In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Chief Rabbi urging us to challenge racism wherever we see it, I write my story here in the hope that my words may reach someone’s heart and trigger some action.
About 20 years ago my father asked me and my then-fiance (now husband of nearly 19 years and devoted father to our three children) to go and speak with his Orthodox rabbi at the rabbi’s home.
My father was hoping that the rabbi would manage to persuade us that getting married was not a good idea. This was supposedly because my husband is not Jewish, but also, we both knew very clearly, because he is black.
It was an awkward meeting for us all. My husband and I were there simply out of duty and respect to my father and the rabbi was fulfilling his duty to a congregant.
The rabbi referred to the confusion that our children would feel growing up in a mixed marriage. He spoke about the fact that despite my not currently strongly identifying with being Jewish, the “pilot light” might flare up one day and then what would I do, how would I bring up my children Jewish, etc.
This was uncomfortable to listen to, but didn’t cause real offence and I was determined to listen with an open mind, as my father had asked me to.
He then said, explaining why he was meeting us: “I could just go to bed tonight, thinking ‘oh well, Jewish girl marries black man.’”
These words have stayed with us over 20 years. We didn’t respond at the time, but this past week since the murder of George Floyd, certain thoughts, feelings, realisations and memories have surfaced. It was these words that I then challenged him about via email on June 3.
On June 4 the Chief Rabbi spoke about the “need to challenge racism where we see it…and to look for it in our hearts too”.
Later on June 4, I received a response to my email. The rabbi’s response was tone deaf, dismissive and distancing. “Thank you for your feedback. I regret that I didn’t use more tact and sensitivity.”
Does this not just mean he realises he should have used different words? But which words would it have been better to use to express the sentiment the rabbi so clearly felt? He continued with “As it happens over the past 20 years I have…” and here followed a brief list of his encounters with mixed faith and mixed race couples and black single people. He added that he recently spoke to a rabbi of an African Jewish community, “all of whom are black”. And with this meaningless list the rabbi’s point is what exactly? This whole list is the age old example of “I can’t be racist because.....”
The rabbi’s response was utterly unsatisfactory, especially in the light of the Chief Rabbi’s speech just hours earlier. This list of the rabbi’s work with black people in no way disqualifies him as a racist.
I myself have a black husband and mixed race children and I am still constantly challenging myself and the prejudices I have towards black people and all people of colour. And believe me, it is not comfortable to do this soul searching.
Did the rabbi genuinely think he was looking in his heart? Or was he just brushing me off, thinking I wouldn’t dare retaliate because of his position in the community?
This is a charismatic man who is utterly adored by his congregation, a learned man devoted to Judaism. As a rabbi he is held up as a paragon of virtue and a man whose values we should trust and aim to emulate. This rabbi publicly repeats the Chief Rabbi’s words and asks us to have honest conversations, listen to each other and stand up to hatred.
Yet this is a man who couldn’t even bring himself to apologise, not even acknowledge or express sympathy for the hurt he caused nor the racist beliefs he showed my husband and I.
I now ask the whole Jewish community to not just pay lip service to the Chief Rabbi’s words. Stand up, challenge, speak out against discrimination towards all minorities, look in your own hearts, and I mean really look, and better yourself so that we can do our part to end injustice. Sometimes we don’t want to look because we’re scared of what we’ll find, but we have to look. Let us raise consciousness, educate ourselves and our children and not unknowingly pass down to them the racism that we may discover has been passed down to us.
The writer of this article, whose identity has been verified by the JC, wished to remain anonymous