Wholly Jewish: Tani: We Need Inclusive Jewish Spaces

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: Full of love and laughter, wisdom and wit, Tani Prell Epstein enchants us with her anecdotes and savvy perspectives on how to fully embrace and embody an inclusive Jewish world.

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[Tani:] How exactly are you Jewish? And it is just - it's like, how am I not Jewish? Like it's part of everything. It's the way that I think and love and learn. It's just, God it’s so, so much of my experience.

[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 JewV'Nation Fellowship. Today, she's talking to Tani Prell.

[April:] So Tani, what's your Jewish and and identity?

[Tani:] I am a Jewish woman of color and an educator and I am an artist and a lover of the arts.

[April:] I love it. Any specific genre of art?

[Tani:] So, prior to my role as Director of Jewish learning and engagement at Emanu-El, I was a performing arts teacher, I was a creative writing major in college and I ran our arts department for the high school that I worked at, and so I, predominately the art that I have done has been theater related and writing related, but especially when it comes to kids. I love all of the arts and when it comes to art in Chicago I try and take it, take it all in.

[April:] Wow, that's phenomenal. And so how as you say these identities of Jewish Women of color and educator and activist and a lover of the arts, how do these interact with one another for you in your life currently, Tani?

[Tani:] Yeah, they're interacting, they’re interacting all the time in various ways.

So right now my biggest one is being a Jewish educator. I just had my one-year work anniversary.

[April:] Mazel tov.

[Tani:] Thank you. Thank you. And so, like for the past five years I've considered myself to be an educator, but now I'm really figuring out what that means specifically in a Jewish context. And especially as a person who converted and I'm constantly learning about who I am as a Jewish person and what that means to me.

So, like balancing, learning and educating has been, has been really big and then especially being a person of color in synagogues and specifically in this role. It was a part of my identity that clearly I'm always constantly aware of and walking into the world, but prior to this role, I wasn't necessarily prepped for the impact that being a person of color in a leadership position at a synagogue, kind of what that meant for the movement and also what it would mean for me personally and what it would mean for my congregation as well.

[April:] It sounds like there's a lot there.

[Tani:] Yeah, yeah, and so specifically with that - that's something I'm just, I'm so appreciative of our JewV'Nation retreat especially. It gave me the space to really, really deeply think about, like, OK what has this experience done and what does it mean in the broader context of Jewish life, because I'm very, very fortunate that Emanu-El is an incredibly diverse synagogue and that was one of the things that absolutely drew it to me. And I knew that if I was going to switch the work that I was doing with working with students of color in Chicago that I was going to want to work in a space that was very actively working to promote justice in the world and in the Jewish community. I really, really appreciated kind of like what this role meant when we're at the retreat and I realized that not everybody had the privilege and the gift of being able to walk into a space and not always only be the only Jew of color in the room. And then I really started to think a bit about kind of what it meant for me in spaces where I was the only Jew of color in the room and how as in this role how you are representing such a vibrant and brilliant group of people who have not always felt very welcomed in certain spaces. And so, it just gave me such a greater appreciation for my role and for this opportunity and for what it what it meant to, to do this work.

[April:] As a follow up, in a world that often asks us to fit into neat singular categories and often only one, what is the interplay of your different ands? I feel like you've already spoken to this inherently and some of what you've already said.

But I'm wondering if you want to speak to it a little bit more especially given your roles in the different roles that you've mentioned and as a leader as a senior leader in congregational life as an educator embodying an identity that's rarely, you know, you're in a position that's rarely filled by a woman of color.

And so, I'm wondering how you navigate those different expectations when your identity inherently can't fit neatly into those simplistic molds.

[Tani:] So, I am especially, being in a in a leadership position, I am constantly aware of different stereotypes that are centered around women of color in leadership positions especially and different assumptions about how we might react to certain scenarios. And so, I'm always very, very aware of how I am presenting in different spaces.

Specifically, for people who don't know me yet, and for those who do know me, I'm very bright and loving and I just want to get to know and love everyone. But I'm also very aware that when it comes to situations where there is a disagreement or there is ever a conflict, how my reactions can be perceived in a way very differently than a person who is not a woman and a person who is not a person of color and so I'm very, very intentional about when given spaces to speak on various issues. I am very, very intentional about the message that I am giving and the way that I'm giving it and so I do feel like there is a definite need to be a little bit more intentional about the things that I say, especially because I'm very cognizant of the fact that I am being, in many ways, a representative as a person whose identities aren't typically in, in this role.

