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Jewish Americans join conversation about racism

Rabbi Alan Rabishaw listens to a discussion of race relations at Temple Or Rishon in Orangevale on Sunday. He said the 260 families in his congregation have roots in India, Africa, Mexico, Vietnam, China and Israel.
Rabbi Alan Rabishaw listens to a discussion of race relations at Temple Or Rishon in Orangevale on Sunday. He said the 260 families in his congregation have roots in India, Africa, Mexico, Vietnam, China and Israel. sabeephotos@sacbee.com

Orangevale’s Temple Or Rishon became an incubator Sunday for exploring the relationship between Jews and African Americans, their shared experiences and what Jews can do to address the problems of racism and inequality.

The frank conversation – led by Mira Loma High School graduate April Baskin, an African American Jewish woman – was one of dozens that unfolded this weekend at congregations, libraries and community centers throughout the region as part of the grass-roots effort Sacramento Faces Race.

Between 10 and 20 percent of the estimated 5.3 million American Jews are people of color, said Baskin, past president of the Jewish Multiracial Network. “My experience with being a Jew and a person of color is intertwined. Jews have experienced both great privilege and significant oppression over time.”

Sacramento Faces Race – organized by a core of educators and activists including Baskin and her mother, Lynn Berkley – was designed to further conversations started by Mayor Kevin Johnson, law enforcement, students and community leaders in the wake of last year’s police shooting of an unarmed African American youth, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. The officer who shot Brown was cleared of civil rights violations by the U.S. Justice Department.

“Blaming the police, blaming black people is not going to solve this,” said Berkley, who’s hoping the discussions will promote empathy and build on the long history of Jews and African Americans working together.

The 40 people in attendance viewed a YouTube video on “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” a book by social scientist Dr. Joy DeGruy, who said she and many other African Americans are uncomfortable living in their skin in America.

“We’re looking at 246 years of chattel slavery in American history,” DeGruy said. “You can’t have 246 years of trauma and expect that nothing happened.”

All Americans, regardless of race, have been infected by this historical, multigenerational trauma, DeGruy said. But after slavery was abolished, no ex-slaves or their descendants received therapy for centuries of trauma.

Temple congregant Muriel Brounstein, who said she once met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after writing him in jail, said Sunday’s conversation “brought out feelings that I didn’t know I had.”

“My mother barely escaped the Holocaust on the last boat out of Hamburg, Germany, on Nov. 2, 1938 – the night of Kristallnacht,” when the extermination of Jews in Germany began, Brounstein said.

“My mother never got therapy and was a bitter, unhappy person who never healed,” she said, adding she now has more empathy for the descendants of slaves who never fully healed, either.

Both African Americans and Jews who were dehumanized by Hitler and the Nazis have shown tremendous resilience, April Baskin said, but she added that white Ashkenazi Jews enjoy privileges that come with being white that Jews of color don’t, such as not being viewed as exotic outsiders whose roots and Jewishness are often questioned.

Rabbi Alan Rabishaw said the 260 families in his congregation have roots in India, Africa, Mexico, Vietnam, China and Israel and accept people regardless of sexual orientation.

“Our doors are open to everyone,” he said. “We’re not solving anything today, but what happens next? What should we be doing? How should we be building bridges with the African American community right here in Sacramento?”

Eighty-year-old Gerry Burstain, who was born in Palestine before it became Israel, said he’d like to start an exchange between Temple Or Rishon and African American churches to build understanding and explore common ground. “We can visit them, and they can visit us.”

His friend Saul Rapkin, 67, wants to go even further. “We go back and forth on why anti-Semitism happens, but we never go out and talk to the anti-Semites and why they are that way. If we don’t talk to them, we won’t change their minds.”

For more information, go to www.sacramentofacesrace.com.

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, Lynn Berkley was incorrectly referred to by another last name.

Stephen Magagnini: (916) 321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

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