Wholly Jewish: Jordan: Black, Jewish, and Bettering the World

What do we all have in common? We all live - and balance - complex and nuanced identities, that, when braided together, make us wholly ourselves - and “Wholly Jewish.” Join April Baskin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s former vice president for Audacious Hospitality, as she speaks with Jews of Color who share their experiences, insights, and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community.

In this episode: Meet Jordan, a social justice leader, a loving family man and a mensch, who consistently and persistently strives to create a world that is steeped in awareness and kindness. Jordan reminds us to always follow the #1 rule when it comes to our world and our community – always try to leave it better than you found it. 

Three ways to listen:


[Pullquote:] Being black is both-- it is both who you are, but it is also defined by American experience. You know, I am my skin color because America has defined what that means.

[URJ Intro:] Welcome to “Wholly Jewish,” a podcast from ReformJudaism.org. Everybody knows there isn't just one way to be Jewish, and there isn't just one kind of Jew. In this podcast we talk to people about their different identities, and how those identities intersect with their Judaism. Or in other words, what makes them Jewish, and-and, and what makes them wholly Jewish. This season, the Union for Reform Judaism's immediate past-Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, April Baskin, interviewed members of the Jews of Color Cohort of the Jew'VNation Fellowship. Today she's talking to Jordan Berg Powers.

[April:] Often when we think about hyphenated and multi-dimensional identities it's often Jewish and. But we've found with this cohort that it's often Jewish and “and-and”. And so that's the first question: what is your Jewish and-and identity?

[Jordan:] You know, honestly, my Jewish-and is Black and Jewish. And everything sort of flows out of that. You know, my other “and” is that I'm political. I'm very progressive. You know, I come from a long line of civil rights activists and people who have been engaged in sort of making change for the better.

And so, my Blackness, both in the fact that I've faced obstacles that are unfair purely due to my skin color, and also that I am connected to other people who have faced similar circumstances in an intimate way because America makes it that way towards making change. So, you know, you sort of come out and you're required to make it better for people.

And then, that's also true of Judaism. So, Judaism requires that we leave this place better than we came into it. And so those two things are sort of my core “and.” And that's really sort of how I see the world, and what compels me in this world.

[April:] Thank you. That makes a lot of sense. You spoke to this a little bit, or you more spoke about the origins and the ways that each of those identities impact you. How do these identities interact with one another for you, Jordan?

[Jordan:] Yeah, being Black and Jewish is interesting. It is-- there is no one way to answer that question, because it is so-- it is so dependent on where you are and what's going on in the world around you. So, you know, I was very lucky. I grew up in a Jewish community. And, you know, so I grew into it Black.

It never crossed my mind until much later that it would be weird. And then as I got older and grew into my Judaism and had amazing rabbis and teachers who really made me understand the connection between how I see the world and my Judaism, and that also grew my political thought and my Jewish though. They've also merged together in a way. So, I see the sort of history of Black activism and Black civil rights struggle as totally, totally connected, if not compelled, by my Jewish activism and my Judaism. And the two have fused in that way, in a really special way.

But then they're also at odds. I've been in all-Black spaces where people have said really anti-Semitic things that make you pause for a second. You know, I understand now as an adult that that's built up into structures of power, and the way that we're taught to hate one another, and there's all sorts of other things that, you know, play into that.

I've also been in Jewish spaces. I used to-- I went to young, Jewish spaces where I was totally not accepted as a Jew. Like, I went-- you know, I really didn't like some of the trips that a lot of young Jews are going to talk fondly about, because they were so racist that it was just impossible to interact as my fullest self. Because being Black is both-- it is both who you are, but it is also defined by American experience.

You know, I am my skin color because America has defined what that means. And so, Black and Jewish, they feel inseparable both in the moment of oppression and also the moment of, you know, how do we think about them? How we fight them? How do we how a better world? Those things are together.

And sometimes they're separated, because people will interact with you not as a Jew, but as a Black person. And they don't see you as a part of the community. They see you as separate from the community, or a token of it, or a weird oddity of it, but not as Jewish as they are. You know, the high holidays are often a time where those feelings come up because you're interacting with Jews who you don't see on a regular basis, who don't come to Temple regularly like I do. And so, they interact with you with a suspicion, and a weirdness, and a separativeness.

So, I guess I'd say that it's always-- they're always in a weird interplay. And you know, it's always hard to sort of-- there's no one answer to that question, at least for me.

[April:] Right. I think you speak well of this dynamic, continually evolving interaction that they're having. What's interesting to me that I want to lift up for a second, what I'm hearing in your story is a really deep grounding in Judaism and is a very rich Jewish background. And I was wondering if you could speak about that a little bit? Because that's atypical. Most American Jews aren't affiliated. And if you wouldn't mind, I'd love to hear a little bit about some of your Jewish roots that inform this deeply rich Black and Jewish identity that you possess.

