My name is Marge Sunners. I am 63 years old living in the suburbs of Boston, and to the best of my historical family knowledge, a White Ashkenazi Jew. In August 2010, my husband and I were on vacation in Chicago during the overlap of each of our 11 month period of saying Mourners Kaddish, for both of our deceased fathers. My husband and a Chicago family friend had suggested we go to Congregation Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Hebrew Ethiopian Congregation on Shabbat to fulfill this obligation and to have a “different” Shabbat experience.
We went to this particular synagogue to both fulfill our mourner’s obligation and admittedly as curiosity seekers, as we had never been to a Black Jewish Synagogue. We were pleasantly surprised with what we found. It was a familiar traditional Jewish service, somewhat similar to what I had previously experienced in a modern Orthodox Congregation. There was an Ethiopian flavor in many of the congregants’ dress and choice of musical drums. I had never heard anyone play the Shofar (Rams Horn) musically except on the High Holydays. I was struck by how very warm and friendly the congregation was. They really included G-d in their prayers, with feeling and belief. Congregants were joyfully participating and no one was dozing off during the services.
At the end of the services new visitors were asked to introduce themselves. My husband and I, as well as our two friends from Chicago, were not the only visitors that day. A mother and her adult daughter from another Black Jewish Synagogue in Philadelphia also introduced themselves. How could I have not known that there were many Black Jews and organized Black Jewish Congregations in the US? Lunch was offered to everyone and, as visitors, we were asked to go to the front of the line where we were seated with these 2 women, Eudora and Aviva, from Philadelphia. During lunch my husband and I said that it was a shame that Boston was so far from Chicago or we would be back next week. When Eudora and Aviva heard us say that, they immediately invited us to their synagogue, stating that Philadelphia was within driving distance.
Needless to say we accepted that invitation and within several weeks we drove 12 hours round trip to Congregation Temple Beth El in Philadelphia, PA. That was in 2010. Over the 8 years that followed we became great friends with Eudora and her large family, as well as the members of this warm, loving, observant congregation and their Rabbis. We attended Aviva’s wedding and the weddings of other congregants. We were asked to be the godparents of Aviva and husband Yehuda’s two sons. We attended yearly Founder’s Day, the Rabbi’s anniversary parties, surprise birthday celebrations, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and received many visitors to our home in the suburbs of Boston. We became semi-regulars visiting this synagogue long distance 6-10 times a year. When we are not in attendance, we usually follow services and Sabbath School online. The more we attended the more I felt the “Spirit of the Almighty.” I had never felt the “Ruach” in any other synagogue before.
When my mother fell ill with 4 different kinds of cancer, it was Congregation Temple Beth El in Philadelphia who rallied around me with words of encouragement. Eudora made sure my mother’s name was on their prayer list. This congregation taught me how to really pray and connect with G-d. I began to believe my mother would be OK. My mother just celebrated her 90th birthday and her cancers are all in remission! Today, I very much believe in the power of prayer. We belong to a local congregation in the suburbs of Boston also, but are rarely there. This is because NOTHING compares spiritually to our Congregation Beth El experience, except maybe our recent trip to Israel.
Congregation Temple Beth El organized a trip to Israel in June 2018. I had never been to Israel. I knew that going with this group would be a trip of a lifetime. My husband who has a real fear of flying even agreed. This was a sign that we just had to go. My husband insisted we drive down to Newark Airport and fly with the group rather than fly on our own from Boston. I could write pages on our trip throughout Israel; it was a life-altering event. Both my husband and I returned from the trip as changed individuals. In fact, the amazing things that we experienced would be difficult, if not impossible to put into words.
Overshadowing that, however, is one event that so moved me that I felt that I needed to share the experience. As such, I will just focus on the one story that I was asked to recount.
It was the middle of our trip and Shabbat was approaching. Friday evening walking back to our hotel in Jerusalem, it was unbelievable to pass strangers and be wished a GOOD SHABBAT. We lit candles as a group and welcomed the Shabbat. We had a lovely dinner together. Most of us, I believe 19 of the 27 travelers in our group, were from Congregation Temple Beth El, for which we now consider ourselves members.
Our tour was being led by an amazing and knowledgeable American Jew who had made Aliyah some years ago with her family and was now an Israeli. Michelle was of ½ Ashkenazi descent and ½ Yemenite descent. She seemed to be very accepting and welcoming to this community of Black Jews. The organization she works for is called Keshet. Michelle said her organization had found a synagogue that we could walk to from our hotel, and that men and women could sit together and pray together much like we do at Congregation Temple Beth El.
On Saturday morning we all gathered after breakfast and walked for 15-20 minutes to the synagogue. Some of our group were young and walked at a quick pace while others walked at a much slower pace. As a result, we arrived 8 minutes after services had started. As we walked in the Rabbi joked that we must be Jews because we were late. He went on to say that only Christian visitors arrive early. I thought that was an odd thing to say. If someone wants guests to feel welcomed, a simple “Welcome to our congregation. Get yourselves comfortably seated and turn to page xx of the prayer book at your seat” would be sufficient. Was this his way of telling his congregation that these Black Americans were Jews?
