SWAMPSCOTT – The path toward combatting racism and anti-Semitism is through education, Rav Tiferet Berenbaum told a group of 140 participants on Zoom on Sunday, April 18. The event, “What Does Judaism Teach Us About Social Justice,” was the second part of a virtual series convened by Congregation Shirat Hayam, on race in America, entitled “We Shall Not Be Silent: Conversations on Race.”
Berenbaum received her rabbinic ordination and a master’s in Jewish Education from Hebrew College in 2013. A native of Brookline, she served congregations in Milwaukee and Mt. Holly, N.J., before accepting her current position as rabbi of congregational learning and programming at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline. In addition, she is also pursuing a doctorate in Educational Leadership at Lesley University in Cambridge.
“I really, truly believe we can heal racism and anti-Semitism and really all the of the -isms … heal it through education,” she said.
During the event, Epstein Hillel’s Head of School and moderator, Amy Gold, asked Berenbaum about her experience attending a mostly-white high school in Brookline and the messages she received about her racial identity in that setting.
In reflecting on her high school experience, Berenbaum has flipped through her yearbooks and calculated the percentages of students of color in those classes. She estimates that 18 to 20 percent were students of color.
“It feels like to me a significant number, but numbers don’t tell the whole story, right? Numbers tell us the quantity not the quality. So, you know, what was the experience like for students of color and what was my experience as a student of color?” she said.
Even though her college experience was diverse, still she felt discomfort until she studied the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education that ended school segregation.
“It basically meant that people of color and white people could learn together,” Berenbaum said. “Now, in segregated schools,” she said, “Black students were taught by teachers that looked like them, that shared cultural values with them, that believed in their abilities and were able to help them thrive even though the schools were under-resourced.”
Integration meant students of color were being taught by people who didn’t look like them, and were in class with others who did not share their cultural values. Both teachers and students were unprepared for this shift.
By the 1990s, when Berenbaum was in high school “students of color were entering hostile at worst, unconscious at best learning environments.
“So, I would classify my high school experience as one of unconscious bias, unconsciously biased toward whiteness, which showed up in lots of ways,” she said. This meant reading all white authors until she had a Black teacher “who let us read Black authors.” She was immersed in a school culture that saw nonwhite as “other” through both its curriculum and interactions.
The first event featured former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the state’s first Black governor. He said he tells young people: “Be mindful that we are not where we need to be, but we are also not where we were. And that’s a hard thing, I think, in America.”
Patrick spoke to at least 300 virtual attendees in a chat moderated by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead on April 7, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Patrick said it’s a hard notion to balance the civil rights progress that has been made, much of it in his lifetime. But, he added, “at the same time, we have so much work to do.”
“I also try to say to folks, be impatient,” Patrick said, “because frankly it was that same kind of impatience against extraordinary odds … that created that momentum over the decades.”
Patrick, Ehrlich said, has a story that inspires. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago and at age 14 was awarded a scholarship to Milton Academy through the Boston-based organization, A Better Chance. He attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School and went on to become an attorney and business executive.
In 2006, in his first bid for elective office, Patrick was elected Massachusetts governor.
Patrick believes it’s important to build bridges to others who may not have the same outlook.
“I think if we want a just society, where everyone has a place, I’m not saying tolerate the haters, that’s not what I’m saying. But there are an awful lot of people who are not as ‘woke,’ as it were, who don’t have the same life experience … and they need to be heard and respected.”
Patrick was asked by an attendee, “How do people of color look at someone who is white advocating for them?”
Patrick said one should not presume he was speaking for all Black people.
“I think that part of living with an open heart, is giving up a little bit of anxiety about what the reaction to your open heart is going to be, and taking the step, anyway.”
On Sunday afternoon, Berenbaum was asked by Amy Gold about the intersectionality of race and racism with Judaism and anti-Semitism.
“In thinking about the intersectionality of race, racism and anti-Semitism, I’m really blessed because I don’t experience many events of racism and anti-Semitism to my face,” Berenbaum said. “Thank God.”
She has had a few recalling a time when she was riding the bus one Easter morning.
“And the bus driver turns around and he’s like, ‘Why aren’t you in church right now?’ And I was like, ‘Sir, I’m Jewish, like, it happens to be Sunday and I’m trying to go somewhere … And he was like, no you’re not. And he just couldn’t handle it and he was yelling at me. I had to get off the bus. It was terrible. And then I called the ADL,” she said.
“I’ve discovered that a lot of things are probably happening behind my back, because that’s how racism and anti-Semitism work,” Berenbaum said about incidents of which she is not aware.
The speaker series is an initiative of the Tzedek LaKol, Justice for All group started at the temple last year by Barbara and Alan Sidman of Salem to advocate among the congregation and the community for racial and social justice.
The third discussion in the series on the local perspective on racial justice with the Rev. Dr. Andre Bennett and Jerry Kreitzer, a former Vermont lawmaker, takes place on April 27, 7:30 p.m.
Go to shirathayam.org to register, and view previous events in the series.