Beyond Ambiguity: Being Biracial in a Jewish World – Kelly Whitehead, CLIP: New York 2015

Whitehead,_Kelly-_Photo_2015_9648_2015-05-25Lacey Schwartz, a Jewish filmmaker and outreach strategist, did not learn about her black identity until she was a teenager. In June, the CLIP Interns were fortunate enough to meet Lacey and discuss her accomplishments as a Jewish professional in a diverse setting. Lacey shared her story, the focus of the documentary “Little White Lie,” and I immediately felt connected. Unlike Lacey, I always knew the origins of my biracial appearance.  Growing up, I knew I did not look like the other students of my Temple’s religious school in Brooklyn, or like my friends from my Jewish sleep away camp, URJ Camp Harlam.  While Lacey constantly questioned her appearance, I usually accepted my difference as a unique quality and conversation starter.

Similar to Lacey, I began to question my identity in my teenage years. I understood that I am both black and Jewish, but I did not understand how to be a part of both communities simultaneously. Throughout high school and during my early college years, I focused on the “other” narrative. Because I was neither fully black and both of my parents weren’t Jewish, I saw myself as an outsider. I believed my identity was “mixed,” and felt I was not allowed to relate to one more than the other.

As a young Jewish professional today, my personal conflict is not the ambiguity of my identity, but rather my ability to find comfort within the Jewish community. The students of the Sunday school classes I teach are increasingly diverse, yet I continue to feel like the token black voice in a room of peers. During discussions on race related current events, I feel responsible to be the voice of an entire population.  Following the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities across the country, important conversations were held amongst Jews of my campus. Although I wrote my senior history thesis on tensions between the black community and the police in the 1960s, I felt that my opinions on current events were legitimized purely based on the color of my skin and not my knowledge on the subject.

According to the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, the number of households that contain biracial members are on the rise. A diverse community is essential to the strength and longevity of the Jewish people. In addition, future young Jewish children will grow up in a community where their role models are from unique and varied backgrounds.  I am comforted to know that the world my campers and students grow up in will be different from the single white Jewish narrative experienced by Lacey and myself.

Between Story Telling and Social Justice – Elon Schmidt-Swartz, CLIP: New York 2015

Schmidt-Swartz,_Elon_Photo_2015_1690_2015-05-26“We must fight the good fight.”

Those were the parting words from one of our final panelists at Wednesday’s seminar. At the end of a long day filled with discussions and workshops about Jewish identity, Rabbi Andy Bachman was urging our group to repair a broken world. He explained that our shared vulnerability contributes to our humanity. He emphasized that Jewish traditions of collective suffering (“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” [Ex. 23:9]) call us to action.

We began our seminar that day by listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TedTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” A Nigerian novelist, Adichie recounted stories of her childhood years in Nigeria, recalling instances in her own life in which she encountered an uncomplicated, one-dimensional narrative, or what she called the “single story.”

Adichie began with the single story of Fide, a Nigerian houseboy who serviced her family when she was a young girl. “The only thing my mother told us about [Fide] was that his family was very poor…[s]o I felt enormous pity,” she said. “All I had heard was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.” Apparently, for young Adichie, Fide’s narrative was one-dimensional.

In describing her experiences with her college roommate in the United States, Adichie recounted a time during which her own story was narrated in uncomplicated terms. “[My roommate] had felt sorry for me, even before she saw me – her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity,” she recalled. “My roommate had a single story of Africa, a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was…no possibility of feelings more complex than pity.” In much the same way young Adichie understood Fide, Adichie’s roommate understood Adichie – as an embodiment of suffering, a cause for pity.

“The single story…is not…untrue,” Adichie remarked, “but…incomplete.” In her estimation, “all of [her] stories make [her] who [she is].”

I spent a large portion of Wednesday’s seminar wondering whether Adichie’s assertion was correct. The single-story was certainly problematic, but was it “incomplete”? Would a multiplicity of stories, a series of multi-dimensional narratives, obviate Adichie’s concerns? To me, it seemed the problem was less the breadth or scope of the single story, the number or type of lived experiences it strung together into a narrative, and more the misguided idea that the narration of lived experiences could somehow explain their significance.

Any post-hoc iteration that incorporates a series of lived experiences, regardless of its content, attempts to create a coherence, a structure, a nexus of causal connections to make sense of our lives. Whether Adichie’s reformulates her experiences as mere suffering or as joy, whether her story is single-layered or multifaceted, it is, at most, a story – a narrative. Who is she to claim which lived experiences make her who she is? More importantly, how can she confidently articulate any of these lived experiences as if to explain their significance? There exists an unbridgeable gap between experience and account, between life and language, a chasm that even Adichie cannot bridge.

