Nearly 150 women gathered last Monday – via Zoom – to hear two people speak about their experiences as black Orthodox Jewish women. The event was organized by Ker A Velt.
“Sharing your experience with us is an act of ahavas Israel – an act of love,” Shoshana Greenwald, an educator and the moderator of the event, said during the session addressing the two panelists. “Doing it at this time, during the Three Weeks, when we know the sin of baseless hatred is very powerful.”
“I’m a black woman and a Jewish woman and that’s who I am,” panelist Maayan Zik said. “I never really think of it as a separate thing. I am both at once; I have to deal with that constantly.”
“We are here having this conversation simply to raise awareness about an issue that affects so many people at large,” Yaffy Newman, the other panelist, said. “Jews who have skin tones and features like me and Maayan.”
Zik and Newman’s backgrounds are diverse – as are those of many in the black Jewish community – and filled with memories of joy, but also pain and challenge. Newman was born and raised in an Orthodox family in South Florida and now lives with her husband in Israel.
She says she encountered racism for the first time when she was very young, playing with other Jewish children. One day a parent came up to Newman and a playmate and grabbed their child away. “Don’t play with schvartzes; they’re dirty,” the parent said. Newman says she remembers looking at her arms and hands, being confused and thinking, “We were playing…. Perhaps I have [something] on my face.”
Zik is a convert and married to an Israeli. They live in Crown Heights and have four bi-racial children. “Most Jewish kids don’t have to [think] about how white they are, but my kids at the age of three are already concerned with what their skin color is. It shouldn’t be put in their face.”
Newman says racial insensitivity is not always in your face; sometimes, it’s more subtle. More than once she has encountered uncomfortable moments, such as having her identity questioned in front of others during a Shabbos dinner invite.
Zik remembers an early encounter at a shul she visited when she was looking for a place to call home. Zik says she was run off and told not to return. Months later, and with some reservation, she was encouraged by her Jewish friends while she was attending seminary, to revisit the shul. The same women who ran her off the first time were there and challenged her again. This time, her Jewish friends stood up for her and insisted she had every right to be there as any other Jew.
Zik’s challengers backed down. She says it’s important for Jews who know better to stand up for black Jews when they are being mistreated, inside and outside the community. “Due to my white Jewish friends, I was able to gain acceptance in the Jewish community. They vouched for me and gave me credibility.”
After the session, Maayan Zik, Yaffy Newman, and Shoshana Greenwald shared further thoughts with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: Mrs. Newman, when the parent called you a “dirty schvartze” when you were a child playing with the other kids, what did your parents say or do to help you understand what happened?
Newman: They were as honest as they could be – whether that meant watering it down or saying it in a nicer way – but they didn’t believe in lying to me just because I was younger. So on the drive home they explained to me that some people have problems with the way other people look. They said it’s no reflection on me and who I am.
Mrs. Zik, you said in the session “a child isn’t birthed into the world with racist views.” What should the parents of white Jewish children be teaching their children at an early age to make sure they don’t become bullies at school?
Zik: Parents should teach their children with their own actions. Children watch and listen and learn from the speech and actions of their parents. Parents need to be mindful of how they rant and rave about others [in front of their children].
Please give your top list of things a person should or should not ask, say, or do when hosting or meeting a Jew of color for the first time.
Zik: 1) If you’re going to meet a Jew of color, you should not repeatedly ask them where they’re “really from” as if you don’t believe anything they’re saying.
2) Never say “Can I help you?” in a tone that means “What on earth are you doing here? How can I help you to get out of here as fast as possible?”
3) Don’t generalize: It’s simply not true that black Jews only exist in a state of conversion; they exist as born Jews as well.
4) If a question isn’t coming from a place of love or good intentions, then maybe don’t ask it.
5) Don’t talk about shvartzes or goys at the dinner table. Be generally respectful to everyone – Jew or non-Jew.
Mrs. Zik, you are a founder of the group Ker A Velt. How did it get started and what is its mission?
Ker A Velt means “turn the world over.” We hope to bridge the diversity within Crown Heights and beyond. We started on Facebook but moved to WhatsApp. With protests all over the nation and discussions about racism and police brutality, we decided to plan our own protest called “Tahaluca for Social Justice” for the Jewish community to feel safe and comfortable to march and show solidarity.
[Today] we are looking to collaborate with other organizations across the community and work together for bringing peace and justice for everyone.
The Black Lives Matter movement is controversial in the Orthodox Jewish world because of its stated anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views. How does a Jew show support for black Jews (and black Americans) without necessarily endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement if they are uncomfortable with it?
Shoshana Greenwald: It seems that more frum people are open to [dealing with this issue], although way too many still are not, and use excuses like “Black Lives Matter is anti-Semitic.” My answer to that is:
1) “Black lives matter” is an affirmative statement that should not be political or controversial at all, and
2) Support the movement without supporting the organization. Support black Jewish people. It is absolutely a Torah value to be welcoming and kind. If we are not aware of the harm we are causing [even if unintentional], we can never make it better, so we need to listen and learn and act.