Media Watch: Coverage of Rabbi Alysa Stanton

30 Jun 2009
Reprinted with permission from www.jvoices.com.

By April N. Baskin and Corinne Lightweaver

The world has descended upon Rabbi Alysa Stanton. From coast to coast and continent to continent, global media trumpet the ordination of “the first African-American female rabbi.” Whether it’s The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Jewish Week, CNN, Black Entertainment Television, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and seemingly every other Jewish and secular media outlet, all of them, by-and-large, cover the same facts:

“Alysa Stanton is the first mainstream African American female rabbi in the world. A convert to Judaism after being raised in a Pentecostal family, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College on June 6, 2009. She is the new congregational rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, North Carolina.”

That’s the whole story. That’s where most of the media stops. What interests us is what is not covered, the questions that are not asked.

America’s response to Stanton’s ordination calls for introspection and self-examination by the larger Jewish community. It is true that Alysa Stanton’s ordination is a historical moment that should be celebrated. However, disproportionate attention is paid to her gender, racial background, and path to Judaism when her work and character should receive equal coverage, if not be at the forefront. What’s more, the emphasis on her being “the first” downplays a decades-old, increasing shift in the fabric of American Jewish life.

Rabbi Stanton’s ordination did not happen in a vacuum. She is not the first person of color to become a rabbi, nor is she the first woman of color to become a rabbi. Just as Rosa Parks wasn’t the first or even the second to refuse to move to the back of the bus, Stanton is the rabbi of color who received the attention of the mass media. It is true that she IS the first African American female rabbi. Yet it needs to be acknowledged that other Jewish clergy of color who are not of African American descent have preceded her in mainstream synagogues, and more are in rabbinical school or on the way. Furthermore, Jews of color who are currently serving as presidents of congregations and working on synagogue boards are not the first to do so.

So, why aren’t the people of color who preceded her in the rabbinate getting equal press coverage? Over the course of American history, a social construct of race developed and the racial binary of white vs. black arose as those in power separated themselves from African Americans, who were—and still are—systematically oppressed. As immigrants came to the United States, they were either classified as black or assigned a non-white status. To this day, that non-white status is often applied to certain ethnic communities including Asian Americans, Latinos, and even Jews at times. Neither black nor white, depending on the situation, all of these groups are classified as the middle ground of America’s social construct of race. And while certainly all of these populations receive media attention, African Americans receive more attention, while Anglo-whiteness remains the norm and groups in the middle ground are often rendered invisible.

Even though the Jewish community is negatively affected by this power dynamic, it is not immune to this systemic habit of ignoring people who are not black, but also not white. We should be beyond the black/white binary in the United States. It seems that in the case of Stanton’s ordination, the U.S. press is gloriously pursuing shock value over critical journalism, marketing sensationalism, and emphasizing the supposed improbability of a black person, let alone a black female, becoming Jewish and a rabbi.

To move beyond this systemic polarization, it helps to know that the number of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis of color is already significant. Three prominent rabbis—among many–come to mind. Last month was the ten-year anniversary of Korean American Angela Buchdahl’s graduation from cantorial school, followed by her ordination as a rabbi in 2001. Cuban-born Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas is ordained as a rabbi and master Torah scribe. Colombian-born Rabbi Juan Mejía, who intends to work with crypto-Jews in the American Southwest, graduated this year from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

While information about rabbis of color is readily accessible, some misinformation is still being reported. Take for example a May 29 report from the Associated Press claiming that the only known black male rabbi graduated from American Jewish University (undoubtedly referring to Rabbi Gershom Sizomu of Uganda). On the contrary, there are many black male rabbis in Orthodox communities. In many of these communities, a man who studies in yeshiva for a certain period can choose to take the requisite exams to earn smicha, thereby becoming a rabbi.

There is no doubt that Alysa Stanton has broken ground and established herself as a leader. She has gained not only worldwide interest, but respect as well. Among those who know her, she is seen as a gracious and reflective person who can inspire and aspire while keeping her feet solidly on the ground. Through her studies and her compelling personality, she has become an ambassador for a group of Jews who have long been ignored. Yet, she herself says she is committed to serving all Jews.