The problem is not that there exist too many stories to tell, or that the stories are constantly changing. The problem is the very act of story telling. Adichie claims that the single story “robs people of dignity,” but it appears that any story has a certain dehumanizing effect, an objectification rooted in the expression of the inarticulable experiences that make us human.

“Stories can break the dignity of a people,” Adichie concluded, “but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Rabbi Andy Bachman and Adichie both urged us to engage in an act of repair. But to repair, we must find the broken, and to find the broken, we must invoke the sort of pity that accompanies narratives of suffering, stories that Adichie herself so powerfully lambasted.

How do we engage in social justice without narrating stories about injustice? How do we repair when we do not know what it means to be broken?

Story telling may be inevitable, but I still wonder whether I will ever understand Adichie, or whether she will ever understand herself.

 

 

First Day Nerves – Bianca Haser, CLIP: New York 2015

Haser,_Bianca-Photo,_2015_5065_2015-05-26Looking back now to the start of my first day of work, I can only laugh at how ridiculously nervous I was. I began my first day with the expected unease of a biology major about to intern in the marketing and outreach department of a nonprofit. I imagined being completely incompetent at any of the tasks my supervisor would assign and that I would spend the entire day staring at a computer screen. In my mind, my supervisor would be very serious, only interested in work and I would be constantly in the way.

Instead the man who greeted me wore Warby Parker glasses and polka-dot socks, had a beard and immediately started talking about the concert he was at the day before. He spent the entire day getting Celia (the other CLIP intern) and me acquainted with the company and getting to know us and our individual interests and aspirations for the summer. I got to learn all about the projects they were working on as well as the fundraising processes that supports them. Most importantly, he stressed the importance of us doing real work for the company rather than menial tasks just to pass the time. From researching donors to updating social media (I may be the only 21 year old who has to learn how to use Facebook), I have been learning new things with each passing day.  The non-profit world was not something I had seriously considered as a career choice before, but getting to see the open and collaborative environment that makes my supervisor and the other employees passionate about their work has encouraged me to consider new options.

The Kind of Confinement That Sparks Conversation – Sophia Adler, CLIP: New York 2015

Adler,Sophia-Photo_2015_3616_2015-05-27I was given three choices of articles about Jewish denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. The instructions were to read the one you most identified with. If that was too complicated, then pick the one that most closely influenced your upbringing. If that was confusing, the last criteria could be the community you would choose when moving to a new place. As college students, most of us are questioning our identity and where we fit into the Jewish community. These three options felt extremely confining, and I was sure others felt the same way. In an age where there are denominations within denominations and new Jewish communities popping up left and right, it seemed limiting to be given these three choices.

Right before lunch, we were split up into groups based on the article we read. I realized that this meant every single person sitting in the room was there for a different reason. Some grew up in this denomination, some identified with this sect currently regardless if they were raised that way or not, and some would just choose this community out of comfort in a new place. What better way to discuss a denomination than to include people that have different experiences with the sect. The group talked about issues, changes, and leadership within the community. Based on an earlier conversation, we also were able to talk about the stereotypes, or single stories, that either we or other people have about the denomination (Ted Talk: The Danger of a Single Story).

As we debated and discussed, I realized that the restriction of three groupings was what allowed all of us to come together in one room to talk about these important questions. No, the people in this room would not all attend the same synagogue. We definitely do not have the same views. Yet there we all were, noticing that even if we disagree, we are all stakeholders in the Jewish future, and therefore an integral part of these conversations.

After these discussions we split for lunch. A few of us from different groups sat down and spoke about the exchanges we had in our groupings in addition to our own personal opinions on the matter. I was amazed by the respect and openness everyone exhibited, and how willing each person was to share and be a part of these important conversations. As the program continues, I hope to, as the goals state, be able to “complicate notions of identity and community previously seen as simple”.  Because only then can we really feel like part of the Jewish conversation and discover identity within the vastness that is our community.