At first, my husband and I sat in the first row with 3 other Bethelites but the Bimah was raised and looking up hurt my neck, so we moved one row back where we were the only people in that row. The Rabbi of this synagogue mentioned our congregation by name but did not introduce our Rabbis to their community, which also seemed odd. The Rabbi of this congregation walked by the 3 Black congregants in the first row and asked us where we were from. We answered the suburbs of Boston. Being White and from the suburbs of Boston, this Rabbi assumed we were NOT with Congregation Temple Beth El and had perhaps just walked in at the same time.
A few moments later, during the services, the Gabbai came up to me and asked if I wanted to do an Aliyah. I was not sure if here in Israel they had an English cheat sheet. I was embarrassed to ask, as my Hebrew reading is not good. When I declined, the Gabbai asked my husband, who also declined. However, sitting behind me was Nina, the second adult daughter of my close friend Eudora. Nina asked if she could do the Aliyah in my stead. I chimed in and said that would be great as Nina reads Hebrew well. To our shock, the Gabbai said he would first have to ask the Rabbi. This struck me as very odd. Ten to fifteen minutes later the Gabbai said that they were expecting some other guests from a Congregation in Ohio and needed to keep some Aliyahs open for them. This was bull! Nina was clearly hurt and upset. I knew what this was…it was Racism. Nina got up and went to the ladies room where her mother followed.
That was it for me, as I could not enjoy the Shabbat Service. My mind was obsessed with what had just happened. The Torah was read and the Aliyot were done. Not one Aliyah was given to any congregant of Congregation Temple Beth El, not even one of our Rabbis. However, among the Aliyot given was a congregant of this Israeli synagogue, originally from Uganda. He was a young Black Jew who, according to this Rabbi, received a Conservative Conversion to Judaism. The Rabbi went on to say that this young man was unfairly not being allowed to make Aliyah because his was NOT an Orthodox Conversion. Then, this Rabbi went on to say, let’s call it what it is…Racism!
This Rabbi also did his sermon on doing the right thing. He went on and on about how we have choices to save our teeth by flossing and we don’t. We have choices to sustain our bodies without killing animals and eating them, but we don’t. This was it. I was ready to burst. After services I went up to that Gabbai and said that he tainted the Shabbat for me and others by not allowing Nina to have an Aliyah. I told him that his Rabbi was a hypocrite. He preached about doing the right thing and did not practice what he preached. He spoke about the Orthodox Rabbis in Israel not recognizing a Conservative Conversion, whereas he was not recognizing a Black Israelite Jew who was born a Jew in that her mother was a practicing Jew before her birth. I told him to share my displeasure with his Rabbi.
Within 2 minutes I overheard the Rabbi speaking to Michelle, our tour guide, saying that he understood that a member of the visiting congregation from Philadelphia was upset with him. I volunteered, “That would be me!” He looked shocked. How could this White Bostonian be part of this group? I explained my journey but more importantly, I asked him why he would not recognize Nina as a Jew who could do an Aliyah? I explained that Nina was a Torah Reader and had a Bat Mitzvah. I don’t read Torah and never had a Bat Mitzvah. He asked me “but is your mother a Jew?” I replied, “Yes” but due to the Holocaust I could not go back more than 2 generations. Then I added because of Slavery Nina can’t go back to her origins but her mother was a practicing Jew from before she was born. He told me due to Conservative Jewish Laws he can only recognize a Jew who is of a Jewish mother or who had a Conservative or more religious conversion.
Then I pulled the race card and said why did you think I was a Jew, because I was White? What if my mother was Christian? Your Gabbai never asked me that question. He just assumed that I was a Jew because I was White and from Boston. I added that it just so happens that Nina has a younger brother who had an Orthodox conversion. By looking at Nina, did your Gabbai know she did not also have such a conversion? I said, “It should be your practice to ask everyone, or no one.” Then this Rabbi said he went online to research Congregation Temple Beth El and, according to their website, congregants are Self Determined Jews. I however explained that this is a community of 4-5 generations of practicing Jews.
I assumed that because I was challenging his authority, this Rabbi raised his voice while speaking with me. He was not acting very Rabbinical, so I may not have been as respectful as I could have been in making my comments to him. In retrospect I now regret this. I do not, however, regret what I said, just the manner in which I verbalized. I called this Rabbi a hypocrite for defending his Uganda-immigrant congregant against the laws of the Orthodox Rabbis who would not allow him to make Aliyah. Why could he not see that he was doing the same thing by not recognizing Nina as a Jew?
This Rabbi asked me where I draw the line between Christianity and Judaism. I replied that when Christ is involved as in a “Jew for Jesus,” that is not a Jew. I told him in my 8 years with this congregation, never has Christ been involved in the service and the Rabbis are very Torah observant. I said when someone lives as a Jew, observes all the laws and traditions as a Jew, they are Jews. No one can really PROVE that their heritage is from Jewish mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers etc. I said that this is a man-made law that a Jew must be born of a Jewish born mother. He ended by shouting “My house, My rules! I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”
The Oneg was in progress. I went over to my Rabbi Debra Bowen to express my frustration. In a very gentle Rabbinical tone, she said just remember whose house this really is, and who is the only Judge. It is not that Rabbi, nor those rule-making Rabbis of the Conservative Movement, but only HaShem! She recognized that I was new to this, but as a community, she and others have faced this sort of thing before. She went on to say that it is always bad when someone is so closed-minded, but that will not change who we are or what we do. I am paraphrasing what Rabbi Bowen said, but her actual language and tone was incredibly reassuring. I am so proud she is my Rabbi!
