Recently, I was featured in an article in The Forward about the Black Jews of Minnesota. The issue was how we’re doing since the horrific death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police woke up America to 400 years of racial oppression.
Mindful that the young writer’s line of questioning might also lean toward woe-is-me tales of Jews of Color suffering rejection from otherwise white congregations, I told a different story: How I found Temple Israel of Duluth to be the warmest shul in one of the coldest places in the world.
That was more than 30 years ago, in my first sojourn to the area after moving from my hometown of Chicago for what turned out to be only a few months. During that time, no one at what was then a Reform and Conservative dual-affiliated congregation (it’s now Reform and Reconstructionist) voiced the obnoxiousness that too often greets Jews of darker complexions at unfamiliar synagogues: “Are you from Israel? Are you from Ethiopia?” – save one person around Hanukkah, and he was visiting from somewhere else.
I left to take a fellowship in Boston and ended up staying 17 years. Though I lived most of that time in Newton with no shortage of Jews or synagogues, none matched the reception I found in Duluth. Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury came close, though it was near the end of my time in the area. In almost a surprise to myself, I found a very good professional opportunity and returned to Duluth – and to Temple Israel.
Not long ago, my daughter, Erin, who was 6 when our travels began and stayed in Massachusetts as an adult, now living in Marblehead, noticed the political attributes of our residences.
“Huh,” she mused. “They’re all blue states.”
“That’s not an accident,” I replied.
Having told my Duluth story around the country for decades — even in a 1991 appearance on Black Entertainment Television — it occurred to me only now to listen to my own admonition. My reception by its tiny Jewish community was not an accident.
Size and isolation are factors, and I long attributed Duluth’s welcoming atmosphere to its population of only about 600 Jews, half of them belonging to the shul. If someone new walks in, you hardly look for a reason to exclude them.
But that was only part of it. I also recall Mrs. Goldfine and the immediate invitation I got to her home, along with other newcomers.
(I also ended up quoting her for years. With the High Holidays falling on a weekend, I asked: “So Friday night we were Reform?” “Yes,” she replied. “Today (Saturday), we’re Conservative?” “Correct.” “What are we tomorrow?” “Catholic.” Proof that if you put two Jews on a desert island, or frozen tundra, you do indeed get three congregations.)
When I prepared for my second Minnesota tour of duty, her daughter-in-law was assigned as our realtor.
“Are you one of the Goldfines?” I asked – referring not to the family’s civic prominence but to their hospitality toward new faces at shul.
The point of all this? As congregations of all sizes wrestle with what they can do to better embrace Jews of Color and Black Jews in particular, do what Mrs. Goldfine did: Pick up the phone or use a social media counterpart and invite them to your homes – which, to repeat, is something I never experienced in Massachusetts. Here’s a hint: The people you’re calling may not look like you and their last names may not end in stein or berg. And please don’t say you can’t find them: If you can’t figure out who just bought a mezuzah for the front door, your Jewish mafia isn’t working very well.
They may just come back. And it won’t be an accident.