Orientation Reflections – Yael Jakobov, CLIP: New York 2015

Jakobov_Yael_2015_PHOTO_1737_2015-05-26Walking into the Bronfman Center on June 1st, I felt unusually calm; perhaps it was the calming Jazz music in the background, or the familiarity of the classic New York bagel breakfast. After discussing our breakfast choices and debating whether sesame really has taste, we broke up into different groups and played icebreakers, including sharing our favorite smells, ranging from coffee, clean laundry, to gasoline. Finally, we got to the meaty (or dairy) part of orientation: what is CLIP? CLIP is the Collegiate Leadership Internship Program whose mission is to challenge its participants to cultivate professional and leadership skills to further their career development, while simultaneously exploring their personal and communal Jewish identity. As such, each participant has an internship placement pertaining to their chosen field where they spend four days a week, with Wednesdays reserved for seminars, and Monday night workshops to continue the discussions cut short on Wednesdays. These seminars are intended for participants to develop their leadership skills, and think critically about their Jewish identity and their future as it pertains to the Jewish community. We discussed exploring what influences have crafted who people, places and institutions are today, and challenging ourselves to explore other niches of Judaism and affirm, nuance, or change our status quo.

In relation to our discussion about leadership, we discussed Moses’s leadership: was he a born or made leader? Elon Swartz pointed out that the text states that “he was goodly,” indicating that it appears as though there was some divine inspiration in Moses’s leadership. I believe that further in the text there is a similar indication, when it states that Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses, she immediately had compassion for him. I think this further demonstrates that there was something innately special and divine about Moses; presumably Pharaoh’s daughter was indoctrinated with Pharaoh’s desire to wipe out the Hebrews, yet she felt compassionate towards him.

Moreover, Lieba Brownstein indicated that she believes everyone is given their respective “toolbox,” which contains all the tools they need to reach their potential— so too Moses had his necessary “toolbox.” This was followed by Jessica Thea’s pushback that although everyone has a respective “toolbox,” their socioeconomic predicaments could limit them from fully utilizing their “toolbox.” And, it seems as though Moses had Egyptian privilege; he grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and thus he had a step in. However, while Moses had a “step in,” I think he also had a disadvantage—he had a heavy stutter, which is not charismatic and something he expressed concerned about. Yet, Moses became the most praised and famed leader of the Hebrews. Furthermore, as Robert Adler noted, Moses was put to a test, much like Abraham’s ten tests. When Moses killed the Egyptian, he in essence denounced his Egyptian privilege, thus proving his readiness to lead the Hebrews. Even more so, I think this action portrays Moses challenging his Egyptian upbringing and affirming his belonging to the Hebrews. Perhaps he is an exemplar portrayal of CLIP—he challenged and affirmed his beliefs, something I along with my fellow CLIP interns hope to accomplish this summer.

In addition, I think Moses’s leadership and our group discussion about our respective “toolboxes” relates to the Strength Quest survey we completed and discussed with Becca Herman. If one hones their strengths and exercises them intentionally, as they would a muscle, it ensures greater success and efficiency. After completing the Strength Quest survey, we all had an idea of what our top five strengths were ranging in the areas of executing tasks, influencing people, relationship building, and strategic thinking. Some strengths include: achiever, relator, harmony, positivity, intellection, and ideation.

I think Moses had many strengths, one of which I believe was his likability, evidenced by his mother’s description of him as “goodly” and Pharaoh’s daughter’s compassion to him. Moses also embodied the ability to garner empathy towards others, first evidenced by killing the Egyptians who tortured his “fellow brethren”—the Hebrews—and then by saving the daughters of the priest of Midian from the bullying shepherds. Moreover, the text does inform us of Moses’s weakness—his stutter—which he was aware of and concerned about. Yet, Moses managed to succeed albeit. I believe that like Moses, we need to be aware of our weaknesses, but in the same token, we need to discover our strengths and exercise them, as Moses did. Thus, I hope to uncover my inner Moses this summer; both in my placement at Bank Leumi USA and through the CLIP seminars and workshops.

 

Orientation Reflections – Nicole Katav, CLIP: New York 2015

Katav, Nicole-_Photo_2015_The three-day orientation for CLIP was a lot more stimulating and productive than I had imaged. Already, I know this summer will not only give me interning experience through my placements, but also a network that I will carry on well into my future. Additionally, thanks to insight we received from CLIP alums, I look forward to building personal and fruitful relationships with my fellow participants. One alumni said, “I found my best friends at CLIP.” I would have never thought that I would build genuine friendships during the CLIP program, but already I feel relationships growing. After our last day of orientation a few of us went to the movies and Shabbat lunch plans were even made and extended to everyone in the group. We are not only creating a professional network through CLIP, we are also building lifelong friendships. However, this growth would not have been possible without the guidance and welcoming nature of our leaders, Jay and Gabriel; they provide a comfortable environment as well as encourage us to share our opinions regarding the structure of the program and the activities we will be taking part in.  Without their quirky yet humorous remarks and attitude I would not have had the same orientation experience.  My suggestion for all new coming CLIP members would be come ready to learn, grow, and meet some amazing people along the way. 