I looked over and saw Nina, smart, learned, kind, and sweet Nina who was shown how divisive we Jews can be. I know she was hurt by this. Especially because this was Israel, maybe I had expected more. I have a daughter Nina’s age and I felt so hurt for her, as if this had happened to my own child. I so desperately wanted to fix this, and was not able to. Perhaps Nina might consider writing about how this affected her and how she dealt with it.
In following days, we made a visit to the Knesset, where our group met with a Member of Knesset and Deputy Minister of Diplomacy, Michael Oren, who is the equivalent to the V.P. of Israel. He was familiar with Congregation Temple Beth El from his years as the Israeli Ambassador to the US. When he asked us about our trip so far, Rabbi Bowen asked me to retell the story of Shabbat. Although I was careful not to mention the name of the Israeli Congregation or that offensive Rabbi, Michael Oren was able to figure it out by asking us probing questions. He was not happy with this story. He had worked hard to make sure that Congregants of Beth El and other Israelite Synagogues were recognized and included in the Birthright program to Israel. He and the director of the Keshet Tour, who knew each other from serving in the Israeli Army, said they would look into the matter. We had no idea what that meant.
The next day after breakfast, we were told that the offending Rabbi had contacted our tour group the night before, indicating that he wanted to speak with us. I naively thought it was to offer us a heart-felt apology. When the Rabbi met with our group, he offered no apology. He used the meeting as a forum to explain and justify his actions. He said that it was not “Halachically” allowed, (i.e. against Conservative Jewish Law) to give an Aliyah to someone who was not born to a Jewish mother or had an Orthodox or Conservative Conversion. He did not concede that he had profiled Nina as a Black Woman and never asked any questions of her background. He said he had gone online and saw that Congregation Temple Beth El was a congregation of “Self-Identified Jews.” He made it sound like “instant oatmeal,” just add water and you’re a Jew. He did not acknowledge what I had told him – that Congregation Temple Beth El was a congregation of Jews going back 4-5 generations. Nor did he apologize for not introducing our Rabbis to his Congregation. He could not see that his actions were Racist in any way, and repeatedly said he was just following Conservative Jewish Law. Members of our group spoke up much more that morning than I did. People were concerned and rightfully so. I did apologize for the manner in which I spoke to him on the Sabbath.
From my perspective, nothing was resolved from that meeting except that now this Rabbi could say to MK and Deputy Director of Diplomacy, Michael Oren that he met with our group to try to explain himself. I was left with 2 nagging questions. What is a Jew? and what is a Racist?
I believe anyone who lives a Jewish life is a Jew. I believe Israelite, Ashkenazi, Sephardic Jews, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Jews are ALL Jews. Our own Jewish history has shown us how not acting as one people will lead to our own destruction.
Overt Racism is very easy to spot. However, what occurred in Israel on this trip was a covert form of Racism. I think this Israeli Rabbi was a Racist because he failed to ask the White woman from Boston if she was born of a Jewish mother. I think he was Racist because he failed to ask a Black Woman from Philadelphia if she was born of a Jewish mother. We can debate the particulars about maternal lineage, but without asking, assumptions were made based on Race.
What if I was born of a Christian mother? No one could tell by looking at me whether I was or wasn’t. Nina’s mother became a practicing Jew before her birth, so doesn’t that make her born of a Jewish mother? Ashkenazi Jews can declare their Jewish heritage without proof, as WWI, WWII and the Holocaust destroyed many records. Israelite Jews have no historical records either. This is due to many years of American Slavery. Why was there a different standard applied? This is just the opinion of one Ashkenazi Jew who was lucky enough to have HaShem use me to reveal concealed Racism in this one Israeli synagogue.
Marge Sunners has been a Special Needs Advocate for over 23 years, focusing primarily on individuals and their families who have a child with a hearing loss. She has a BA in Sociology with a specialty in Social Work and has completed various trainings through the Federation for Children with Special Needs. She has provided parent trainings and workshops.
Currently Marge is a community representative on the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston. She has served on the board of the Special Needs Advocacy Network (SPAN) for the past 20 years. Her previous roles have included advisor to various state committees, Advisory Committee to Yesodot, Gateway, Sudbury Valley Special Needs Initiative, the Bureau of Jewish Education; Past Chapter President of Women’s American ORT; Past board member of Jewish Family Services of Metrowest; Past member of the Public Policy Committee (PPC) of the (JCRC).
Marge and her husband of 42 years, Dr. James Sunners, are parents of an adult, bilingual deaf son, diagnosed with five disabilities. They also have an adult daughter and two grandsons. She can be reached at email@example.com.