A Jewish Approach to Black History Month

Last month, I participated on a panel discussion at Adath Jeshurun Congregation about being a Jew of Color. It was the first time I publicly spoke about the struggles of reconciling my cultural identity with my religious one. Although I was extremely nervous, I was encouraged by the fact that I was not alone; I was participating with several other Jews of Color who had similar struggles and experiences. In addition, I learned that many members of our community belong to racially mixed families, by either adoption or marriage. Overall, it was a great discussion. However, I soon realized it was just the beginning.

February was right around the corner, and that meant Black History month. In my young adult years, I participated in many celebrations and events for Black History month. As a parent, I spent a lot of time educating my oldest child about her cultural roots. I wanted her to know all of who she is even if she does not present to the world as partially African-American. Her blond hair and blue eyes tend to throw people off. However, as I have gotten older and busier, I found myself not making the same kind of time for my second child. I’ve found it has become harder to make sure I replicate those same experiences for my son now that I have two children.

In fact, this month is the first time I have actually had conversations with my son about this part of his cultural heritage. I was reminded of the importance of making sure my family is exposed to all types of cultural and heritage experiences, because last week my son made his first “color” statement. Out of nowhere, he referred to a friend of his at preschool as “dark-skinned.” He has never before used color as a way of describing people. All I could think about was that my reaction was very important. He was only observing something that was obvious, but it was how I guided the conversation from there that would set the tone for his future thoughts about race.

As Rivkie Grossbaum, co-director at Chabad Minneapolis, has told me numerous times, nothing happens by accident and now I can see what she means. When my son made this comment during February, I was reminded that I need to make more time throughout the year to talk about all of his cultural roots, but that right now I can get a good start on those experiences since they are abundant.

There is some controversy about whether Black history month should exist. One side of the argument states that Black history is American history and so we don’t need a special month. Instead, we should just integrate it into the overall historical narrative that we teach in American schools. However, I agree with the other side of the argument, that Black history month is still relevant. They are special times when history that is usually marginalized is brought to the forefront. While I fully recognize that Black history is actually every American’s history, as a parent I appreciate having this month as a platform to start and continue conversations with my children. I want them to be complete in their knowledge of who they are and having Black history month helps. However, there is something new I thought about this year. Since being more reflective about being a Jew of Color and continuing to engage in Jewish study, I have come to realize what a gift we have as a people.

As a child, I grew up dreading going to synagogue and never really thought about the gift that G-d was giving us. He blessed us with a book that allows us to remember our history every week. As Jews we have a way of helping the next generation understand where they come from so that can be steadfast in where they are going. Seeing how easy it was for me to forget about Black history month in the every day hustle and bustle of life, I now realize that I want to take a more Jewish approach to teaching my children about their Black history. I will make a concentrated effort to incorporate a little at a time throughout the year. I can use February and Black History month as a way to expound on what we learned throughout the year, much like the Jewish holidays.

For more information on Black History month celebrations in the Twin Cities please visit 365 Twin Cities and Insight News.