On the Other Hand: But, Who's Counting

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat B'midbar, we're commanded to take a census of the “whole Israelite community.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs reflects on a new study from the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, on what it means to include the “whole” community, including women and Jews of Color, and why it’s so important to be thoughtful about how we’re counting.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. A podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parshat B’midbar, and he asks, who is making the choices about what is equitable? And who is affected by the choices that are made?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parshat B’midbar. The first Torah portion of the book of Numbers. And exciting that with this cycle of learning begins again. The amazing thing about the book of Numbers, it's worth pointing out yet again, it's called in English, the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, it's called B’midbar, in the wilderness. And the Jewish people remember our journeying through the wilderness.

And it's both a spiritually edifying period in our people's life. It's also fraught with danger. They encounter enemies, they have the natural phenomena of water, food, all those kinds of things. And in the opening of the book, in chapter one, verse two, we have this wonderful teaching. Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of the ancestral houses, listing the names every male, head by head.

Now, I've got to say, if you start with this, you get a little bit confused. Take a census of the whole Israelite community. Well, I have a pretty broad sense of what it would mean to take a census of the whole Israelite. But then it says, recording the names, male head by head. So that's not the whole Israelite community as we all well know. And I think it's worth reflecting particularly, this year, on how we count, who does the counting, and who are we counting?

I remember, there was a great episode of the West Wing. And then president Jed Bartlett said, if you want to convince me of something, show me the numbers. Meaning that he wasn't persuaded by a set of arguments, he wanted to see data, he wanted to see what were the demographics. Well, if we look at the first census, it was about able-bodied men, above the age of 20, who could serve in a military capacity. That's understandable, they wanted to know who could fight on behalf of the Jewish people.

But this is not a census of the whole people. We also know later in the book, we have a census of the sacred servants. Those who are part of the tribe of Levi. Those who would be in Secret Service who didn't fight, but they served the people. Well, there is a very specific counting, and again, the men. So the first feminist critique of the census is how do you count your people, and you don't count the women?

Well, that's a phenomenon that's not just in the Bible, it's pretty much still around us. And thankfully, we've begun to counter that narrative, and more fully include women in the leadership, and in the full participation in a Jewish life. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I was at Temple Emanuel for Ordination of HUC-JIR, and it was the first time that a woman had ordained our graduating Rabbis and Cantors. And that woman is a great biblical scholar, Rabbi Andrea Weiss.

I had the privilege of sitting, on my left is Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the provost who ordained the class. And to my right, was sitting Rabbi Sally Priesand, who was the first woman ordained. Now we haven't shattered all the glass ceiling, let alone the stained glass ceilings. But we're doing a pretty darn good job, and I'm proud of what we've been able to do. My focus this podcast is on how we are undercounting Jews of color. I'm not going to tell you, this is my Torah to teach.

I was able to hear a brilliant and educational presentation by Alanna Kaufman, who shared some of the initial results of a study that Dr. Ari Y Kelman, at Stanford University, has done with a number of researchers on Jews of color who counts what we ask, and why it matters.

Now it turns out, that census taking is always political. Think of the US Census here, in the United States. We're having a big to do over what questions we can ask on the census, which is, are we going to try and mobilize the resources on behalf of all those we count? And if we undercount, we under resource. So according to this study-- that we're going to all hear more about in the coming weeks-- the study says we estimate that the United States has 7.2 million Jews. At least 12% to 15% are Jews of color. That means a million are Jews of color, 1 in 7.

And that, according to the study, is a dramatic undercounting of who are our community members. And it turns out that-- we've learned that in some of our communities, 20% of Jewish households are multiracial. We learned in the San Francisco, the Bay Area study, that a staggeringly high number of Jews reported having a non-white living in their household.

So the key is if you don't ask the right questions, you don't get a complete answer. And if you don't get the complete answer, you don't know who we are, as the Jewish community. And you don't know, therefore, how to more successfully and effectively mobilize us, and more deeply engage us. So the truth is, there is an invisibility to the Jews of color in our community. And it's the case that we know that there is a huge opportunity for us to grow who we are.

