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From the Rabbi - Reflections on creating a culture of inclusivity

I’m writing this month’s column on the last night of our Confirmation class trip to Washington, dc with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism. Our students have spent the weekend learning about issues through a Jewish lens and have written their lobbying speeches. As they reflect on issues such as access to abortion, mental health, and global climate change, they’ve shared personally and passionately in ways that demonstrate the breadth of experience they have already had in life.

On this same night, while we are preparing to lobby on the Hill in the morning, the Oscars are being broadcast on TV. While I didn’t see them, I was struck by the following description of the opening moments as Janelle Monae declared, “I’m so proud to stand here as a black queer artist telling stories.” On an Oscars night that had received critique, along with the Golden Globes, for the lack of diversity and inclusivity displayed by the choice of nominees, Monae was setting the stage — literally — for a heightened awareness of these issues.

In recent weeks, I’ve engaged in several one-to-one or small group conversations that all center around the topic of how we ensure that our congregation authentically models and embraces a culture of inclusivity and diversity. Returning from the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial convention last December, this was a theme that was explored at some length in workshops and at some of the main plenary sessions of the convention. The presentations gave us pause to reflect more deeply and honestly on where we do well, and where we could do better, as individuals and as a congregation.

Creating a culture of inclusivity means a lot of different things to different people. In a recent conversation during our Adult Education series, ‘A Life of Meaning,’ based on the Reform movement publication that provides a forum for examining who we are as Reform Jews today, this was quite apparent. A conversation that began with the ways that, as a congregation, we can do better with regard to being truly responsive to racial diversity among Jews and Jewish families, turned to raising awareness of a multitude of ways that individuals can feel ‘other,’ ‘not the norm,’ or ‘less than’ in a congregation unless we take active steps to address our desire to be truly inclusive. Individuals who are divorced sometimes hold back from participating in events, or even attending a service, anxious that they might end up sitting alone — likewise, for those whose spouse has died. Individuals who are single sometimes have to work harder to make connections within the congregation. Each of us has to take responsibility for noticing, welcoming, and inviting — a culture of inclusivity requires all of us to raise our awareness.

LGBTQ Jews are sometimes rendered invisible by heteronormative assumptions. When my wife, Rabbi Suri Krieger, covered for an absent teacher at short notice one week at Chai School, I took the opportunity to introduce her to the class she was visiting because many of our students do not know that their rabbi is married to a woman. Being visible is important because among those youth are many who are figuring out their own identities and need to see examples of successful, thriving individuals and different kinds of families to help them step out with confidence. Parents can provide enormous support to children and their friends by raising the awareness of the diversity within our own community in everyday conversation.
When it comes to fully embracing the racial diversity of the Jewish community, we have work to do. At the recent Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, we learned that, nationally, we have vastly underestimated the number of Jews of color in the USA. When a person of color visits our congregation, we need to check our own implicit bias if we find ourselves wondering or worse — asking directly — if they are Jewish. If it is not the first question we would ask of a Caucasian person then it shouldn’t be posed to a person of color. We have a lot to learn on this front, and we will be looking to create some opportunities to read, learn, and discuss ways that we can do better.

Inclusivity is also about embracing people with different physical or mental abilities. While we’ve taken a number of steps in our congregation to make our space accessible, and to provide support to many students in our school, there is more work we can do to make more of what we have to offer inclusive to different needs. But even in cases where we don’t have the means, currently, to integrate every single student, we remain committed to celebrate every single child who reaches the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, in a way that honors who they are and what they can do.

We continue to seek ways to be inclusive of the members of our households who are not Jewish. Remembering that we cannot take for granted that everyone enters our space with the same background and knowledge, we continue to look for accessible ways for all of our members to learn about Jewish life and practice, and gain greater comfort in participating in Jewish congregational life.

If you have had experiences that felt exclusionary at Congregation B’nai Shalom, I invite and welcome you to share your story with me. While we seek to be an inclusive community in many ways, we also know that we need to listen in order to learn and grow and continue to do better.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sat, May 30 2020 7 Sivan 5780