“Identity politics” can sound like an ugly phrase–indeed, the concept is often misused to maintain a status quo at the exclusion of others. But understanding and exploring identity is crucial to building community, strengthening allyship, and understanding ourselves. Change is only possible when we work together, and when we recognize that our own liberation is bound up in the liberation of those around us.
Change is only possible when we work together, and when we recognize that our own liberation is bound up in the liberation of those around us.
The importance of this idea is what drew me to become involved with CONNECT, a grassroots dialogue initiative founded in 2012 as an intra-Jewish dialogue initiative. CONNECT convenes cohorts of young professionals in the DC area seeking a space to dig into challenging community issues together. Through the support of Moishe House and local Jewish organizations, we broadened the scope of this year’s cohort to include a more diverse group of people and experiences, centered around the topic of visible and invisible identity.
We were halfway through this year’s six-month cohort when I heard about a JOFA Shabbaton for young women called “Finding the “I” in Identity,” and I knew I had to attend. The Shabbaton promised to explore “how those of us who were raised or now identify as Orthodox have grappled with sometimes conflicting ideologies and how we juggle those identities in order to find our place in the Jewish community.” While I no longer identify with the label of orthodoxy, I was grateful the retreat welcomed people who (like me) grew up in the Orthodox community. I am still an observant Jew in practice, and my communities in DC are non-denominational independent minyanim without rabbis or specific affiliations.
One question on the retreat application–”Does your identity as a woman affect your relationship with Orthodoxy?”–brought up old feelings of frustration and resentment. The modern Orthodox shul I grew up in has come a long way since I became a bat mitzvah, but there remains a gap in Orthodox Judaism between what women are capable and what they are permitted to do. Although I no longer consider myself a member of the Orthodox community, it is precisely because Orthodoxy shaped so much of my identity as a Jew, as a woman, and even as a feminist, that I feel compelled to believe change and progress in that community is possible. The conflict between who is actually in our community, and who holds the power in that community, is a crucial nexus where change work can begin.
The conflict between who is actually in our community, and who holds the power in that community, is a crucial nexus where change work can begin.
I was grateful to have the opportunity to apply some of the principles of dialogue work that we use in CONNECT in a peer-led session on the JOFA Shabbaton. I worked collaboratively with Rivka Cohen, the Program Manager from JOFA who planned the retreat, to adapt an embodied activity about identity and allyship. On Shabbat afternoon, we gathered in the room where we had planned and led davening; I set up signs around the room with different identity markers, including race, ability/disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and others. Participants were asked to move to a particular marker in response to different prompts I read out:
The part of my identity that I am the least aware of on a daily basis is…
The part of my identity that was most emphasized or important in my family growing up was..
The part of my identity that I believe is the most misunderstood by others is…
As the women moved around the room, I was struck not for the first time on the Shabbaton by how many diverse identities were represented. Even among the seemingly narrow category of Orthodox women there were women of color, Jews by choice, and queer folks.
Even among the seemingly narrow category of Orthodox women there were women of color, Jews by choice, and queer folks
When I later shared my reaction with Daphne Lazar-Price, the executive director of JOFA, she gently reminded me that “the Orthodox community is not a monolith.” When we recognize the unique identities that comprise our community, we can then create space for that community to change and defy our expectations.
Throughout the Shabbaton, we kept returning to the idea of “Orthodox and” rather than “Orthodox but.” People shared stories of pain and exclusion, but also of being welcomed and embraced in unexpected spaces.
People shared stories of pain and exclusion, but also of being welcomed and embraced in unexpected spaces.
This idea of abundance is possible in all kinds of Jewish spaces. In The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: making resistance to anti-semitism part of all of our movements, April Rosenblum writes:
“Jewish oppression affects all Jews, in all economic classes, and our oppression cannot be ended without fighting and transforming social injustice as a whole…we are a reserve of revolutionary potential — in all classes, at all times.”
When we recognize that our kehila includes multiple identities and experiences, we are better positioned to understand and learn from each other, and embrace the richness each of us adds to our community.
Becca Tanen serves on the leadership team of the CONNECT dialogue initiative; learn more at www.minyanofthinkers.com. She lives in Washington, DC, where she works as a librarian in the U.S. Copyright Office.
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