After this initial introduction of Stanton, we hope that the media will turn its focus to issues of substance and content. Tiffany Rivka Gordon, an African American rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, says, “I’d like to hear about Alysa’s thoughts on halacha and holidays, not so much about what she is.”

Gordon also notes, “After black and female, Alysa is identified as a convert, which just speaks more to the myth that Jews of color in this country are automatically converts.” We ask, why focus on the rabbi’s conversion with no concurrent investigation of her current conceptions of spirituality, her views on Israel, or her rabbinic interpretations of contemporary halachic debates or ethical dilemmas? Not to mention, according to Jewish tradition, a Jew is not supposed to remind another of his/her conversion.

The media frenzy around Alysa Stanton’s ordination has opened the possibility of improved coverage of Jews from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but in order to be relevant, journalists must dig deeper. Fortunately, times are changing. According to Gordon, “My own personal experience is so not colored by my skin.” Instead, she says, “People genuinely want to know what my opinions are as a young Jew, not only as a Jew of color.”

As those who know Stanton well can testify, she is a spiritually inspiring rabbi who has much to give and many lessons to teach. As she states with conviction, “I believe that it is a new era for changing, strengthening and deepening our faith in humanity, regardless of one’s religious creed or spiritual practice. I believe this is a time where hope needs to be embraced with all of our might… I have committed my life to being a rabbi of the people, a rabbi of hope.”

April N. Baskin is a Schusterman Insight Fellow. Corinne Lightweaver is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

Fiesta Shalom

Images from Fiesta Shalom, a celebration of Jewish and Latino Cultures in Boyle Heights, in front of the historic Breed Street Shul on May 17, 2009. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca,  performer Richard Montoya, and many musical groups were featured.

Ashkenazi/White Jewish Privilege Checklist

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” — Peggy McIntosh

Donning tefillin. Copyright © 2008 Tamu Ngina

Donning tefillin. Copyright © 2008 Tamu Ngina

The Ashkenazi/White Jewish Privilege Checklist was developed by Corinne Lightweaver, Sasha King, and members of the Jewish Multiracial Network online discussion group, 2006–2009, to teach about the white privilege conferred upon Ashkenazi Jews by the Jewish community. It is an evolving document that builds on the work of Peggy McIntosh, the author of the widely-used Unpacking White Privilege Checklist. You are welcome to distribute the Ashkenazi/White Jewish Privilege Checklist, use it in workshops, and add to it.

Ashkenazi/White Jewish Privilege Checklist
The following statements are examples of ways in which white Ashkenazi Jews have privilege because they are white. The privileges listed below are ones that many white Ashkenazi Jews may take for granted today, but which are not available to most Jews of color in the United States.

Please check all the statements that apply to you. At the end, try to list at least two more ways you have privilege in the Jewish community based on your race or ethnicity.

___    I can walk into my temple and feel that others do not see me as outsider.
___    I can walk into my temple and feel that others do not see me as exotic.
___    I can walk into my temple and feel that my children are seen as Jews.
___    I can walk into temple with my family and not worry that they will be treated unkindly because of the color of their skin.
___    I can enjoy music at my temple that reflects the tunes, prayers, and cultural roots of my specific Jewish heritage.
___    No one at my synagogue will attempt to assign me to a ethnicity to which I  do not belong (e.g., assuming all Jews of African descent are Igbo or Ethiopian).
___    I can easily find greeting cards and books with images of Jews who look like me.
___    I can easily find Jewish books and toys for my children with images of Jews that look like them.
___    I am not singled out to speak about and as a representative of an “exotic” Jewish subgroup.
___    When I go to Jewish bookstores or restaurants, I am not seen as an outsider.
___    I find my experiences and images like mine in Jewish newspapers and magazines.
___    I do not worry about access to housing or apartments in predominately Jewish neighborhoods.
___    My rabbi never questions that I am Jewish.
___    When I tell other members of my synagogue that I feel marginalized, they are immediately and appropriately responsive.
___    There are other children at the religious school who look like my child.
___    My child’s authenticity as a Jew is never questioned by adults or children based on his/her skin color.
___    People never say to me, “But you don’t look Jewish,” either seriously or as though it was funny.
___    I do not worry about being seen or treated as a member of the janitorial staff at a synagogue or when attending a Jewish event.
___    I am never asked “how” I am Jewish at dating events or on Jewish dating websites.
___    I can arrange to be in the company of Jews of my heritage most of the time.
___    When attempting to join a synagogue or Jewish organization, I am confident that my ethnic background will not be held against me.
___    I can ask synagogues and Jewish organizations to include images and cultural traditions from my background without being seen as a nuisance.
___    I can enroll in a Jewish day school, yeshiva, and historically Jewish college and find Jewish students and professors with my racial or ethnic background.
___    People of color do not question why I am Jewish.
___    I know my racial or ethnic background will not be held against me if I  attempt to join a minyan in prayer.
___    I know my ethnic background will not be held against me in being called to read the Torah.
___    I am not discriminated against in the aliyah process as a Jew of my particular ethnicity.

