May 16, 2024
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May 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

This past semester at The Idea School, a group of students participated in a class called Allied Against Hate. It partnered our students with Black and Jewish students at Drew University and Teaneck High School to explore Black and Jewish relations from the Civil Rights movement until today and included texts that we learned separately and together, speakers we heard from as a group, and projects we worked on jointly. Recently, our cohort got together at The Idea School for a Chanukah party, and the relaxed atmosphere gave us the opportunity to chat with each other in informal ways. It was then that I was able to ask one of the Drew University students, a young Black woman, what she thought of the class.

She told me that she was very grateful to have taken it since it had taught her so much, particularly about the roots of antisemitism and some of its more pernicious tropes. She said she was now able to identify when they were being used in her community.

She also told me about the Jewish students she had met in the class. They had shown her, she said, that there were more Jews in Judaism than just the Orthodox and that there were a lot of ways to be Jewish. I have thought about this young lady’s comments since then, since they were disquieting.

The Civil Rights era was a high point for Black-Jewish relations. Jews were a highly visible group then, speaking at rallies, marching and even getting jailed for their protest efforts. But these efforts were inconsistent and eventually, for complicated reasons, have led to the place in which we find ourselves today, and that is in a much more uneasy and often contentious relationship with our Black countrymen.

And that is sad, because as we learned from Ms. Lynne Algrant, a dynamic speaker who is a longstanding member of the Bergen County community with a deep understanding of Black-Jewish relationships in our neighborhoods, Teaneck was the first township in America to voluntarily desegregate its schools.

The Drew student’s comment reinforced what we had become aware of during the semester, and that is that the Black community is often suspicious and wary of us Orthodox Jewish folks.

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Vayechi, we have two instances that make us think about how we as a people might be viewed in the world. One is when Yaakov blesses his sons and calls out Shimon and Levi for their “lawlessness” when they attacked the city of Shechem. Yaakov states: “Klei chamas mecheiroteichem—their weapons are tools of lawlessness”—and goes on to say, “Let not my person be included in their council / Let not my being be counted in their assembly” (Perek 49, Pesukim 5-6).

In Hebrew, the word Yaakov uses for “my being” is kevodi, which can be translated as “my honor” or “my dignity.” We talk about kevod Hashem, God’s honor, and kevod ha’briot, the dignity we owe to all human beings, and that dignity was compromised by the cruel and bloodthirsty way Shimon and Levi dealt with the city of Shechem. The honor and dignity of Bnei Yisrael is compromised by such behavior—it is antithetical to who we are—and we cannot abide it nor dwell among those who participate in it.

The second instance is unusual because it is one in which Bnei Yisrael is being seen by the outside world as part of Egyptian society. Yaakov has died and Yosef, with Pharaoh’s permission, has been allowed to go to Eretz Yisrael to inter his father. With him is a contingent that includes “all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries,” as well as “all of Yosef’s household, his brothers and his father’s household” (Perek 50, Pesukim 7-8). I find this scene extraordinary.

So acculturated into Egyptian society are Yosef and his brothers that when their entourage passes, the Caananites comment, “This is a solemn mourning on the part of the Egyptians” (50:11) and—fascinatingly—name the place where they see the group “Avel-mitzraim, the mourning of Egypt.”

First: Mourning was a big deal in Egypt; Egyptian society placed heavy emphasis on the afterlife, pyramid tomb building, embalming, and the celebration of death days. Yaakov is even embalmed! So it seems pretty significant that to the Caananites the Israelites don’t look different from their Egyptian counterparts. They appear the same, they act the same. Yosef and his brothers may know they are different, and the Torah even tells us that the brothers were carrying out their Israelite father’s wishes, but for a moment in the procession we take the view of the Canaanites and know no difference between Israelite and Egyptian, so much so that the Canaanites rename a place for the impressive Egyptian mourning train that has passed.

Second: In all societies, the way we honor the dead is important; it can be, as we know from this story and the death of Yosef, a time to do a chesed shel emet, a true kindness, for the dead don’t really know if we’ve carried out their wishes. How we treat them then reflects on the kind of people we are; do we act with kavod, dignity and honor? Do we give it to others, even the dead?

In a society that feels about death the way that the Egyptians did, it is especially significant that they honor Yosef’s father in the way they do. It reveals the depth to which Yosef has been accepted in Egypt and the gratitude Pharaoh and his court feel toward the man who has led them through a famine with shrewdness and efficiency.

For 2,000 years, we Jews have been wandering, victims of the vicissitudes of thoughtless rulers and leaders who often perpetrated heinous crimes against us. But in America we have found a unique place that has proven benevolent enough not only to accept us but allow us to thrive in ways that look very similar to the way Yosef thrived. We are in the highest echelons of government, have succeeded wildly in a plethora of professions, and on the whole live comfortable, prosperous lives.

As visible Jews, then, we Orthodox have a responsibility to ensure that we are bringing honor not only to our own people, but to the country that has been so good to us. This parsha is famous for its blessings, so I give us one more: that no community, minority, subgroup in America sees us as other than a benevolent and vibrant part of the American experiment, which is centered not on death and the afterlife, but on bringing life, liberty, happiness to all who live in this land.

Tikvah Wiener is head of school of The Idea School.

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