Prescient Optimism – Shanie Reichman, CLIP: New York 2015

Reichman,_Shanie_-_Photo,_2015_1118_2015-05-27The word “orientation” conjures images of endless hours of note-taking, memorizing mission statements and attempting to have your voice heard among a room full of people just as qualified as you are. This was not my experience at CLIP orientation. I played a minimum of 10 “icebreakers”, the result of which is evident by how swiftly I can recall everyone’s names. I schmoozed with people twice my age. And though I won’t pretend that we’ve delved deeply into topics of pluralism and Jewish identity, just yet, I’m certain they will begin shortly. We’ve begun to scratch the surface of our understanding of one another, and are quickly growing closer. If I had to guess what my last blog post would say, at the end of the summer, it will likely include an anecdote describing my initial discomfort when I entered Bronfman Center for the first time, last week. Then it would be about the friendships I formed, the challenges I encountered and the experiences I will never forget. And for the record, I’m not an optimist, just someone who can tell when good things are coming.

Day One on the Job: The Commute – Adiel Schmidt, CLIP: New York 2015

Schmidt,_Adiel_-_Photo_2015_2895_2015-05-25It’s the night before day one of my first “big girl” internship and I’m tossing and turning in bed, even though I made a concerted effort to get to bed before midnight. It’s too hot. No, it’s too cold. I wake up in a cold sweat every hour in a state of paranoia, thinking I’ve overslept my alarm clock, even though I checked five or six times to ensure it was set to 7:30am instead of 7:30pm. Finally, it’s 7:29am and it’s acceptable for me to get up and get ready.

I picked out my first-day outfit the night before, but as I put it on, I doubt myself. The first day outfit makes a statement, will my supervisor like it? What, really is business casual? Everyone’s so trendy these days and there’s a fine line between fashionable and appropriate for work. I hurry to pack the lunch I prepared for myself the night before in attempt to be healthy this summer. Will people judge me for what I eat? What if no one brings lunches? I’m trying to make money this summer, not lose it! Finally, I get everything together and leave the house a nice five minutes later than anticipated.

I get to the subway and of course it’s crowded, and I can feel and smell everyone’s collective sweat, which simultaneously grosses me out and makes me more nervous. I keep my eye on the subway clock, nervously checking every other second to make sure I’m still running on time. I’m cutting it really close. I’m a punctual person, but they might not know that and judge me.

It’s Times Square and half the subway car gets off the train. I loop my way through the maze of people left and steal a seat, keeping my eye on the clock. What if I don’t make it on time? I can hear my heart beating, and I try to take deep breaths to calm myself. The one tidbit of advice my supervisor gave me when we met was to not get nervous. I exemplify traits of a type-A personality, and the sheer thought of being late on the first day makes my heart continue to pound, despite this perfectly sound advice. Easier said than done.

Finally, the train comes to a stop at Wall Street, and I have ten minutes to go. Though not a tourist to New York City, I unabashedly check my phone for the walking path from the subway to my new office. Google Maps tells me it will be a six minute walk.

As I stare at my phone for a second too long, a man comes up to me looking like he’s going to ask if I need help. I am a New Yorker, and I most definitely do not need help finding my way. I turn away from him and start speed walking. Amidst the throngs of business-suit clad workers, and the clicks of heels, I feel, for once, like I am a professional. I’ve made it to the big leagues, and I’m working on Wall Street. I check my phone for the time, and my temporary illusion of greatness diminishes as I practically sprint to get to the building on time. I make it with five minutes to spare and change into my workday shoes.

I’ve made it. Now it’s time for my day to begin.

Not Collecting Dust: A CLIP Approach to Poetry and Identity – Moshe Esquenazi, CLIP: New York 2014

Esquenazi_Moshe_Photo_2014I’m sitting in British Literature II class ,a few days after the semester starts. It’s a survey course, and we’ve been reading through some dense poetry. CLIP and the summer seem like a distant memory amongst the flurry of lectures, tests, and papers. Suddenly, the professor goes on a detour about how a mentality of “it is what it is” just doesn’t work for poetry. He espoused a sort of poetic thought where metaphor, and the ability to interpret a piece of writing, is part of the revolutionary nature of poems. Obviously, this had me thinking back to CLIP and  the idea rooted in the Ted talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, who said that  people are multifaceted and can’t be encompassed by a single set of character traits. Adichi called this characterization “single stories.” An interesting phenomenon over the summer occurred while we grappled with unity and diversity. That is, the noun single story, was transformed into a verb. Through the term “single storied” it suddenly became an action. Our study of diversity lead to the realization that issues of inclusion and acceptance are not just “stories” which exist, but are indeed stories which are written and perpetuated by human beings. Even the concept of single stories suddenly became something more than just the original  idea of a story. In this sense, our awareness of stereotypes opened us up to new modes of interpretation in regards to the plurality of our religion.