Text not copyrighted. Developed for educational purposes by the Jewish Multiracial Network, 2006–2009. Please distribute and add to the checklist. For more information about the Jewish Multiracial Network, visit http://www.jewishmultiracialnetwork.org.

Bruce the Jewish Moose

This year's latest addition to Jewish children's literature is not to be missed!

This year's latest addition to Jewish children's literature is not to be missed!

What? A Hanukkah story involving antlers?

Bruce Bruce the Hanukkah Moose is not—despite what skeptics might speculate—a sanitized version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for Jewish kids. Instead it is a delightful, contemporary Jewish parable about the wish to fit in and its gratification through self-confidence and self-acceptance.

Set in an entirely Jewish world “peopled” by critters, the book is a long-awaited and welcome addition to the libraries of all Jewish families, but particularly to the bookshelves of non-traditional families and families of color whose parents are constantly confronted by the dearth of books that depict anything but pale-skinned, European-descended Jews with large, intact families and heterosexual parents. Nothing wrong with those books and the large audience for them, of course, but many Jewish children’s experiences have been left out of what’s traditionally been available.

Written by Howard and Elaine Behnken for their son Reno, Bruce Bruce emerged in response to their young son’s challenge, “Why are there so few Hanukkah songs?” Howard and Elaine said they didn’t know the answer, but they “offered to write one to make him happy and to right this great injustice.” That’s a parable in itself for all of us desperate parents who are trying to secure the appeal of our own holiday traditions for our children!

Allison Reimold's whimsical illustrations make this a winter tale all children can enjoy.

Allison Reimold's whimsical illustrations make this a winter tale all children can enjoy.

Allison Reimold’s warm illustrations bring the Behnkens’ story to life. Not too silly and not too sappy, the accessible images provide both depth and whimsy.

On the accompanying CD, Howard sings and reads the stories, and then Reno—now a fifth-grader—does the same. Reno’s exuberant and heartfelt rendition is sure to capture the imagination of young listeners and the wanna-be rock stars among them. The CD is crowned by a karaoke version of the song, making it easy to stage your own family performance at home!

And if you’re looking for Hanukkah heroes besides warriors, Bruce is your man, er, moose. His heroics are one even the youngest child can emulate:

Some heroes’ power is strength.
Some heroes’ power is mental.
Some heroes don’t know why they are heroes.
Some are just accidental.

Available from Howard’s House, the hardback book includes a CD with an audio book and three versions of the hit song, $19.99. A portion of the proceeds will go toward planting trees in Israel.
Copyright © 2008 Corinne Lightweaver. Illustration by Allison Reimold and lyrics by Howard Behnken and Jayce Murphy excerpted by permission.

Raising a New Generation

Four-year-old Niko Vest Walton savors a slice of pizza at a Purim Carnival in Culver City, California. Copyright 2008 Corinne Lightweaver.

Four-year-old Niko Vest Walton savors a slice of pizza at a Purim Carnival in Culver City, California. Credit: Corinne Lightweaver, 2008.

Something remarkable seems to be happening: Jewish philosophy is going mainstream! It is reflected in the public television character Bob the Builder™, a darling of the preschool set, and echoed in the speeches of our president elect. Those readers who are current or recent parents of three- to six-year olds may have already guessed what I’m talking about. The refrain is echoing on the lips of an increasing number of U.S. Americans. As Bob the Builder puts it, “Can we build it? Yes, we can.”

