“Why are you asking me that?”
This is the only acceptable response whenever a white person asks certain questions of someone in our building who doesn’t look like them. Questions like: “Why are you here?” “Are you Jewish?” “When did you become Jewish?” “Why did you convert?” “Tell me about your journey to Judaism.” The acceptable response, that is, unless you’re gonna haul off and whack the person. Which is certainly what I would feel like doing.
I have never in my life been asked a question that challenges my identity as a Jew, or my right to be in a synagogue anywhere in the world. But any-color-but-white Jews are asked about that all the time, in just about any Jewish space. I used to think this didn’t happen at Adas Israel. I was very, very wrong.
I don’t think anyone asks these questions to be mean. Just because someone is, unknowingly to be sure, insensitive, rude and thoughtless doesn’t mean they’re mean. I believe these questions stem from curiosity when somebody sees someone walking or sitting or standing or praying or learning in our synagogue who looks different from themselves. And then sometimes they assume that person is an outsider, an “other,” someone who doesn’t belong here. And then their filter gets lost.
Think for just a moment about how any normal person might want to answer such questions. “Why are you asking me that? Is it because I’m black?” “Why are you asking me that? Does my Latino accent make you think I’m not Jewish?” “Why are you asking me that? You don’t believe Asians can be Jewish?”
When questions are based on assumptions, the askers are wrong way more often than they’re right. Look, not everyone who comes to our synagogue is white. We have some folks here who don’t look like most of the people here.
Here’s a couple of rules I’d like us all to follow: If you’re white, only ask people here questions that you would ask white, Jewish people. And if you must assume something about somebody, how about assuming they belong here? Because — guess what — they do.
And anyway, how can anyone possibly know who’s Jewish and who isn’t? “You don’t have a nose like a Jew!” a business colleague, in shock, once told me when she found out I’m Jewish.
And since I’m getting warmed up here, Jews-by-choice belong in this conversation, too. There is no hierarchy of Jews. A Jew is a Jew. By birth or by choice, it’s the same. The same! By law! Once we remember that, there’s nothing at all that needs to be asked, is there?
Now, if you should happen to forget all this, and someone responds to you with “Why are you asking me that?” it’s OK. Take a second to realize what you’ve said, apologize, smile, and then have a real conversation.
In 2019, it’s time to get comfortable with the growing diversity of our kehillah. Jews of color and Jews by choice and Jews from cultures other than North American bring perspectives our white members have likely never thought about. Many have had experiences that certainly I haven’t had — and maybe you, too — and thus bring different world views. Different priorities. Different ways of figuring things out. This diversity enriches us all. If our community is to continue to thrive, if Conservative Judaism in the United States is to thrive, we have to be totally welcoming, fully accepting, and completely non-judgmental. And we have to learn how not to ask offensive questions of people who don’t look like most of us.
Ricki Gerger is president of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, in whose March newsletter this originally appeared.