My Prayer for Ferguson

Kim Weimer/Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times

Kim Weimer/Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times

Help us to lie down, Dear Lord our God, in peace, and let us rise again, to life…

This summer, I heard that a young black man had been killed by a police officer. The sad thing is that I tuned the story out. I was too caught up in whatever I was doing to notice that another unarmed black man had been killed by a police officer. I kept seeing the name Ferguson flash across my Twitter feed and my Facebook page, and I assumed that the name of the individual who was killed was Ferguson. Then I noticed that the individual’s name was Michael Brown and the shooting happened in a place that I know too well. It happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

Spread over us the shelter of Your peace…

From the ages of five through twelve I lived on the border of Berkeley and Ferguson. I spent a lot of time in Ferguson hanging with my friends Jill and Stacey. I remember swimming in January-Wabash park, bike riding adventures where the plan was to get lost and struggle to find our way home,  and spending my allowance on arcade games. I moved away when I was twelve and I was devastated–I loved my life and I loved my friends.  At the age of seventeen I moved back to the area and reconnected with my friends but it wasn’t the same.

and inspire us with Your good counsel…

Sadly, until recently I hadn’t given much thought to that part of my life. When I learned what happened to Michael Brown and where the shooting took place all of those memories of my childhood came flooding back. I immediately started reading as much information as I could find on what happened. A frightening feeling came over me and I realized that Michael Brown could easily have been the son of someone I went to school with. I reached out to friends and I talked with my parents.

and save us for the sake of Your name…

The recent events in Ferguson have brought a lot of attention to the issues of race in our society. Every single person of color in my life, including me, has had a moment of either being followed around in a store because of the perception that we might shoplift, or a moment of someone being afraid of us on the street or in an elevator. Once, when I walked into a sauna, and a white woman with a terrified look on her face yelled for me to get out because she assumed I was a black man. We live in a culture where we are bombarded by images that depict black men as threats. We live in a society that has become more segregated, not necessarily because of laws, but because of class and choices.  It’s an indescribable feeling to see a place I loved as a child, and hated to leave, on the national news with scenes that invoke in me images of Bull Connor’s attempt to control massive amounts of young black protesters with attack dogs and fire hoses. But today, instead of dogs, it’s tear gas and weapons used for war.

and shield us in the wings of Your protection,  

I live in two worlds. I am Jewish and I am black, and I am calling out to the Jewish community to please take notice of these past events, not just the events in Ferguson but the number of black men and people of color in our society who are stopped by police, arrested by police and even killed by police. Many in the Jewish community believe that these issues do not concern us, but they do. American Jews are now more racially diverse than ever. Every Shabbat many of us sit next to a Jews of color in our synagogues. Many of us have children of color, many of us have people of color in our families and many of us are black. We as a Jewish community can no longer say these issues do not concern us.

Guard our going out and our coming in, for life and peace, now and forever

As American Jews we know the history of injustice. We cannot sit by and let injustice happen because we know that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are commanded to not harden our hearts or shut our hand against our brothers or sisters who are in need.  These men who have died are part of us; they are our brothers. The people protesting in the streets of Ferguson are our brothers and sisters. They are part of us and part of our community. We must speak out to stop racial profiling and we must rid ourselves of the myth that what happens in Ferguson or on the streets of our own cities, doesn’t affect us.

Blessed are You Compassionate One, who spreads your canopy of peace over all Your people Israel, over Jerusalem and over the entire world.

Thank you T’ruah for letting me use my voice. Also, T’ruah responds to the Michael Brown grand jury verdict

Thank you Bucks County Courier Times for the Photo

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?

For those who want to discuss Trayvon Martin without bringing up race:

(From my Facebook) The sad thing is that we cannot have a dialogue about this without bringing up race/racism. We live in a country where people are treated suspiciously for being Muslm, Arab, black, brown, and/or hispanic etc. That is the world we live in. We do not live in a post racial society. For those of us who have white privilege some of us want to divorce race from the conversation. For the rest of us (and allies) who do not have that privilege we are trying to say there is something wrong here. I want to live in a place “where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I want to get to a place where the first thing we utilize as a measurement is not someone’s external designation, but we look beyond that into the substance of a person and rid ourselves of those kinds of prejudices and biases we often bring to the decisions that we make.

The Future Jewish Community

I often find myself thinking about the kind of Jewish community I’d like to help build as a rabbi and or be a part of as a Rabbi.  I want to find ways to connect with Jews that do not feel welcomed in Jewish communities. This is also a personal issue for me because as a queer Jew of color, I often do not feel safe or welcomed in Jewish spaces for a lot of reasons, but one is that my identity as a Jew, who is also a person of color changes the conversation of what a Jew looks like.

We live in a world where the larger Jewish community still sees itself defined along racial and ethnic lines and those ethnic lines do not include Jews of color. They also do not include Jews who have converted and or chosen Judaism and sadly Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews and Jews from other Jewish communities also feel left out.  The larger Jewish community is connected to a narrative of an Eastern European past.  I find it hard to connect with other Jews when they see themselves so connected to this narrative. There is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s family background, but today that same narrative does not work in a Jewish community where many Jews do not share that same background.

 Today 20% of the Jewish community is racially and ethnically diverse. Many Jews have chosen Judaism, including many of the students at my rabbinical school. Slowly, more Jews of color are becoming leaders in the Jewish community, and there are more Jews of patrilineal descent. What does all this mean? I’m not sure. One thing I think of, is this means a growing Jewish population unburden by a collective tragedy. Does this have the potential to change the mindset of the Jewish community? I don’t know. I know for some in the Jewish community this means fear but for me and many others we are excited about the possibilities and we are excited for the Jewish people.