Hope is alive and growing in the United States today. Building a better future is not a new concept for Jews, nor a revival of a discarded way of life. For Jews, hope is an ever-present theme in the fabric of our daily lives and in the ancient commandment of tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

As Jews of color and allies, the work of tikkun olam is one to which we feel personally connected, particularly in the area of healing the artificial rifts among Jews. No matter what denomination of Judaism we identify with, we all worship the one Creator (or God or Shekhinah or Spirit of the Universe or Ha Shem). If we are secular Jews, we feel a bond— however tenuous—with some aspect of Jewish life, be it the land of Israel, the Jewish people (clal Yisrael), the music, the core emphasis on social justice, Jewish humor, couscous, babaghanouzh, baklava, savory cheese pies, or deli sandwiches on rye.

Nevertheless we are tired of generating that reparative energy outward, to justify our existence, our beliefs, our families, our heritages. But let us not allow the flame of hope to die out. We are in a time of great upheaval, stress, and conflict. And we are in a time of great possibility.

Though we may find ourselves living in Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, or Rhode Island—none known as great bastions of Jews of color or our allies—or though we may find ourselves the only Jews of color or allies living on our block in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C., we Jews of color and our allies are a huge contingent, a sizeable voting bloc, a vast wealth of spirit, a veritable fountain of culture and history, a community of wisdom and strength.

For now, let those of us who are wounded draw inward toward each other and the warmth of family. Some people fear this type of bonding as separatist (and thus “dangerous”). I see it as a necessary component of every civil rights movement—African American, gay and lesbian, people with disabilities, immigrants—that has made any progress in this country.

Just like there are times when we pull together with our immediate families, both biological and chosen, for support, strategy, and cheerleading before reentering the larger world, there are times when we need the camaraderie of those who share in the same obstacles, disappointments, cultural visions, and achievements as ourselves.

Undoubtedly, some people will scoff at the idea of a magazine for Jews of color and our allies. They will call it “separatist,” “unnecessary,” “unorthodox,” or maybe even “subversive.” But I believe the contingent of people who will rejoice in this magazine, find strength and entertainment in it, and use it as a springboard toward leadership in a broader community makes this venture overdue and invaluable.

Jews of color may be small in number as a community, compared to the larger Jewish community. But when has the larger Jewish community ever let its minority status keep it from excelling, discovering, creating, and leading? Living a Jewish life has never been a numbers game. Our agenda as Jews of color and allies has at its core the same essence as Judaism itself: we live our lives by striving to reach, create, and share the best of ourselves.
Copyright © 2008 Corinne Lightweaver.

The Birth of A New Jewish Magazine

A year and a half ago, I envisioned a magazine that would fill an untouched niche. I had been researching stories of Jews of color for six years. In those articles I looked for the stories of my people and myself. I looked for accounts of those whose culture and circumstances were different than mine but just as, or more, interesting. And I looked at the world to come on Earth, the world that was already here but whose story was untold.

Stacey B. Peyer, 2007.

Opera singer and cantorial soloist Jason McKinney of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with his nephew Yosef. Credit: Stacey B. Peyer, 2007.

As I amassed a collection of names and characters, I became frustrated by the stilted framework given these stories in the mainstream and Jewish media, particularly the repetitive, “clever” headlines that lost their originality after the second or third use. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen variations on the headline, “Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish.” Or how many times I’ve read the same old story angles: a sole black Jew struggles alone against terrible odds; a multiracial Jew is treated as exotic and strange based on her physical characteristics; a Korean American Jew encounters rejection at her synagogue and misunderstanding elsewhere. Few stories dug below the surface of perceived difference.

As an avid reader, literature major, journalist, and editor, I saw the same disturbing pattern that I had seen in many other articles about—and sometimes by—the many groups in the United States who have struggled since the early 19th century against oppression and toward freedom, unity, and self-worth. The focus of today’s reporting about Jews of color has also been on oppression, suffering, and isolation. But contrary to the downtrodden tone of the articles, what I found beyond the editorial perspective was a joyous and rich tapestry: the stories of hundreds—no, thousands—of Jews of color who were raising families, celebrating milestones, and making a difference in their communities. Some had achieved a degree of celebrity, but most were people who didn’t fit into the neat, mainstream pigeonholes assigned to frame all stories of Jews of color.

