“Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive,” edited by Warren Hoffman and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022. 216 pages. $28,
The goal of this book, says editor Warren Hoffman, is to provide Jewish institutions with specific steps and actions that they can take to transform their organizations into inclusive and diverse spaces that they aspire to be.”
In reality, what this volume mostly offers are suggestions that, while fitting for Jewish “progressive” synagogues, community centers or other Jewish associations, would be considered inappropriate, or even repugnant, by many traditional Jewish groups, what this book’s editors term “legacy” institutions.
In so doing, the writers demonstrate the gap between the two wings of the Jewish people, which in some cases becomes a chasm, calling into question the idea of a “Jewish people” with common values and ideals.
There are 15 chapters in “Warm and Welcoming,” everything from “Arts and Culture Programming” and “Music” to “Disability Access and Inclusion”; from “Minyans” to “Marketing and Communications.” Some authors present ideas and information that could help many Jewish institutions — from the largest federation to the tiniest havurah.
But other chapters are minefields of controversy and division.
The author of the section on LGBTQ Jews suggests putting gay people on the institution’s web site, for example, a gay couple and their kids celebrating Chanukah, to show that LGBTQ people are an integral part of its life.
Most traditional Jews would agree that they and their synagogues should be welcoming to all Jews. But, they would continue, we believe that gay sexual relations are forbidden (“Do not lie with a male as one does with a woman; it is an abomination” Leviticus 18:22).
We accept the person, but not the behavior, the traditional Jew would say.
Jews of different stripes certainly could have much to talk about and agree on when it comes to the importance of pursuing social justice, ably discussed in an essay by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann.
But traditional Jews would part ways with other Jews — I’m not suggesting that the rabbi who wrote this essay falls into that category — who seem to equate Judaism with seeking justice. Ritual, prayer, peoplehood — these also are values that are integral to our religion and tradition. Welcoming the stranger and tikkun olam (repairing the world) are essential, but so are honoring Shabbat, fasting on Yom Kippur and eating matzah during Pesach.
Things really get sticky when the subject turns to Israel. Author Rabbi Toba Spitzer lays out two “narratives” on Israel. The “existential” version, she says, posits the Jewish state as a haven for persecuted Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict raises fears of “physical annihilation” of the Jewish people among some adherents of this narrative, she says. (I would have called this the “traditional” or “historical” narrative and added that the country was established in the Land of Israel as a place for the Jewish people to return home after their 2,000-year-long exile. Her existential narrative fails to include any reference to the historical connection of Jews to their ancient homeland, almost as if the site of the Jewish state was picked at random.)
The “justice narrative,” the rabbi writes, sees the conflict in terms of “oppressor versus oppressed” — that Israel and its supporters are the bad guys, the colonialists and racists while the oppressed Palestinians are fighting for national liberation and against racism.
She wants to create a new narrative about the humanity of all the people living in “Israel/Palestine.” When that happens, a situation will be created in which “no one needs to choose a ‘side.’ ”
Sure, many traditional Jews would respond, we should strive to right wrongs and recognize that the Palestinians have rights as well as do we. But this is not some faraway struggle about which we can be neutral. It involves the survival of our people in our homeland.
Therefore, say our hypothetical interlocutors, we will choose the Israeli “side” — not because we don’t respect the Palestinians but because we love the Jews.
I agree with author Gamal Palmer that Jewish institutions should go out of their way to make Jews of Color feel welcome and involve JOCs in the effort.
But something that Palmer wrote bothers me.
No reasonable person can deny that people of color, including Jews, have suffered from racism in this country. I also understand the frustration felt by Palmer, who is always being asked, “Are you Jewish?”
He seems to sense hostility, even racism, in the question. That may be the case in some instances. But most people asking the question are noting a very unusual phenomenon.
So, I return to the question: Are we, or can we become again, one people? Can a Jewish LGBTQ supporter and his traditional counterpart who considers homosexuality immoral coexist? Can someone who sees the resurrection of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy make common ground with those who see the Jewish state as neocolonialism?
Can someone who believes the pursuit of social justice is Judaism live in harmony with another to whom kashrut, Shabbat and the reading of Megillat Esther on Purim are also vital elements of their tradition?
I don’t know the answer to this question that could be existential for American Jewry.
Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrants’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books), is available for purchase online.