On Being Anti-Racist in an Orthodox World

By: Molly Meisels  |  June 7, 2020

By Molly Meisels, Former Editor in Chief

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” – Deuteronomy 16:20

The first Black person I ever spoke with was my family’s U.P.S. delivery man. I did not have a full conversation with a Black non-service individual until I was in college. As a child, I saw the occasional Black person strolling down my all-white, all-Hasidic street. Usually it was a Black child heading home from middle or high school. My starkest memories of race stem from moments of spotting Black children with backpacks walking through my white neighborhood. Those around me, usually other white, Hasidic children, would run into an alley, fearfully whispering the Yiddish slur for Black people. I remember staying put on the sidewalk, wondering why my neighbors were so afraid of this child, not much older than I was. He was just walking. I did not know much about race at the time, but I knew I was supposed to be afraid of this child. I knew that this boy’s crime was walking while Black. 

I have never excused the racism which infects the Hasidic community, and I’ve spent much of my life fighting it. Yes, while I can exaggerate and say “most Hasidic people are not racist,” it would be far from the truth. There are many non-racists and a handful of anti-racists, but racism runs deep in the community. I could excuse it as a response to Holocaust trauma. I could assert that the Hasidic community is terrified of non-Hasidic, non-white people because it stirs genocidal memories. But I won’t do that. It would be unfair to the pursuit of justice. 

As a teenager I’d exhaust myself, banging my head against a brick wall of bigotry, trying to assert that Black people are not inferior, that they are not cursed, that they are just as worthy of life as white, Hasidic Jews. After all, there were Black Jews within our community. Antisemitic narratives are dominating forces in Hasidic daily life and theology. But even with this trauma, it is difficult for them to comprehend racial equality. It is difficult for many to admit that Black people suffer, that they are more than walking crimes. Even though Hasidic people suffer from antisemitic abuse, they still choose to stereotype racial minorities as others stereotype them. 

This racism is part of why I left the Hasidic community. The slurs, the nauseating primate analogies, and the overwhelming fear of a non-existent Black threat made it impossible for me to remain Hasidic with a good conscience. Too many people in my life casually stated, “Not all Black people are bad, but most are.” I love Judaism, but I could not love Jewish racism. 

The Orthodox and Modern Orthodox communities are not much better. Sure, they are more covertly racist, shrouding their bigotry in a veneer of community, but they are racist nonetheless. Not all Orthodox people are racist. I would say that many are not. It is not about individual belief, but about institutional philosophy. Systemic racism runs deep in America and it runs deep in Orthodox communities. The very foundations of Orthodoxy must be shaken for racial equality to be assured. While that is an uncomfortable thought for Orthodox Jewry, it is a necessary one. Sometimes what is right is not what is hashkafically (culturally or traditionally) permissible. Sometimes what is right can change the fabric of our communities as we know it. Yeshiva University is a prime example of the necessary changes Orthodoxy must undertake to be non-racist and eventually anti-racist. 

While President Berman sent an email to the student body on June 5, calling for solidarity with Black Americans, Cardozo students say he only did so after being prodded by Black community members. President Berman did not publish this statement on social media. A few days earlier President Berman released a public statement saying, “I was disturbed and sickened by the horrific murder of George Floyd.” Nowhere in his statement did he mention race. Nowhere in his statement did he mention that Black lives matter. Nowhere in his statement did he mention police brutality. 

This fear of taking a stand in support of Black Americans is toxic. Yeshiva University is a mostly white institution. Much of its undergraduate population lives in a bubble and many students were not taught about race in high school and do not learn about race in college. An undergraduate professor shared with me that it is difficult enough to teach about other religions in the classroom, let alone non-white races. The professor believes that Yeshiva University educators should incorporate racial justice into their curricula, but is uncertain if an institution like ours could stomach it. Many YU students care about issues which directly impact them and nothing beyond that. Israel and antisemitism are the issues which they dedicate all their resources to engaging with, yet they fail to engage with issues which impact any individual who is not a white, straight, cisgender Modern Orthodox Jew. When some do engage, Jewish supremacism emerges. 

At 2019’s AIPAC Conference, an undergraduate student asked me to explain why Jews could overcome antisemitism and oppression to be successful, while Black people could not. He followed this question with a racist soliloquy on the state of Black communities, failing to comprehend systemic racism, police brutality, and the glaring fact that there are Black Jews in our community. How was I to teach this adult twelve years’ worth of racial equity education in two minutes? Why did his Jewish day school fail to educate him on the truths of racial inequalities? Why did his Jewish day school succeed in educating him on the falsities of Jewish supremacy? I was anti-racist in that moment, attempting to argue against his white supremacist views. Even if my argument made a dent, it did not upturn two decades of bred racism. This is one example. Unfortunately I have dozens more. 

I have spent most of my life in Orthodox communities. I have spent most of my life arguing for the dignity of minorities in those communities. I’ve always felt like it is my duty as a white Jewish woman with white privilege to be anti-racist when racism arises in the mostly white communities I find myself in. But how can a handful of us fight systemic racism in the Orthodox community when the system consumes us? How can I stand by the Orthodox community when articles like “The Black Problem” by The Jewish Times circulate? How can I stand by the Orthodox community when I am faced with daily racist sentiments, ranging from slurs to declarations that white Jews are the Chosen People? What does it say about Orthodoxy that Halachic Egalitarian, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis and groups stand staunchly with the Black community and against racism, while many Orthodox groups stay silent or declare supremacy? What does it say about Orthodoxy that Yeshiva University only has a handful of rabbis who consider themselves progressive? 

Judaism is a rich, justice-laden religion with potential for activism and equality. Many denominations have recognized that potential. Organizations like T’ruah stand on the forefront of racial justice. Lone Orthodox organizations like Uri L’Tzedek do the same. 

My plea to Orthodoxy: now is your chance to prove you can be anti-racist. Now is your chance to prove that you can uproot racism, plant justice, and grow a stronger egalitarian connection. Support Black Lives Matter — not everything is about politics surrounding the State of Israel. Support ending police brutality — not everything is about maintaining ties to those who claim to protect us. Support protests, rallies, and rage — there will come a time when we will need that support reciprocated. And even if we don’t, sometimes righteousness comes without reward.