Black and Jewish Speakers Discuss Race with B’nai Israel

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Whether you’re resolving a dispute about the lawn with your neighbor or sharing ideas to end systematic oppression, “bear in mind civil, thoughtful discourse,” advised Rabbi Gerry Gilstrop at a discussion on race, religion, and community held on Zoom by B’nai Israel Congregation.

The event, which took place Sunday, June 21, featured Gilstrop and David Ben Moshe, who spoke about their experiences of being Black and Jewish. City Council President (and mayoral candidate) Brandon Scott provided an introduction.

Black and Jewish Baltimore speakers talked ashkenormativity at Bnai Israel, photo courtesy of Rabbi Etan Mintz
Black and Jewish Baltimore speakers talked race, Ashkenormativity, security, and more at Bnai Israel, photo courtesy of Rabbi Etan Mintz

B’nai Israel Rabbi Etan Mintz decided to initiate the Zoom event a few weeks ago after conversations with congregants.

“We realized we wanted to begin a series of conversations to learn and listen from one another and especially from those with first-hand experience with racism and bias,” Mintz said.

As the closest synagogue to City Hall and an anchor for downtown Baltimore Jewish life, Rabbi Etan Mintz said, they decided it would be fitting for Scott to open this event. Scott began the event by asking the more than 50 guests to be willing to examine themselves.

Then, Gilstrop, Ben Moshe, and Mintz dove into discussions.

Ben Moshe began to explain that, while B’nai Israel welcomes him, the world constantly reminds him how he is othered. “If you walk into a store, or if you have a backpack on, or when you’re pulled over … there’s a constant reminder that I am a threat,” he said.

Gilstrop, a former congregant of B’nai Israel who moved away last year, described his experiences as most defined by microaggressions. For example, he and his wife were once at a synagogue, where he was wearing a tallit. Suddenly, a woman ripped the tallit off of him and told him non-Jews don’t wear them.

Also, when Gilstrop was a child, adults would be surprised that he spoke so well. “People act as if I’m putting on airs,” he said.

Gilstrop told the JT he participated in this event partly because of how important the topic of race relations is to Baltimore, in regard to things like redlining. He also was eager to promote and engage in civil discourse.

The conversation then addressed Ashkenormativity, a term used to describe the tendency to assume that Ashkenazi culture is the default way to be Jewish.

“All of the iconic imagery which you associate with being Jewish, from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ to foods,” are examples of Ashkenormativity, Gilstrop pointed out.

Mintz agreed and brought in a reading from a multiracial rabbi with whom he’d grown up. It addressed that rabbi’s experiences with Ashkenormativity and racism in the Jewish community.

“It’s heartening to see so many Jewish people giving solidarity. But to be honest, it’s a relatively easy cause for us to support,” Mintz read. What is harder, he explained, is addressing more casual acts of racism.

Mintz emphasized that everyone should start with changing themselves.

“First and foremost, face the man in the mirror,” agreed Gilstrop.

Ben Moshe related it to body training. “Changing your body and spirit are both simple but difficult. Treating others how you want to be treated is a very easy concept. But, looking at yourself in the moment is difficult. And to do it more than once! It’s a constant process of growth. You can’t just eat a salad once months ago and expect to be healthy,” he said.

They weighed implicit bias as another challenge to that personal growth. Ben Moshe suggested a way to fix this is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Gilstrop pointed out that ideas about understanding need to be addressed in a concrete way. He suggested people consider, “What if someone did this to your mother?”

Black and Jewish Baltimore speakers talked ashkenormativity at Bnai Israel, photo screenshot by Carolyn Conte
Black and Jewish Baltimore speakers talked ashkenormativity at Bnai Israel, photo screenshot by Carolyn Conte

Ben Moshe seconded the need for tangible change. “We need to make very clear changes in policy. [One] law won’t fix institutionalized racism, so we need to take the time to see what concrete changes will make society more equal.”

Mintz ended the event with a reading about why God created different humans. In short, the answer was to promote peace and show his great artistry.

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