[Jordan:] Yeah. So, I'm very lucky. My parents converted before I was born. And they went through a very rigorous conversion process. And they did that because they're passionate about Judaism. So, I grew up in a household with two people, not one person, who chose Judaism. And that-- they both chose it for different reasons and were passionate about different parts of it.

And those were the-- that is the greatest gift I got. They really gave me a big passion for being Jewish, and a love for being Jewish. I was born Jewish in a household that was just so excited to have joined and-- you know, we always say, and be a part of their soul, has always been a part of the Jewish community.

So, I grew up in that household. And then I got the luxury of going to a Jewish day school through some large-- that's a, I guess, longer conversation. But I went to a Jewish day school. And you know, that also enriched my experience in both-- it was difficult at times.

You know, I experienced a lot of racism when I was first there. But as I stayed there longer and the kids stayed there longer, you know, I sort of got accepted by the kids. But more importantly, the teachers who were there, the morahs and rabbis, they were really invested in growing the spiritual understanding of Judaism, not just-- you know, not just making sure you knew your alef-bet, or making sure you knew the prayers, but why do we do them? What are the ways that it can enrich your life? What are the ways that it can be a moral guidance for your life?

And that's the part that I really felt grounded to and connected to. And so, between just having parents who were just absolutely-- and are absolutely in love with being Jewish, and then being in a place that fostered my sort of intellectual curiosity around the morality around it, I was able to really grow those things, and grow them together.

And I have two parents who were intentional about also growing a strong, Black child. I was lucky. I grew up around people who didn't have two parents. I had two parents who were professionals, who were dedicated to making sure that I got a strong Black-- strong understanding of what it meant to be Black-- being Black in America, and also Jewish, and their love of Judaism. And so, I think that those groundings, having the just absolute gift of having such amazing parents and having such amazing teachers really grounded me in my Judaism in a way that I just feel so lucky for.

[April:] Wonderful. Thank you so much. And I think that's a great segue for the second question, which is, was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity?

[Jordan:] Yeah. Although, it's a strange one. It's not a big moment or a thing. You know, I could-- I could tell you that I went to Israel, and I got bar mitzvah’d in Israel, and that was an amazing moment. But I had already felt really Jewish by the time I came to be 13. So that wasn't a seminal.

The times I've been to Israel have been important in really making me a part of the long history of Judaism. But it was actually a class that I had. And I had an amazing teacher who really fostered my love of Torah and studying Torah.

And he just said something really simple, which was just that every single person has their own thermometer, and what God demands, what Hashem demands, is for us to fill our thermometer. And the really crazy thing is, even if you were a twin you have no idea what the other person's thermometer is. Because you don't know what they've lived, you don't know what they've experienced, and you don't know where they're going, and you don't know how much it can do. So, it's both-- it's both impossible and wrong to judge people based on what you perceive what they can and can't do. But also, it misses the point that we are supposed to fill our own thermometer.

It's just a simple metaphor, but for a fifth grader that was my seminal moment. It was. It was the moment that really for me made crisp clear my moral imperative, and my political understanding of the world. And I use it now to talk about everything from politics, and so forth, and everything that I do in my life, and my nonprofit work and my teaching.

It's just the grounding understanding of the world, which is just simply that everybody's lived experiences different. And it's wrong for us to judge them based on our own perception of what they're going through or what they're doing. It's impossible to know.

And it misses the point. Because life is-- the only thing we have in our life that what we can do, and how much we can give, and if we're doing enough, and if we're giving enough, and if we're filling our thermometer enough. And every year we have a time this time around a year where we look back.

And if you look back honestly you realize you have failed to fill your thermometer. And you could do more. And you could really change and be more. And so that was really a simple, very simple metaphor that became absolutely grounding for my life in every possible way.

[April:] Wow. Thank you for sharing that. And for the example. I think it is truly a special thing when we have incredible teachers and an upbringing that gives us material that we can carry with us throughout our lives.

As a person who is Jewish and Black, what's something that you never want said to you ever again?


[Jordan:] I guess for me it would be-- there's so much.


[April:] What's rising to the surface?

[Jordan:] Are you really Jewish? Which church did you grow up in? You know, there's so much assumptions about how you come to be Jewish. But “Are you really Jewish?” is the one that I think would-- I could certainly live without. Do you know where you're going? Do you belong here?

Yeah, the assumption that you don't belong, that you're outside. Innocent enough questions that have an othering affect.

[April:] A deeply othering effect.

[Jordan:] Yeah. Yeah. But I think that there's a second part to your question that I actually also really want to address, which is the idea that there are only two ways to be Jewish. That sort of-- that when we had a-- that when Jews were forced out of Israel they only went to Spain, and Eastern Europe, and then that's it, or Spain, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East and that's it. And in fact, there's a deep and rich history of, unfortunately, Jewish dispersion across all places.

