by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
“Passport, name, purpose of your trip?” are ritual questions asked by customs agents. They are routine and familiar to anyone who has entered another country. However, when one thinks about “customs,” it can raise important questions about belonging and “why are you here?” is not always the most welcoming of questions. One does not, of course, need a passport to enter a synagogue, NFTY, or Jewish summer camp. But as much as we would like to think of these and other key Jewish institutions as warm and welcoming, the same questions that cause anxiety at passport control often play a key role in how culturally, ethnically and racially diverse Jews connect with the Jewish community. Although well-meaning, there are commonly a slew of questions that accompany Asian, African-American, Latino, or multiracial Jews when they enter mainstream Jewish settings.
It is ironic that at Camp Be’chol Lashon, where ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse Jews are the majority, that the “customs ritual” is part of every day of summer camp. The camp program centers around the vision of Jews as a global people. Each day we “travel” to a different country, encountering Jewish life through arts, food, dance, and song. Among the many countries we visited this year was Iran. Our trip started with a discussion of the history of Jewish life in Persia dating back to the biblical story of Esther through the modern migration to United States and Israel. Keeping in mind that for many centuries Jews lived in peace with their neighbors in Iran, we made Hamsas, a symbol for Muslims, Christians, and Jews that led to conversations about being different from and maintaining relationships with one’s neighbors. Campers also had a chance to cook a rice pilaf studded with cherries and pistachios and explore the music of Iranian American Galit Dardahshti. By the end of the day, the concept of Persian Jews was familiar to all of our campers and they had a greater appreciation of richness of Jewish life in the Middle East.
“Passport, name, purpose of your trip?” helps campers see their Jewish identities as a way to belong Jewishly in a diverse world. Travelling from country to country frame to our activities but is heavy with symbolism as well. Part of what we teach our campers is that their Jewish identities are a passport that can connect them with the broader world. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, our inclusive global vision helps create a Jewish space that encourages campers to be fully present with all aspects of their racial and ethnic selves. As an organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting the historic and contemporary ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity of the Jewish people, we know that sometimes the Jewish community can be sticklers for passports, too. When African-American, Asian, Latino, and mixed race Jews enter Jewish spaces, they are often experience the rituals of passport control, being asked to identify and explain themselves.
But all of our children, regardless of race, are increasingly aware of themselves as part of the global world. If the diversity that they see on TV or experience in school or through social media remains apart from their Jewish experiences, we risk broader marginalization and irrelevance.
To create truly inclusive and welcoming communities, the type of global learning that happens at Camp Be’chol Lashon needs to become the norm in Jewish life. Indian, Ugandan, Chinese, and Yemeni Jewish customs and history are more than just curiosities. They are keys to opening up our understanding of Judaism as a global historic and contemporary reality. They are the means by which we can contextualize the diversity that is increasingly part of modern Jewish life within the narratives of our people. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, we are teaching the campers how to answer the spoken and unspoken questions about the ways in which they belong in the Jewish community, but the burden of knowing is not theirs alone. It belongs to all of us.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder serves as rabbi-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon and editor of HUC-JIR’s Tzeh U’llimad: A Blog of Jewish Learning.