Now, if we are asking people about their Jewishness, you may be on the phone or an email, frankly, their racial or ethnic identity may not at all be there, or apparent. And some of these surveys over the last 20 years have not asked about race or ethnicity. And probably assume that is a very peripheral part of our Jewish community. What is most staggering to behold is that as the United States of America and Canada become increasingly multiracial societies, it's very possible that in a matter of time, the beautiful mosaic that we call a Jewish community is going to be a multiracial people here in North America. And it will be the majority.

So we've got to start counting, because counting means we find our real spiritual strength. We find out who we are, and who is among us. One very interesting phenomenon that was recently pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, was the place of Mizrahi Jews in Israel. Mizrahi means Jews of Middle Eastern descent. We sometimes say Sephardic Jews. Sephardic is from Sepharad, means Spain. It does include, technically, all the edot mizrach, meaning Jews from Iraq, and Iran, and Egypt, and Tunisia, and all the different-- in Yemen, and all those places.

It turns out that the majority of Jews in Israel, according to this piece by Hen Mazzig-- no, Israel isn't a country of privileged and powerful white Europeans. According to this piece, the majority of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi. Only about 30% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi, or descendants of European Jews.

Now that's an amazing story. That may actually tell a story that Israel-- the Jewish population of Israel-- is a very multiracial society. And may be part of the opportunity to both, grow the diversity and strength of our people by being attentive to who we count, and how we count. So why do we count as North American Jews? Why do we count our community? Because they try to figure out, do we have enough resources, synagogues, camps? What's the confederation doing?

And we're not taking a census to find out who's going to be able to fight on behalf of the Jewish people. We're not taking a census to find out who is going to become a Rabbi, or Cantor, or do Secret Service as in the Levites. We're trying to get a sense of our numbers, because we always have this notion that we're shrinking and disappearing. But if we actually counted our real strength, we could tell our true story about the growth, and the growing strength of our people here in North America.

Now Jews of color, we know, have experiences in our communities that aren't always the stories we want told. There's an amazing new podcast that we have at the URJ Holy Jewish, which are the stories of a remarkable group of people in our midst. Part of the JewV’Nation fellowship here at the URJ. And the Jews of color cohort have been interviewed by my colleague, April Baskin, who previously was the inaugural vice president for audacious hospitality.

And they tell stories one after another of sometimes very painful moments of exclusion, not on the census, but in community. Walking into congregations and not being included, not being assumed to be part of the Jewish community. Where people questioned on the street, oh, you're Jewish? What's your story? So we know that the undercounting of Jews of color isn't simply a demographic oversight. It's part and parcel of a set of communal assumptions that are flawed and limited and probably have an underbelly of some racism in there, too. That's just, got to say it friends, I can't be on this podcast and dance around that.

And I just think if you're going to hear more about this study, which is part of the field building initiative, that Allana Kaufman has been leading. So you're going to hear more about it. But as we begin the Book of Numbers, who counts is partly dependent on how we do the counting. Who do we value? Well that's partly who we count. And we, as a Jewish community, are going to do a whole lot better, because we're going to demand a recount here.

We're demanding a recount because we actually are more numerous, more diverse, more brilliant, more talented, more creative, more imaginative than the numbers currently tell us. So the biblical census missed a whole lot of people called women. And our demographic studies of the last 20 to 30 years have also been missing a major cohort of our strength. So we start with the Bible, but we don't end, we continue to evolve.

And we're going to make sure that our Jewish community becomes more inclusive, becomes more diverse. And therefore, becomes more whole, and more the congregation and communities that we need to be.

So as we begin the numbers, we're going to increase the numbers. And we're going to make sure that our Jews of color are seen. And take their rightful positions of leadership. And their positions in every sphere, and every corner of our Jewish community. And that is a worthy undertaking because it's simply being who we are in our real core. But it's going to take some heavy lifting on all of our parts to rethink some of our communal assumptions. And to take this obsession we have with counting to make sure that we get it right.

So we begin with numbers. We're going to tell the story of the numbers. And to think of a 1 million person cohort of our 7.2 million, one out of seven Jews of color. The next time you go to synagogue, you're at your summer camp, you're part of your Jewish social justice group, look around. Are 1 in 7 of the people in any of those gatherings Jews of color? If not, we don't have our arms wide enough. We're not being as inclusive, and it starts by who we count, and how we do this. We're going to do it better, we're going to do it more completely, and we are going to be incredibly strengthened as we do.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org, and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to write and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the other hand, Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week, l'hitraot!