Justin Fair — A Seat At The Table


By Justin Fair

Roll out the good silverware, we have finally got a seat at the table! In this age of Zoom calls, red-and-blue sirens and infrared thermometers… I have found a surprising calling: validation for… being. My being Jewish and my being a person of color finally feels unquestioned, honored, seen and heard. Jump for joy; 2020, no one could have seen you coming.

Every day, there is news of illness, police abuse of force, homelessness and ‘rigging;’ so of course, now more than usual, one is called to question one’s faith. Yet, I sit with shelter, work and internet access…and am thankful. While many of those working from home have learned ‘you’re on mute’ to be their new ‘hello’, I feel like I am finally not!

This is largely thanks to my being invited to serve on The Associated’s Baltimore Partnerships Committee, which has stirred me to participate in, attend, and give feedback on several community projects. This nudge has encouraged me to join the Baltimore Jews of Color Community coalition, which has warmed my heart as finally, I can see and meet others online who share similar experiences and look like me.

I then participated inwardly with Baltimore Jewish Council’s 18 Days of Exploring Justice and found each newsletter thought-provoking and earnest. In turn, I was introduced to the excellent Amplifying Voices series at the JCC, a film series that focuses on the intersection of multiracial Jewish Identities. As for myself, I am happy to support and chair the LGBT Film Series through the JCC and Beth Am, which, is now part of the JCC Gordon Center’s upcoming Queer Arts Festival. These programs speak to me; their sponsors and their invitation to reflect should be championed.

For you see, I feel not only I, but finally, the rest of Ashkenazi American Judaism in the Baltimore area, are looking inwards to realize that if I must be ‘mixed’ then they must be ‘white.’ And that’s a good thing! Leadership boards are digesting inclusion, curiosity, respect and tokenism, as topics on the forefront of their minds. They are asking what they can change in their policies and theoretically, doing it. So too, am I feeling a quiet nudge: asking me to see myself in those leaders’ shoes in 20 years… or in one. Suddenly, my being a Person of Color is not ‘too much,’ I am instead finally… enough.

Roots

My parents, may their memories be of blessing, used to say, ‘if you plant a seed, it might sprout.’ As a Jew, we have a tradition of not being afraid to ask questions when studying Torah or reading the Talmud.

Yet it seems with skin color, people of color are questioned if we are familiar-enough—if we should ‘be there’—and if we have the guts to stick around. Halachically, race should not raise any questions and yet, by taking off rose-colored glasses, our being in the room (my wearing two hats by being of Jewish European and African ancestry)  would stick out like a sore thumb.

Today, with racial unrest finally opening eyes, in my calls, my skin color is no longer questioned, instead, my skin raises new questions. No longer do we need to pass a litmus test— instead, my presence asks: do you truly see Judaism as an inclusive culture of people who believe in the almighty, or do you only see skin color?

Since I was a child, I knew our religion was one of many colors. People would mistake me for Israeli, Semitic or middle-eastern; so I used to joke that my mother, being Ashkenazi/white, and my father, being Black, unlocked the Semite within our DNA from generations ago to the time of the first temple. Ashkenazi Jewry is now recalling that generations ago, their ancestors migrated across the Levant and, naturally, intermarried across Europe, gaining whiteness with each generation.

So too are we recalling, something in plain sight that was deemed invisible, that our religion cares not about your skin color, but about your innermost study, your spiritual rebirth, and a commitment to building traditions and accepting mitzvot. While I personally may be mixed and Black, many Jews are Latinx Jews, Asian Jews, Black Jews, the list goes on – we must see past the ‘Black-White binary’

What Story Are You Telling?

My background in urban planning and community development has folded my being a product of Baltimore with that of asking where our city and county is going. I see myself and my peoples as present; alert, awake, yet sometimes aloof. As such, I find myself fortunate to take calls and emails with leaders in the Jewish community who are interested in my voice, my story and what I have to say. Furthermore, I am particularly interested in being a bridge for those in our community that feel under-represented. There are stories by others who are not being told – who are not being represented – and it is important that moving forward we make space for them.

Can we continue to be silent? Or to whisper instead of taking action? One of the foundations of Judaism is helping the other – and it’s something I strive to do, regardless of the person’s faith, background, etc.

If you look at The Associated’s new community study conducted by Brandeis University, you’ll find that the Jewish community is evolving. With one question, ‘do you identify as a person of color,’ suddenly, we had a new narrative that was in no way new.

One last anecdote to lave you with: When I was in elementary school, I remember dancing (fabulously) through the halls, waiting for the shuttle to Beth Israel Hebrew school. There I was, a little mixed boy who, upon seeing the halls empty, secretly donned my kippah, one of those gaudy bright wedding kippot, in eager anticipation. I remember playing around and my Black, Christian teacher, Ms. Crump, lovingly yelling out ‘I see you over there with your little hat.’ She was so approving and surprised – she was telling me ‘You can be yourself – you don’t have to hide yourself.’

And I think that is what we need to think about moving forward. We have to make sure all Jewish people have the confidence to represent their values and opinions. We too are asking the right question: do you ignore people in plain sight? For those who feel like their story is not being told – who find themselves part of a discussion but not having a voice – I am here to tell you: you own your message. You own your voice, you own your skin, you own your body and you own your soul. Speak up; more Jewish leaders are listening, their eyes are open.


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The Associated is a home for everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community. We offer several email lists to help people find a community, engage with their peers and support Jewish journeys around the world.

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