May 25, 2024
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BCHA Center for Community Education’s Inaugural Event Addresses Race and Judaism

The Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy’s Center for Community Education, located in Stamford, Connecticut, recently hosted its inaugural event, “Race and the Jewish Community.”

The audience at the Zoom event was welcomed by BCHA Head of School Jaclyn Herman. “The Center for Community Education is the vision of David Pitkoff, president of the board of trustees. The Center for Community Education will serve to nurture unity and a sense of community and encourage excitement about our shared commitment to Judaism and raise the level of discourse by joining not only local experts in their respective fields but also well-known teachers from the tri-state area and beyond.”

“Kavod, respect for all, tolerance, knowledge, education, compassion, inclusion and understanding of all key elements of mission is what we strive to instill in our students each and every day at Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy,” she continued.

Michael Feldstein introduced the speaker, Yaffy Israel Newman, who shared a personal perspective as a Jew of color. Newman grew up in Hollywood, Florida, and now resides in Jerusalem with her Israeli husband.

“I am a very proud woman of color, but I am, just as much so, a very proud Jew. All of my experiences with regard to racism have not made me bitter about the Jewish world because that is my home. I consider these experiences part of life, but a part of life which we cannot ignore nonetheless,” stated Newman. “I am often asked what was my first memory regarding racism. Unfortunately, it was within a Jewish environment.”

When she was 4 or 5 years old, her parents took her to a Chanukah party in another South Florida community. She recalled, “I found other little kids to play together. One mother snatched her kids away. She was chastising them ‘Don’t do that again! Don’t play with shvartzas! Shvartzas are dirty, they are not like us.’ I had never been called a shvartza until that point in my life and I didn’t know what the word meant.”

Confused, she returned to her parents. Checking her face and arms, she asked them if she was dirty. After telling her parents what had happened, they chose to use it as a learning experience.

In kindergarten, she participated in an accelerated program for several hours a day. After a few months, one of her good friends asked the teacher, “Why is Yaffy in the gifted program? Everyone knows that Black people can’t read. How is she more accelerated than I am?”

“The older I have gotten the more I have realized that no matter how much I close my eyes to it personally, racism is something which is still alive not only in America but unfortunately within our Jewish communities,” said Newman. “The problem needs to be dealt with and to ignore the problem will only exacerbate it further. It is an uncomfortable conversation, but one which is necessary. It is important to discuss passive racism within Jewish communities and to try to combat it.”

Newman described the term “color blind” as passive racism. “I have heard people say to me: ‘I don’t see color, everyone is just a person to me, and everyone is equal.’ While the sentiment is beautiful, the reality is very damaging.” Newman also believes the Jewish community needs to combat the question of whether Jews of color are real Jews. “This is incredibly hurtful to Jews of color and others who come to Judaism, such as converts and adoptees.”

Newman feels she has a huge responsibility to educate the community she considers home. “Jews believe in tikkun olam and believe in treating people right. I know many people do not have exposure to both people of color or Jews of color.” She finds these narratives, stereotypes and stigmas hurtful, and tries to break those down. “When we ignore them, it only blinds ourselves,” she said.

Newman believes many people, including Jews, don’t know about Black history in America, just as some anti-Semites are ignorant of Jewish history. She tries to raise awareness through education, introspection and action. Newman advocates many ways people can be active. “There is speaking up when you see injustice; it is not letting your friend tell that racist joke at the Shabbos table.”

“You have no idea what place the people in your life will reach, what place of power and the kind of things which they can do. There is more which we can be doing as a community, but even as individuals, no matter how small it may be. There is something each of us can be working on to better this problem in America,” she concluded.

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