And so rather than seeing Judaism as-- because ultimately Judaism is about a commitment to tikkun olam, to making the world a better place, to, you know, doing the things and the ritual that connect us to our past and connect us to who we are, but through the lens of connecting, having a deeper connection with Hashem, which enables us to be better versions of ourselves. And that can manifest in lots of different ways. Because there was not one way to do that. And there was certainly not one way to interpret the Torah, not one way to interpret all the books that were written down after the oral and written histories.

There's just one way that was given to mostly white Jews. And so, I think that it's not just that there's an othering, which I sort of get because I'm different in American Jewry, but rather there's a narrow perception of what it means to be Jewish in our religion itself.

And that narrowing both limits our ability to see each other as Jews, but also it limits the beauty in which God has manifested themselves around the world, and around people, and in people, and in Judaism. And that really narrow perspective is what all narrow perspective are, what all Mizraim are, which is an enslavement to something that we need not be enslaved to, to a view that we need not be enslaved to.

And so, I think that there is a subtle othering that happens with Black American Jews, and brown American Jews, and Asian-American Jews, people of color who are Jews, Jews of Color. But that othering also comes from the narrow perspective of how-- you know, of who it is that gets to claim Judaism, and is Jewish, and define the rules and rights of Judaism. And that in itself is also a Mizraim place.

[April:] What's something that you have been waiting to hear?

[Jordan:] Uh, welcome. Welcome. I see you. Yeah. Simple.

[April:] Yet deeply profound.

[Jordan:] Yeah. Yeah. Just not an assumption. Just a welcome.

[April:] There's not much more that needs to be said.

[Jordan:] Nope.

[April:] And so, to round us out I have a final question for you, and you are welcome to interpret it as openly as possible. And it is, who or what inspires you to be a better Jew? And it's up to you what better means in this context.

[Jordan:] Mostly what inspires me to be a better Jew is sort of negative. It's, I see all the ways I fail, all the ways that I wish I were better, all the ways that I think I can be better, and better for people, kinder to people, more generous to people, more loving with people I don't know and don't understand. And I see the ways that I fall short. And I know I can do better.

And so, for me the person who most pushes me is just my failure, and just wanting to be better. And, you know, I'm inspired by individual moments of people being amazing and kind. And I'm inspired by individual people who they themselves are inspiration and sort of guideposts. They're not always Jewish.

You know, there's certainly-- there's-- you know, there's so many, like, I could think of, my rabbi at school who inspired me and encouraged me. I could think about my bar mitzvah and my Rabbi Warnick, and the way he saw me, as a full person, inspired me. But those aren't really-- those are the people give me the confidence and the demands-- the moral demand to be a better person, a better version of myself.

I think mostly when I think about, like, how do I push myself to be better? It's that I know I can be better. It's the thermometer and how much I can do more to fill it, and be wider, and be farther along. There are, of course, people who inspired me. Right? Like, that'd be impossible for there not to be.

I had the just honor of meeting Nelson Mandela. And just his presence, and his story, and the way he, you know, figured out kindness, like that inspiration. I had the pleasure-- I had the absolute honor of meeting Barbara Lee, who is one of the people who inspires me, and pushes me, and just, you know, has such moral clarity. She's a Congresswoman. And she inspires me every day.

And there's people-- you know, people in my everyday life. People who are doing great work in the community, and doing it from a place no of selflessness, but actually selfullness. The idea that they are banged up in the liberations, and in the success, and in the humanity of other people. So not that they're doing it out of selflessness, but selfullness. That they see people, and they feel like, your struggle is my struggle in that way. And I get to meet those people through my job on a regular basis. So, it's sort of hard-- how do I round that? How do I round that list down?

There's so many people who inspire me every day to be that. But mostly I think in terms of my Judaism, it's from maybe a profoundly Jewish place, but just some regular place that I think a lot about how I can be better, how I can live up to who I can be. But if I could-- If I named one person it would have to be a Rabbi Sacks, who is, I guess, former Head Rabbi in the United Kingdom. He is an inspiration. And I've read a lot of his work. And thought a lot about his work.

But there is too-- there's so many people who are sort of in that mix of people that it's sort of hard to narrow it down, but I would say, yeah, for sure, it is-- a lot of people who sort of give me the push for moral-- to do better, and seeing that I could be better. But I know that ultimately it comes from me to-- it has to come from me to be the best version of myself.

[April:] Thank you so much. As someone who, for me, it's a core fundamental life value to continually be evolving and always learning, I'm inspired by your thoughts, and what inspires you, and the deep, deep thoughtfulness that you bring to this. Jordan, that was-- those were the four questions. That's it.

Thank you very much for joining us today. And I wish you continued success in your work, both in terms of your professional work and this journey that you're on. I know that I am more insightful and thoughtful for having known you. So, thank you.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “Wholly Jewish.” Tune in again for our next episode. And in the meantime, you can find daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events and more at ReformJudaism.org. Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/reformjudaism, and on Twitter our handle is @reformjudaism. Hope you have a good week.