While in CLIP we related these ideas to people or groups of people, back in the classroom, the professor related these ideas to literature. When William Blake in “Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire Rousseau” said, “You throw the sand against the wind, and the wind blows it back again; And every sand becomes a Gem Reflected in the beams divine,” he was emphasizing the transformative nature of poetry as well as human cognition. It emphasizes a world where concepts, words, and images such as sand, can be thrown to the air, and transformed into gems, or reinterpreted, with a new understanding.

Blake however seems to say that with a single story, it is only sand, but when the act of interpretation is taken into account, the sand can be like gems, which in the second stanza Blake says shine in the path of Israel. The image of sand being changed to gems, and then illuminating the path of the Jewish people, is connected to redemption. Towards the end of the poem Blake states that particles of light, or atoms “are sands upon the Red sea shore, where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.” Here he infuses the simple notion of sand, with a sense of light and redemption, by the site of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. Ultimately, in Blake’s poem, there seems to be a strong correlation between redemption and the ability to reinterpret that which is thrown “against the wind.”

In CLIP this was particularly poignant, whether we were discussing the situation in Israel, or diversity within the Jewish community, it was clear that the medley of opinions and people from different campuses and backgrounds, formed a national identity (in the sense of Jewish peoplehood) that encompasses more than, as the popular song by Kansas goes “Dust in the Wind.” I don’t plan to collect dust in jars and expect it to turn into gems, but the poem and the program both strengthen the notion that, as intellects and individuals, we do not need to settle for the stereotypes or stories sometimes propagated by society. We can go from a place where “it is what it is” turns to “what is it?” or even “who is it?” and from there, the real work of fixing the world, and accepting the full plurality of our communities can continue.

After CLIP I Went To Prison – Jared Ebrahimoff, CLIP: New York 2014

JaredI spent this past Yom Kippur in prison. I didn’t take the traditional route to prison through the criminal justice system; I took an RV with 5 other guys. For the past few years Maryland Hillel has partnered up with the Aleph Institute to send students to different prisons across the country to lead a meaningful Yom Kippur experience.  This year 40 students went to seven or eight federal prisons in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and even Connecticut.

This was not your typical Yom Kippur service with uncomfortable chairs, constantly changing from sitting to standing, or hitting yourself in the chest G-d knows how many times.  There was a lot of planning into what our service would look like.  Did we want to say certain prayers? Did we want to avoid any? Who will lead what? During the planning we were constantly warned that even though having a plan is important and necessary, we would never follow it. The conversation would just flow, and if at some point there is an awkward silence we would have something to fall back on.

Friday afternoon my group went to go pick up the RV we would be sleeping in. Food and material were provided and our three-hour trip began. When we got to Cumberland Federal Prison Camp I was shocked, there was no fence or perimeter around the facility; just two guards and a chaplain on staff. This was not the typical prison you see on TV or in the movies. We met with the chaplain, set up camp, ate dinner, and prepared for Yom Kippur that would be like no other.

We get to the camp and one of the Jewish prisoners greeted us and brought us to the chapel were the rest of the prisoners wanting a Yom Kippur service were waiting. We started with introductions and just hanging out and then went into services.   The group of Jewish prisoners present was very diverse and pluralistic, kind of like CLIP minus the required business casual.

Services were mostly discussion based. My group did all of Kabbalat Shabbat, Ma’ariv, the Torah reading, Avinu Malkeinu, and Aleinu.. Discussions ranged from speaking about the prisoners’ experiences, their connection to Judaism, what Yom Kippur meant to them, or event specific prayers.  During the break in the afternoon we were given the opportunity to go to the medium-security prison down the road for an hour to meet with the three Jewish inmates there. This was your typical prison with fences, barbed wire, metal detectors, etc.

During this whole experience I became close with the inmates as well as the members from my group.  Conversations became really deep, really fast. This experience taught me that the Jewish bond, no matter what, is never broken. The deepest moment for me of the experience was towards the end of breakfast. The inmates were inviting us back for other holidays and during the goodbyes they told us that we are like family to them, and were really appreciative that we went out of our way to share this experience with them. This is absolutely an experience I would recommend to everyone, even if you go on a different holiday. This Yom Kippur was undeniably the most meaningful one I have had to date.