As I write these words I am preparing for our congregational/community journey to Haiti. By the time you read them, I, along with 11 others from Pittsburgh, will be in Haiti, providing physical exams and fluoride treatments, fitting Haitians with reading glasses and playing Frisbee and soccer with children. We will also have the opportunity to witness life in Haiti, and absorb the rich culture of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
With this week’s Torah portion as our guide, we will make our way through this extraordinary experience — one new and often overwhelming experience at a time. I imagine that our “different-ness” will be something about which we will constantly be aware. After all, we are all — by Haitian standards — privileged. Most of us are Jewish (there are barely a handful of Jews in Haiti) and all of us are white with European ancestry (95 percent of Haitians are black, with African ancestors). One of our greatest challenges will be to build bridges and real relationships with people whose lives, histories and futures are wholly different than ours.
Lessons from this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, will help us navigate through this new territory. And, while in Haiti will likely be feeling quite different in Haiti, this portion has something to teach us all about diversity. Furthermore, Yitro highlights something we often ignore: the diversity within the Jewish world.
This week we read the story of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai. According to tradition, every Jew, including those of us who would be born later — even thousands of years later — was present at Mt. Sinai. What did that group look like? Did we all look the same? It is unlikely.
The historical home of the Jews lies at the geographic crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe. As a result, Jews have always been an amalgam of many peoples and that Jewish origin includes a multitude of languages, nations, tribes and skin colors. The story of the Jewish people is filled with interracial and intercultural mixing: Joseph married an Egyptian-African. Moses married Zipporah, an Ethiopian. A “mixed multitude” left Egypt with the Hebrews. Solomon and David each took wives from Africa. Later, when Jews spread across the globe we established communities in countries as far-flung as Jamaica, Brazil, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, India and China, as well as in many countries in Europe. In our own time the Jewish community has changed through adoption, conversion and intermarriage. In a blog post entitled “Not all Jews look like Barbra Streisand,” one African-American Jewish woman noted, “… many Jews look like me.”
While it is true that there is substantial racial and ethnic diversity in the American Jewish community, the reality of non-Ashkenazi Jews in this country is often that of “other.” The author of the blog writes, “In my experience being a black Jew in an average New York synagogue means being assumed to be a child’s nanny, a member of security, or simply the help.”
Organizations like Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) and the Jewish Multicultural Network are dedicated to creating spaces for all Jews. They also provide education for Jewish communities who would like to become more aware of the diversity of Jews. I urge you to visit the websites of these organizations to
learn more (bechollashon.org and
Alden Solovy, a contemporary poet and teacher wrote this beautiful prayer. It is my prayer as I prepare for my journey. It is our prayer as we prepare to stand once again at Sinai to receive God’s word. It is our prayer as we stand side by side with every Jew, past, present and future:
Be’Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue)
We sing praises, Be’chol lashon,
In every tongue, In every voice,
In joy and sadness, With music and with love.
We seek truth, Be’chol lashon,
In every tongue, With every breath,
In study and prayer, With faith and with purpose.
We pursue justice, Be’chol lashon,
In every tongue,, In every land,
In word and deed, With strength and with courage.
We study Torah, Be’chol lashon,
In every tongue, In every generation,
In wonder and awe, With zest and with zeal.
We are one people, Present on Sinai,
Where G-d spoke, Be’chol lashon,
In every tongue, To every soul,
To every heart, The whole House of Israel.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)