Dear Emuna: Encountering Racism

April 18, 2012

8 min read


Help! I’m a black convert who is experiencing bigotry in the Jewish community.

Dear Emuna,

I'm converting to Judaism under Orthodox guidelines and plan on moving to a Jewish community very soon. I'm also half black. I didn't really expect much racism from the Jewish community but, surprisingly, people have been saying things. Some simple (but still bigoted), like, "A black girl will never find a good Jewish husband," and among the more hurtful, "N-s shouldn't be Jewish." I'm already looking for a different area to move but I know that I will continue to encounter racism anywhere I go. My question is, how do I respond to these sorts of comments? Should I respond at all? What is the Jewish approach to racism?

-- Taken Aback

Dear Taken Aback (and Rightly So!),

Wow! Good for you. It takes a lot of courage and strength to convert and I am in awe of you and your choices.

What is the Jewish approach to racism? I’m sorry that you even have to ask such a question. It should be clear to all that racism is appalling. There is absolutely no excuse for it. It is bad character and a clear violation of the commandment to love humanity and love your fellow Jew.

That said, Jews, including observant ones, are human beings. We are, hopefully, striving to improve ourselves and get closer to God, but we have many flaws. There are those who cheat in business or spread malicious gossip and slander. The key is not to tar the whole community with the same brush and to judge each individual fairly. Rotten apples don’t spoil the whole bunch.

I cannot justify insensitive comments. There is absolutely no excuse for racism.

Secondly, you don’t want to (as the quaint expression goes) throw out the baby with the bath water. Despite how some people may behave, a life of Torah and service of the Almighty is still a meaningful and fulfilling one. Don’t let them affect your impression of the Torah itself.

I cannot justify insensitive comments and let me state again clearly: there is NO excuse for racism.

On the other hand, you may also need to guard against over-sensitivity. Perhaps the comment that “a black girl will never find…” was heard incorrectly. Maybe it was meant to prepare you for a struggle rather than as a harsh statement of bigotry. Depending on how it was said, and the exact language, it is possible that the speaker was merely trying to warn you of the challenges ahead. Finding a good husband is difficult for everyone. It is harder for a convert and even harder for someone in your particular circumstances. Right or wrong, good or bad, that is the reality and perhaps you can cope with it better once you have a clear perspective on the situation.

The real key here is that in this, as in all other areas: the Almighty runs the world. He makes the matches and he watches over His children. His is the only approval and love that you need.

I wouldn’t respond to racial slurs. Why dignify them in that way? Unless you can react like the man in the story in the Talmud who, when insulted about his looks (not that you should be insulted I hasten to add!), advised the person to “take it up with my Creator. He’s the one who made me.”

-- Emuna

Related Article: Minority within a Minority

Dear Emuna,

I am close to becoming engaged to a divorced man. As he has a young child, the ex-wife will always be in the picture, and I am having a hard time coping with that reality. Though I have no doubts that my partner has moved beyond his failed marriage emotionally and is fully committed to me, I still find myself filled with feelings of jealousy. They email and text regularly about the child, who is still young (their face to face and phone contact is extremely limited, which has proved a successful technique to reducing conflict). I don't believe he is hiding anything – he allows me to read any message and is completely forthright about their communication. But I don't know how to cope with the fact that another woman commands time and attention from him, especially one who used to be his wife.

As an older single (I'm 38), my path to finding my bashert has not been easy. I thank God every day for bringing this caring, loving, supportive man into my life, and I adore his son. If you have any advice for how I can cope with the "ex-factor,” I'd be very grateful.

-- Green with Envy

Dear Green,

As you state, “the ex-wife will always be in the picture.” Since you also state that you “adore his son,” I’m sure you understand why this must be so. I’m sure you recognize that whatever warm and loving role you will come to play in his life, he still needs his mother. That is her role in your life.

She is not going to be in your world as the ex-wife but rather as your stepson’s mother. If you can find your way to seeing her specifically in that job, I think it will ease the challenge and you may even find yourself working productively with her on behalf of the boy.

What you don’t want to do is create a dynamic where it is hard for your husband to communicate with his son’s mother. Even if he respects your wishes, he will resent you for creating any distance from his child.

Since you thank God everyday for bring this wonderful man into your life, you can also appreciate that his being a good father and maintaining an amicable relationship with his son’s mother is part of why you respect him. Your growth and happiness will be dependent on how you cope. I’m not saying it will be easy but it will be incumbent on you to rise to the occasion and ignore, even dismiss, those feelings of jealousy. The success of your marriage hinges on it.

I can almost hear you saying “It’s not fair,” but that is just not a helpful response. It is neither fair nor unfair; it just is. Let go of your negative emotions and present this “caring, supportive, loving man” who is “fully committed” to you with the smiling fiancée he deserves.

-- Emuna

Hi Emuna,

I have a question on the way you answer the questions sent to you. How you can answer them with so little information given to you. Is it that information is taken away from the original emailed questions before they're posted? If not, I don't understand how you can form such absolute conclusions in your answers.

I often have these kind of doubts when reading your column. how are you able to definitively say anything?

-- Puzzled Reader

Dear Puzzled Reader,

I share your concerns. In fact, I have even been known to rant about the irresponsibility of radio talk-show hosts who proceed to do exactly as you have described, especially when they give advice that really could have life-altering consequences.

With this in mind, I do try to be careful in framing my answers. I frequently mention that I am basing my response solely on the information presented, recognizing that I am only getting a piece of the picture.

I often encourage consultation with a therapist or other professional – someone with more experience and who will be privy to more details.

I try to limit my advice to the specific situation in the letter. Just as we are advised not to label our children (or spouses or friends) but rather to comment on the behavior only (i.e. not “You are so rude” but “That was a rude way of speaking”), so too my advice only reflects on the particular circumstance described.

This means that I also would never presume to tell someone whether or not to marry or whether or not to stay married, for example.

I don’t pretend to be the final word and prefer to think of myself as merely a sounding board for the writer’s thoughts and concerns. I try to have humility and compassion (not always easy I admit) and yet be realistic at the same time. And to simultaneously give real help to those who feel they have nowhere else to turn. I may not always be successful, but I am trying.

Finally, I always ask the Almighty to put the right words in my hand and pray that I will have a positive impact. I hope this helps allay some of your concerns and you will keep reading –and writing in!

-- Emuna

Next Steps