In this “online magazine for Jews of color and our allies,” I aim to tell the stories of scientists, artists, businesspeople, community leaders, and ordinary Jews of color living extraordinary lives. Their lives are not underground or below the radar, it’s only that few journalists are looking for them and even fewer are getting those stories published.

Twenty-five years ago, in a journalism graduate school application essay, I selected what I thought was a controversial topic: the subjectivity of journalism. I was still idealistic about unbiased journalism, and was just coming to the understanding that it was a goal toward which to strive, but not a reality that could ever be reached. At the same time, I found myself much more involved in advocacy journalism, a seductive outlet for a shy activist seeking to work toward a better world.

So, no, this magazine is not an objective news source. Instead it’s an entertainment, education, and enrichment vehicle, something I hope you will share with your family and friends. Until the rest of the world changes—and it will!—I intend it as a haven, a spot on the couch for friendly conversation among family and friends, and for those whose extended community—Jews of color and their allies—may be closer than they realize.

Today I’m ready—and I hope you are too—to launch into the world that we dream of. Our community of Jews of color and our allies may not yet be mainstream, but one day we will be. Our stories will no longer be isolated or framed by exoticism. Our colors will form an interesting quilt, but will no longer be the sole focus of our own stories. It’s not yet true in the mainstream media but on the pages of this new magazine, our time has come.
Copyright © 2008 Corinne Lightweaver.

It’s Elementary and Beyond: More Resources for Maize Day

© Corinne Lightweaver, first published December 3, 2008

The following are just a few of the many high-quality online resources available to broaden and deepen school curricula for Maize Day and Thanksgiving, and throughout the year. In addition, this article includes suggestions for “conversation starters” and ideas for Classroom Activities. For more information, see my articles Maize Day: A Holiday for All Americans and Curriculum Resources: An Annotated Bibliography for Maize Day.

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Online Resources and Organizations

STAR, Students and Teachers Advocating Respect, seeks to bring the image of Native Americans into the present and support the well being of Native children in schools. STAR offers a “tribally-approved” wish list for school libraries and classrooms and provides links to lesson plans and curricula.

STAR’s project Changing Winds Advocacy Center aims to raise public awareness of the stereotyping, discrimination, racism and other unique situations facing Native Americans through presentations, classroom sessions, curriculum, fund raising, charitable works, and multi-media efforts.

Oyate “is a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us.” Purchasing books through Oyate rather than mainstream channels is another way to support Native-owned organizations. Oyate provides book recommendations, as well as a list of books to avoid.

Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature offers a wealth of information. She also has also has a blog on Images of Indians in Children’s Books.

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Conversation Starters

Using topical articles can be helpful in starting a conversation with your students or peers. Look for timely news stories, particularly those that may be of specific or local interest to your community.

Plimoth Plantation, a bicultural museum created through extensive research on the Wampanoag People and the Colonial English community in the 1600s, provides free articles, essays, and recipes online. In addition, the Plimoth Plantation online shop is another source for books and other items.

Thanksgiving a loaded holiday for many American Indians
Melanie Conklin, Wisconsin State Journal
November 26, 2008

Remembering Two-Spirits This Thanksgiving
Reverend Irene Monroe, LA Progressive
November 24, 2008

Claremont parents clash over kindergarten Thanksgiving costumes
By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
November 25, 2008

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Classroom Activities

• Ask your students to write pros and cons lists about how and whether to celebrate Thanksgiving. Assign teams to debate the issues.

• Challenge your students to read original source materials about the First Nations and to describe the “First Thanksgiving” or another historical moment from the viewpoint of indigenous people.

• Ask your students, “What are the economic issues that keep the country invested in the ‘traditional Thanksgiving’ myths?”

• Divide each class into small student groups and have each group present one “myth and reality” to the class. For examples, see American Indians: Stereotypes & Realities by Devon A. Mihesuah (Atlanta, Georgia: Clarity Press, 1996).

• Assign research projects at the appropriate grade level to learn about local indigenous people, past and present. What did their homes look like? What did they eat? How did they dress? Where are they now? How do present-day indigenous people live in your area? Some of your students may be of Native American heritage; avoiding “us and them” language can pave the way toward all the children feeling included and help all your students to acknowledge the commonalities among people of different heritages, even within your classroom.
Copyright © 2008 Corinne Lightweaver.