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For the sin of prejudice: Growing up Jewish as a person of color

Every year on the High Holidays, police officers sit outside our synagogue to protect our community and building from harm.

I understand why the police are there. I know the risk that comes with openly celebrating Judaism. And I appreciate their presence…until all their eyes are on me, a man wearing a kippah (head covering) and a gold Star of David necklace who also happens to be a person of color.

When I arrive, the officers stop, get out of their cars, and follow me into the building. They don’t stop pursuing me until the greeter has given the officers a thumbs-up, signaling I am “safe.”

I have been attending the same synagogue in Minnseota for more than 20 years, and I have never seen this happen to anyone else. I am left to think that the only possible sign of threat is the color of my skin, as 99% of the people who walked into the shul before me are white.

I’ve belonged to Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights, MN, since my childhood. I was adopted by a white Jewish couple, and we celebrated Shabbat every week at shul. I attended the St. Paul Talmud Torah Day School from preschool through the eighth grade. Throughout, I proudly celebrated Judaism with my family and friends.

But then, something changed.

After an away game with the 7th grade Talmud Torah soccer team, I experienced the sting of being “different” for the first time.

The two teams had lined up to demonstrate good sportsmanship—each of our hands high-fiving those from the opposing team, followed by the standard, “Good game”— when one of other team’s players called out, “Good game, burnt toast.”

At that moment, I realized that I was not the same as my teammates. I was outraged, ready to fight. But when I looked around, my teammates had already walked away. I felt truly alone, and defeated.

Occasionally, kids from different synagogues and summer camps would ask me, “Are you an Ethiopian Jew?” I didn’t know how to respond. They made it seem as if that was the only way I could be both a person of color and a Jew.

Now that I am grown, those two key pieces of my identity seem to become even more mutually exclusive. No longer do I walk down the street holding on to my mother’s white hand; I am no longer afforded that privilege or protection. I am Jewish, but the world sees me as simply a person of color.

Now, whenever I see police, my blood goes cold, my legs start shaking as if everything below my kneecaps has disappeared, and I get a knot in my stomach the size of a cantaloupe.

And when I walk through the synagogue parking lot on the holiest of days and glimpse police cars through the corner of my eye, my mind races with nervous energy and “What ifs.” What if an officer stops me before I walk into the building? Will they know that I won’t have my wallet on me for immediate identification? What if the police arrest me?

What if there was no one waiting at the front door to greet me and give the officer that thumbs up?

The problem does not lie solely with the police. They have a very difficult and honorable job. I respect what they do. But how can we encourage all officers, and all people, to extend the benefit of the doubt to people of color?

Who is going to lay down the first brick to start building trust?

As Jews, we can begin by challenging our assumptions – by reminding ourselves and our children that not all Jews are white.

I have fear in my blood, but hope in my heart.

Rafael Lev is an entrepreneur and active member of the Twin Cities Jewish community, serving as a coach and mentor for Jewish youth. He also creates awareness for issues related to race, religion, and the intersection of the two, through his work as a public speaker and multimedia producer. He is a member of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights, MN.

This post was originally published on TC Jewfolk. Follow TC Jewfolk on Twitter: @tcjewfolk.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/30/2014 - 03:19 pm.

    Thank you for speaking out.

    As the adoptive father of a young man of color, I’ve watched my son experience many of the things you describe over the last 20 + years. Born in Central America, people have always tried to identify his ethnicity (most often incorrectly) and to determine his relationship to us, his parents. When with only one of us, many assume that the absent parent is of color. When with us both, some won’t accept our relationship even when we tell them he’s our son or he tells them we’re his parents. Despite the ever-widening array of families today, mixed color families simply don’t seem to sink in for some.

    He’s been stopped for DWB (driving while brown) and while riding his bicycle in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood (our’s) more often than I can recall. He’s learned to ask the reason for the stop, politely, and is most often told it’s because he doesn’t look old enough to drive or to check his age to make sure he’s not violating curfew laws. He’s 22 years old and yet it continues.

    I hope my grandchildren will fare better.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 10/01/2014 - 08:34 am.

    Profiling is an injustice that never goes away?

    When siblings don’t look alike there is a milder form of response by strangers at a party who see a tall dark younger brother and a short blond sister…”you don’t look alike” and that dumb question in their eyes like a petrified stare”

    Coming from an extended family of some racial integration one could say….I simply have said…”We share the same parents; just different womb numbers.”

    The stereotyping by skin color by cops or whomever is grossly unacceptable and when it happens there has got to be a way to change the sickness of profiling…Asian Americans must walk in fear nowadays.

    Sad to say, the capacity to love is only half as great as the capacity to hate…but Lev has hope in his heart and I honor his optimism.

  3. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 10/01/2014 - 10:38 am.

    So much…

    for the magical virtue of “tolerance” that is supposedly so prevalent in this area.

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