[April:] As you're saying that, I'm thinking a few different things. One, I'm obviously noting the intelligence and nuance that you bring to this role. I'm also thinking about the added level of work that that brings on a daily and an even at times moment to moment basis to, to your experience, you know. And so, I'm wondering, you've given me thoughts about some of your hopes around how this may evolve over time so that you can live into a role that is perhaps more sustainable in the long term.

[Tani:] Yeah. Absolutely. So, I think that I, again, I just feel especially, especially fortunate to work specifically in the synagogue that I do, where I have students of color, Jewish students of color who are just so bright and wonderful and diverse families. And again like the leadership here is very, very committed to social justice and I want that same inclusion and that same purposefulness around creating spaces where no matter who you are, you are here and you are welcomed and with non-accidental openness, but a very intentional like this is just how it is when you when you step in here. And I want it to be able to seep into every congregation and every single classroom, and for teachers to be able to be very aware of how are you making every student in your room feel, and especially being very aware of what it means to have students of color, young Jews of color, in your classroom. And then how they go out into the world and interact with the world is different from the way that they're able to, than their classmates, who are sitting next to them and like what does, what does that mean. And that we're able to give that, that kind of education to kids so that it's not just this thing that they do in their synagogue. And being a good person is inherently part of their, of their Jewishness and how they interact with other, with other minority groups and people of color in their day to day. That that's something that they learned how to do as part of their Jewish education.

[April:] That's powerful. That's really powerful. So, I have like five additional follow up questions I'd like to ask but I'm actually going to force myself to move to the second question.

Switching gears, was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity?

I've always loved Judaism and I grew up going to a - I was raised Lutheran and going to a Lutheran day school where you have like your religion classes like constantly learning religion and, in turn, Torah, and I was always so drawn to Judaism, and so like on a very personal level I always knew that I wanted to be Jewish. But one day, it was St. Patrick's Day, and my now husband Charles and I, we were just sitting and we were talking and like we're talking about Judaism and I just, like I started crying because like that was in that like one moment I don't remember like what brought me into it specifically, but that was the moment where I decided like I don't just want to have myself be Jewish but I want my family to be Jewish and I want to raise a Jewish family and I want my kids to grow up and be Jewish. And I was thinking a lot about my life growing up and many times feeling very lonely and not ever really feeling like I had a community or like I was part of a community. And I was just sitting there thinking about what a beautiful gift to be able to give your kids that you give them this incredibly rich history filled with perseverance and people looking after one another and fight, like it's not always easy, but a group of people who have always persevered and made it through. And I was just overwhelmed by the idea like that is what it means to raise Jewish children, and so it like all of a sudden took Judaism outside of this thing that was just me and I felt this just intergenerational connection like I never had before.

[April:] So up next, I have a two-part question for you. The first part is as a person who is a Jewish woman of color and an educator and an activist and a lover of the arts what's something you never want said to you ever again?

[Tani:] Oh great, great question. Oh. Something I get, I get asked often is like "So, like how exactly are you Jewish?"

And it is just. It's like how am I not Jewish? Like it's part of everything. It's by the way that I think and love and learn. And it just discredits so, so much of my experience. And then along with that like I did marry someone who is Jewish. And the assumption that comes along some time that I did it for marriage. It's like, there's nothing wrong, I mean nothing wrong with that.

[April:] No at all. But that's not your truth.

[Tani:] But now. Yeah. And. And it just takes away so much of, of my story that is connected to it.

And then similarly something that I very much have a hard time hearing sometimes is people questioning my level of Jewish knowledge in various spaces and questioning and challenging how much I, I might know or challenging whether I deserve to have the role that I do.

And a lot of times it's not like in an, in an outward in an outward way. Those like little micro aggressions where you know you know kind of what the person might be thinking specifically in professional settings with other professionals specifically, there is this question of like “well, like how did you get here?”. And there's so many ways to answer that, but I know that they're likely not asking the person next to me how they got there. And so, it's this whole thing of having to like say, “Well, I did Teach for America, I have coached and led teachers for, for years, I have been studying Judaism my entire life”. And like what is going to be the credential or the knowledge piece like I keep kosher that is gonna make you comfortable with me being here and in this space and it's likely a different answer for everyone and sometimes it is coming from like this genuine place of like, “I'm like really curious about your story”, but there's likely other ways to, to ask you, to ask that. And the fact that asking that question means something very different to someone who does have my story and someone who does look like me then someone who, who doesn't.

[April:] Right.

And there's so much to unpack there.

