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My Experiences as a Black Orthodox Jew

June 18, 2020 | by Aliza Bracha Klein

The past several weeks have been overwhelming and heartbreaking for me.

One of my most used slogans is that “I don’t fit in a box”. And I say this as a black Jewish American who is Orthodox. I'm asked many times to share my story because people are so curious about my journey. But my story is quite long and complicated so I don’t tell it as much anymore. Nevertheless, the short version is that I wanted to live a Torah-observant life which I found immensely fulfilling. And I’m also blessed to have met my husband, Aryeh Klein, who has provided me with support and compassion every step of the way.

As a black Orthodox Jew, I've had many different experiences that make me who I am, and one of them is the experience of being a person of color. The past several weeks have been overwhelming and heartbreaking for me.

I want to first express my condolences to the family of George Floyd. No man, no matter the color of his skin, should die in that manner. It is a horrific tragedy.

I also extend my condolences to retired police officer David Dorn who was killed by looters and rioters. Another terrible tragedy. I can’t begin to tell you how deeply saddened I am about these tragic events.

As a social worker who has worked for a police department and worked side-by-side with our officers, I have respect for our police officers who risk their lives to protect citizens every day. I truly appreciate them.

Alyssa Bracha and Aryeh Klein

On the other hand, I also understand the awful experiences and challenges that black Americans – more specifically that black males – face in the United States.

George Floyd is just one of the many horrific incidents that describe what some black men face when interacting with the police. Unfortunately, there are some bad cops in the system. They need to be identified and not hidden within the police departments. I believe that police officers – black and non-black – could benefit from learning different arrest procedures and cultural competence training. Too many police officers – and average citizens for that matter – are suspicious of black males and hold racist beliefs. As the daughter of a black male, I’ve experienced this with my own eyes.

I remember when I was 15 years old, my parents and I took a cruise to Alaska where we were one of two black families on board, along with hundreds of people. We encountered a lot of stares, awkward conversations, and discomfort by others.

As we were on our land-and-sea tour during our train ride through the Yukon Territory, there was an open seat next to my father. No one wanted to sit beside him. You could see the sneers and faces of displeasure as they passed him by, judging my father just by his skin, not by his character.

In a Detroit Jewish News article, a black man shares his story about being pulled over every day at 5 AM while on his route to the gym where he was working as a trainer with a client. He asked this officer, “Why do you pull me over every morning? You know who I am. I’m the only black guy who comes over here.” The cop gave him no reply.

The outrage is understandable. It has been expressed through peaceful protests by multitudes of people, and sadly, it has also been expressed by destructive rioting

The outrage is understandable. It has been expressed through peaceful protests by multitudes of people, and sadly, it has also been expressed by destructive rioting by a wide range of people, black and white, some who just want to start trouble, some who are angry and are expressing it inappropriately, and others who have different agendas.

In 1966 while giving a speech, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about rioting. He says:

Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.

This quote is usually taken out of context by individuals who support rioting. If you knew Dr. King, you would know that he believed in peaceful protests and did not support violence. Dr. King was merely providing empathy on the issues and concerns of black America, while also highlighting the reason as to why people were rioting. He did not condone it.

Dr. King, who was a minister, spoke from many religious principles including peace, kindness, and respect for your neighbor. Just like Dr. King, my parents always taught me about kindness and respect for your neighbor. I was also taught that just because you may experience hurt, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to hurt others. My mother's story is a prime example of this.

My mom is a retired journeyman electrician for General Motors. During her time working there, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She also experienced racism and sexism on the job that exacerbated her medical condition and quickened her decline. My mom spent years in court battles over the way she was treated and never received justice. Despite the horrible mistreatment she received, she continued to have faith without being fueled by anger and hate against the world.

I believe that my parents’ strong will and ability to continue to have faith no matter what challenges they faced are some of the reasons that motivated me to seek a more observant Jewish lifestyle.

My dad often tells me that good things and blessings happen in difficult times. He’s right. Difficult times like this showed me that I have amazing family and friends that care about me and support me. Furthermore, these difficult times helped me see what obstacles I could face no matter how difficult -- especially when guided by faith.

Last but not least, we can all combat racism with the specific principles of treating people the way you would like to be treated, learning about our fellow neighbors, and treating people with respect no matter where they come from.

We can also learn to how to combat racism by:

  1. Learning about yourself and checking to see if you have any biases or prejudices
  2. Talking to someone of a different ethnicity than yours
  3. Learning about other cultures and their history
  4. Engaging in active listening
  5. Asking questions when appropriate if granted the opportunity
  6. Not assuming you know all about a particular culture by the media
  7. Understand that there are culture conflicts that exist
  8. Be an ally to those that are not able to speak up at times

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