Twice a Year is Not Enough:
A Reflection on the JOC (Jews of Color) Mishpacha Project Shabbaton

By Heather Miller

group photo from Jews of Color Shabbaton at Pearlstone

It can be really hard to be a person of color in a predominantly White space on a good day but for some reason, when that space is Jewish, it can be even more difficult. Perhaps it is because when we are in our spiritual homes, we have the expectation of emotional safety. 

There are spaces where we are supposed to leave feeling replenished, but for so many of us, there are also spaces where we have experiences that take us out of our kavanah (purpose, intent). Feeling like one has to be on guard takes away from one’s spiritual experience to the point where many of us make the devastating decision that it is easier to separate from our communities than hold our breath whenever we walk through the door. 

The emotional labor required to initiate a repair request is unfair and, with the racial demographics so skewed, seemingly impossible. Being a leader in one’s community can be even harder, because when those hurts happen, there is often little recourse. Our desire for repair can trigger the Rules of Engagement (from White Fragility) and often makes situations worse, particularly when the community hasn’t done the race consciousness work necessary to recognize the hurt and doesn’t have the tools to heal the harm. 

Being a Jew of Color

Over the past 18 years in my own community, I have had many moments where I have come close to making the decision to leave. When harm happens, it makes me wonder why I spend so much time and energy to stay. 

It is a value of mine to be an active part of my Jewish community. I didn’t want to merely be a service participant, I wanted to lead. Over the years my leadership has taken many forms. I am currently the President of the Board of my synagogue and am member of the Board of a large Jewish organization, on a committee of a legacy organization, have roles at several others and have even started my own. 

Experiences that I’ve had along the way led me to rabbinical school and I’m proud to be just a few months away from ordination. The Jewish “street cred” doesn’t protect me from those moments and, if I’m being honest, it almost feels more defeating. 

I have put decades of energy and emotional labor into my communities, but it only takes the actions of one person to make me want to shrink away.  As I write this, I find myself in one of those moments and I’m wondering whether or not it’s time to let go of the boulder I’ve been pushing up this hill. 

The Shabbaton: A Glorious Experience

It has been three months since the JOC Mishpacha Project Shabbaton and every atom in my body wishes I was counting down to being back in that space this Shabbat. It has been difficult to put into words how healing it was to be in a place where we were all able to leave our boulders in our hometowns and just be Jews together. 

There was no one to question who we were there with or explain how we were who we said we were. No one asked us if we were lost, and though many of us had met for the first time or for the first time off of a Zoom screen, we were all welcomed ‘home.’ 

Though we all came from different places in the country and held different observances, we found ways to coexist and learn from each other in beautiful ways. I had the divine revelation during Shabbat services that I finally felt what it was like to just be Jewish, and it was glorious. I wondered if that feeling was what the Jewish community at large feels like all of the time.  

Though most of our activities were rained out, the weekend brought me peace in a way that truly hugged my soul and I left Havdalah feeling spiritually full.

Returning Home

It took me three weeks to begin to feel connected to my home community again. The first week was really difficult, because I missed my JOC Mishpacha. The first Shabbat post-Shabbaton was one in which we hosted our monthly communal dinner, and the contrast was striking.  

At the Shabbaton, one of my nieces experienced Judaism in a way that she hadn’t before and left feeling like it was something she wanted to be more connected to. Our community Shabbat dinner shocked her back into the reality of what Judaism often feels like for us.

We were met by a new person to our community who felt that it was their position to be a gatekeeper and suss out who we were and why we were there.  At the Shabbaton we walked with pride, at our community dinner members of my family huddled in a corner until services were over and it was time for everyone to sit and eat. While the allyship of many of our members was in full effect, the experience took us out of our zen. My niece was no longer curious.

Recently, my 5-year-old did an activity at school about bucket fillers and bucket dippers.  Naturally, this is now how we are relating the actions of everyone in our home.

It can be really hard to be a Black Jew in predominantly White Jewish spaces. When my bucket is full, the emotional labor that is required to show up feels like an annoying nagging in my gut.  When folks act in ways (either intentionally or unintentionally) that cause emotional harm, those actions take joy out of my bucket and cause tumult in my soul.

Being at the JOC Mishpacha Project Shabbaton reminded me why I stay and the feeling I’m trying to achieve for me, my family and families like ours in my home community.

I believe wholeheartedly that all people deserve to have a place and space that not only quiets the harshness of the outside world but empowers us to fight for the justice we are pursuing.  Experiencing that from our Jewish community only twice a year is just not enough.

The JOC Shabbaton was the brainchild of Dr. Harriette Wimms. Check out her latest venture.

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