Soul Searching

By: Elizabeth (Elisheva) Rosenzwieg  |  June 11, 2020

By Elizabeth (Elisheva) Rosenzwieg PhD LSLS Cert. AVT; Assistant Professor; Eim Bayit (Campus Mother), Beren Campus 

I wrote a quote on my door back in February, on a day when I was particularly dismayed about the state of our country and our world, and I can’t bring myself to erase it:

“Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe you must become its soul.” -Coretta Scott King

Oh, sweet, naive, February 2020 self … You have no idea. Since then, the novel coronavirus has swept around the world, the age-old virus of racism has once again reared its ugly head, and that dismay I was feeling before has turned into a permanent pit in my stomach.

What can I say?

When the editorial team at the YU Observer asked me to write an article about the current crisis, I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Student journalists have already covered so many important topics — how to be anti-racist, action steps we can take, facts about unjust policing —  what can I add to the conversation? The importance of this assignment weighed on me. If I am given a platform, what can I share that might change hearts and minds and ignite a passion for justice that can mobilize a generation? What if this is my one shot?

But then a very wise mentor helped me realize that this isn’t a one-shot-deal … and that’s the entire point. It’s a conversation. So here is my formal invitation to you:

Let’s have some uncomfortable conversations.  

Many of us (myself included) didn’t grow up with the vocabulary to discuss race, justice, and systemic inequalities. Many of us (myself included) didn’t grow up with words to label our privilege. Many of us (myself included) hold our tongues because we’re afraid to say the wrong thing.

One of the greatest challenges and honors of my adult life has been to unlearn destructive patterns of silence around issues of race and learn a new vocabulary to wrestle with these concepts. It’s taken several long, hard looks in the mirror, a deconstruction of the narrative that governed my childhood, and lots of reading and listening to voices that challenge and inspire me. Like any good conversation, it is a constantly unfolding work in progress. Mellody Hobson, CEO of Ariel Investments and a phenomenal public speaker (check out her TEDTalk), calls this the transition from “color blind” to “color brave.” Becoming brave has helped me to change from a person who didn’t have the words to someone who has learned new words and new ways of being. I don’t know it all, and I don’t always get it right, but I have the willingness to continue to learn and to keep the dialogue open.  

Reclaiming the soul of the nation is going to take some soul-searching.  

Why do so many of us publicly decry racist acts of physical violence but remain silently accepting of the pervasive casual racism in our daily interactions and conversations?  

Why are so many of our communities so profoundly inhospitable to Jews of color?  

Why do so many of our students have zero close friends who are of a different race and/or non-Jewish?  

Why do the majority of our interactions with people of color and non-Jews take place when they are in service positions?  

Why do the photos and illustrations in Jewish publications make it seem as if all Jews were/are white-presenting (spoiler alert: nobody in Tanach was white European)?  

Why do our communities and institutions continue to promote and venerate rabbis and other leaders who are on record of making despicable racist statements?  

How do many of us grapple with our dual identities as ethnically/religiously Jewish and racially white and navigate both the minority status and privilege that confers?

Will you join me in these heartbreaking, beautiful, necessary, and brave conversations? I promise you won’t regret it.