Questioning Community, Part I

Published Oct 18, 2010

Last Thursday, I blogged about the sensation of walking through life as a visible and invisible privileged minority. I also wrote about how, within North American Judaism, Ashkenazi culture is often taken to be the Jewish culture; we ‘white’ Jews identify and define ourselves as religious ‘others’ within a Christian majority while often forgetting about those minorities within our own religion.

Yesterday night, I was asked to grapple with these same concepts from a slightly different perspective. I attended an event geared towards young social activist Jews. The evening contained all the hallmarks of such a gathering; a convivial and earnest atmosphere; delicious vegetarian potluck; and talking and thinking about justice, Jewishness, and privilege. Beyond my awareness of my privilege as a white, young, middle-class, straight, able-bodied North American, I also felt privileged to be a part of this meeting group of inspired and inspiring young people.

The 20-something Jewish community in New Orleans is small, and consists chiefly of transplants from elsewhere in the United States. For the most part, gatherings and get-togethers are dominated (numerically, at least) by current and past AVODAH Corps members. This means that any time I walk into a gathering of Jews, I feel at home, surrounded by people who – for the most part – share my values and my struggles.

My joy at belonging to this vital and close-knit community, and the fact that I have the option of surrounding myself with people like me, has allowed me to be oblivious. I never stopped to consider how it would feel for an ‘outsider’ – that is, someone who didn’t participate in AVODAH – to try to enter this community to find and define their own space. I never stopped to think about this until last night, when several individuals at our gathering were brave enough to express, in a room full of AVODAH alumni, how frustrating and alienating it has been for them to search for a space that isn’t dominated by AVODAH ideals and AVODAH alum.

It was difficult for me to hear these sentiments, and it made me wonder: How can I feel a sense of belonging in a community that – amidst earnest discussions of power, privilege, and celebrating difference – has unintentionally served to alienate others? How can we make our community a more diverse space? How can we make sure that the larger New Orleans Jewish community recognizes the contributions that individual young Jews are making in this city, rather than celebrating AVODAH accomplishment exclusively, because lumping things together is easier that acknowledging multiplicity?

These questions aren’t empty or rhetorical; they are vital questions that need to be asked and thought about, particularly by my New Orleans community. I’ll be posing these questions to people tonight, and will continue this post tomorrow with additional voices adding to the discussion. Please feel free to comment, as well!

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