,
to guide my steps in peace,
to uphold me in peace
to save me from any enemy or entrapment along the way
to bless the works of my hands
and permit me to find grace, favor and mercy in Your eyes
and in the eyes of all who behold me
Blessed are You, O Lord, who hears prayer ~ Reuven Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer

Rosh Hashanah is a time of remembrance. The anniversary of the creation of the world and since the world is quite old there is much to be thankful for and to celebrate. Rosh Hashanah is also a time when we remember our own personal histories, our journeys that have brought us to this day. We reflect on those times when we might not have lived up to our best selves and remember the times when we did.

Like many of you here, this summer I embarked on a journey and that journey for me started about six years ago when I knew I wanted to be a Rabbi. Actually, when I really think about it my journey started about forty-years ago. Which in someways makes me feel like the Israelites. Let me explain. In this weeks Torah portion Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we come to the last day of Mose’s life. The Israelites have been wandering in the dessert for forty-years and the land promised to them is within reach; they can see it, they can smell it and in someways maybe even touch it, but they cannot enter into the land. Can you imagine what it must feel like? I know I can. Imagine what it must feel like to search for something for forty years; you are not sure what it looks like, you may even start to doubt that it truly exist, but you keep holding onto a dream, and believe; and then when you find it, and you know it really exist, and you can see it, smell it, and maybe even touch it but you cannot enter.

Mose’s tells the Israelites “I am 120 years old today, I can no more go out and come in; and G-D has said to me: that I will not go over this Jordan” The Israelites in the dessert can see the promised land but there leader will not be able to go with them. This is exactly what Dr. Martin Luther King was referencing in his famous speech The Promised Land. In his speech on April 3, 1968, King says, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” And like Moses, King was allowed to see the promised land but he knew that he was not going to be allowed to enter. The next day King was dead.

Like the Israelites, I to have been wandering in the dessert for 40 years. I have done many things in my life with great success, and every challenge has led me that much closer to where I needed to be. And now, when I am about to enter the promised land, which in this case we are talking about rabbinical school, the people that have helped me and coached me can’t be here with me on this part of my journey, but I can take them with me where ever I go. A dear friend once told me, “some people have linear paths, and for others it’s never a straight line.” So, I say to you, Never give up on your dreams. Even when you think it’s impossible. Sometimes we we’re meant to wander in the dessert for 40 years.

Life Changes

Tonight is my last night as a non rabbinical student.  It’s really hard to say what I feel about this because I have wanted it for so long.  I also feel like I paid a heavy price for wanting to become a rabbi, and that price was the end of a partnership. This may come as a surprise to many of you, or maybe not, but rabbinical schools have a policy of not admitting candidates that have non Jewish partners.  The policy is unfair on so many levels but queer students and Jews of color have a different burden.

Ideally it would be great to have a Jewish partner, but when I think of some of the experiences I have had in Jewish spaces relating to race, having a Jewish partner seems unlikely.  I felt like my choices are meet a black  jew or choose not to date and not to partner.

Anyway it’s getting late and I don’t want to ramble on or continue on this soapbox. Just keep in mind that there are real people affected by these policies. Tomorrow, I start my new journey, and that is to fulfill my dream and become a rabbi someday and tomorrow the dream begins.