Tani, I think you know in terms of the level of, without even recognizing it, I think the level of, and I don't know if entitlement is quite the right word, but just the sense that people feel like they have a right and in a setting where they may be meeting you for the first time to ask you for your credentials. There's a certain kind of entitlement that goes along with that.

That's one thought I'm thinking. I'm also thinking about the fact that what's that like for you like you're - I'm just, I'm envisioning any number of scenarios where this may play out but I'm envisioning you're at a conference of some kind or a community meeting, right, and whereas other people are able to be involved in that meeting and continue their preparation and then you get this kind of question that throws you back out of it that in some way or another asks you to justify. And then third, I think at the base level of it, it seems to me like they're asking this question really as a way of indirectly getting to the fact that something about your identity, likely you being a person of color, doesn't fit into their mind of who should be in that room and, that likely even no matter how you answer it, it's still not going to help them resolve that fundamental misperception of two things not going together that, through our very existence, we debunk that misinformation.

[Tani:] Yes, absolutely, and something that I think a lot about and why I think this conversation is so important is because like I've made my decision to be a Jewish professional and like I'm here, I'm committed, but I'm just like if you're willing to bring those questions to me…

If you had somebody who comes to your congregation who is a Jew of color, or just curious, and you ask that same question or aren't as welcoming, what impact does that have on potential congregants and what does that say about the community if it happens in various, various spaces and the impact that can have.

[April:] Right. And we can tell often in a number of communities and cities where we know demographically that there are a large number of Jews of color and yet they're not in synagogue life.

We see the impact of those continual questions that fundamentally question whether or not someone belongs, instead of them receiving a welcome.

[Tani:] Yeah.

So conversely, part two of this question is what's something that you have been waiting to hear or what's something that you would love to hear.

So, I am, I'm very, so right now I'm in a master's program at Spertus and I'm just so excited, I like, I've been loving a lot of the conversation is around these very innovative and new directions in terms of different options to be Jewish in today's society. And so whether that is like, I don't know if I can like name drop and stuff, but like OneTable where it's like you can plan Shabbat dinner…

[April:] Name drop away.

[Tani:] …and like invite me to it which is like this wonderful thing. Or like Upstart that is doing all these wonderful things around education in the Jewish community and the fact that like JewV'Nation is happening and that like the URJ is creating these very purposeful communities around groups of people who traditionally and historically have not been given a voice within the Jewish community. I want that to be just as highlighted as an innovative and amazing sphere of everything and I, and I want…

[April:] From your lips to God's ears sister.

[Tani:] Yes. Yes. And it's just like there is so much momentum right now and for these purposeful inclusive spaces to be at the forefront of that and for all of these new and very creative organizations that are popping up. I would just love to hear about how they're purposely being inclusive and if they need help that there are those resources out there to make sure that the future of Jewish organizations that inclusion and it is just kind of how everything is just the way we breathe.

[April:] It's just the way we breathe.

[Tani:] That's nice. I would love, I would love that.

[April:] I would love that too Tani, funny you should say it.

So lastly, and the final question for you, you can take it in a silly way and/or a serious approach, is who or what inspires you to be a better Jew and it's up to you how you define better.

[Tani:] So I got married, I got married in January to Charles Michael Epstein.

[April:] Mazel Tov.

[Tani:] And…Thank you. Thank you. Oh, it was wonderful. It was so much fun, would it do it again, like to go back in time and just live the, the day over.

[April:] Repeat.

[Tani:] Right. Charles exemplifies everything that I love about Judaism.

[April:] Aw.

[Tani:] He really does. So, his mom told me a story about when he was younger and he'd be on the playground and if he like ever saw someone, like another kid crying, it would make him start to cry and, and then it's just that he, oh my gosh, he just embodies tikkun olam in every, in everything that he does.

Like if there is someone who needs the door held open, he will go out of his way to help them. If there is someone who is having a hard time with their suitcase, he will like miss his train so he can, he can help them.

And it is just a part of how he lives, and he doesn't ever think about it and he just does it because he believes that that's just what people do.

And he has this unconditional love of learning just to, just to be able, because we're able to learn and he wants to learn things from every single angle and is so open to discussing new ideas and believes so truly in what the world can be and is constantly just so hopeful and believes in people.

[April:] He sounds like a real mensch, or in my community that was like the highest honor, so I might say like he sounds like a real mensch in the making.

[Tani:] Yes.

[April:] He's such a good person.

[Tani:] Absolutely.

He is, he is just he's filled with, with kindness and hope and yes, he is the best.

[April:] Well that's such a sweet, sweet way to end our interview. Tani, thank you so much for joining us.

[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. L'hitraot!