In light of recent events, I have been deeply contemplating racism, privilege and prejudice and how it manifests in so many facets of my life.
As a Chinese-American Jew, my identity within each of these communities — specifically within the Jewish community — has always been challenged. I am perceived as a threat or an outsider because I do not conform to the predominately white-passing, Ashkenazi appearance that seems to be expected.
Besides some ignorant comments regarding my citizenship, or inquiries to hire me as a maid or housekeeper, my congregation supports me and does not use my race to invalidate my Judaism. But the police who guard the doors operate under the assumption that because of my race, I have no legitimate reason to be at the synagogue, and that I must be a threat.
Given my experience, and the renewed public demand for police reforms, I wondered if there is a better way to protect our congregants regardless of their skin tone. I went to Facebook and posed my question to a group intended for college-age Jews from all around the world and received an overwhelming amount of comments and messages.
As a rising junior at the University of Southern California currently residing in my hometown back in Massachusetts, this Facebook group, called Zoom University Hillel, provides me and other Jewish college students with an online Hillel community. It is a place to share our thoughts, reminisce and discuss what it means to be a young Jewish adult — despite Covid-19 sending us all home from campus and into isolation.
I got suggestions such as creating congregation-led task forces to lead racial-sensitivity training programs specifically for police officers to identify and address misconceptions about the Jewish population in order to more effectively serve. Others suggested private security and armed congregant volunteers guarding Jewish institutions instead of police officers, among other forms of security like metal detectors or bag inspections.
I was impressed by the rapid response, yet there were still some people who were apathetic about the way law enforcement treats people of color. While these people may be indifferent to the difference between a uniformed police officer and a private guard, for people of color, the uniform alone can incite feelings of fear or betrayal.
When my synagogue first began hiring local police to guard the doors, I was impressed by the proactive security measures. But little did I know that I would be considered the threat. Almost every time police are guarding the doors, I am singled out, questioned and questioned some more while several congregants walk past me with no problem.
Regardless of my response to the police, for some reason, they never believe me, and I find myself grasping at straws, trying to use my day school education to prove my Jewishness. Once, when the officer did not accept my response that I had come to services to read Megillat Esther,
I began to recite its third chapter. I got through three-and-a-half verses before finally being allowed entrance (even with pauses after each verse to see whether the officer was satisfied enough to let me enter).
I feel betrayed when the congregation that has basically raised me sees no issue with questioning congregants’ motives solely based on the color of their skin. But it’s important to note that those feelings of pain and betrayal run deeper for other people of color — specifically, Black Jews. When temple leadership continues to support policing — an institution that has targeted people by race since its inception — it gives the impression that institutionalized racism and police brutality can be overlooked when considering the safety of their white members.
As I received more and more responses to my Facebook post, it became clear that there is no perfect, or even good, solution — after all, we wouldn’t even need synagogue security if it weren’t for anti-Semitism.
Some suggestions, such as congregants of color entering with a white member to help de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, are ways to offer physical protection. But they don’t address the psychological trauma.
I am also sensitive to synagogues’ budgets and financial constraints; not every congregation can opt for private security or splurge on state-of-the-art security cameras.
But while I strongly believe that protecting our congregation is of the utmost importance, and police presence is a “necessary evil,” that does not mean synagogues can continue to preach inclusiveness without at least considering how their current operations impact the physical and mental well-being of the Jews of Color in their congregation.
It is up to the entire Jewish community to ensure that we do not turn our backs on Jews of Color because it is uncomfortable to think about or there are fewer JoC than white Jews. Having a safe space to pray and respecting our fellow Jews of all skin colors is not, and never should be, mutually exclusive.
Emma Nesson is a rising junior at the University of Southern California.
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