I am very grateful to Rabbi Hara Person for offering me space on the Ravblog to share a few words with you. She suggested, with Biennial behind us, that I write about something that I would want the rabbis to know in the aftermath. While that list is long, I appreciate your consideration as I begin here.
As many of you know, my Biennial experience was an exercise in racism; both the constant experiencing of it and then speaking about it in the moment quite publicly at my Shabbat afternoon session, which was a first for me.
I thank each of you who took the time to write to me to after I shared my experiences both in the room at my presentation, and then on Facebook. The outpouring of support from the rabbinic community and the community at large following Biennial touched me deeply.
I am thrilled to see that there seems to be a great deal of time and energy being focused on how we can be more welcoming, both as individuals and in our Jewish spaces. It is a conversation that I have longed to have for three decades, and I believe that our ever beautifully more diverse community will only thrive if we continue to keep this effort at the top of the agenda.
“To be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.”
What I find that we are not yet talking about, however, is what happens after someone has been left feeling marginalized or dehumanized by our community. Even as someone who has experienced this for most of my life, I had not really considered it myself until after Biennial and I started to received messages from people.
The messages came, literally, in volume. Outrage. Disbelief. Confusion. Sadness. Anger. And now that I’ve found some quiet time and space to process things, I have found myself struck by what was not said. Or, more accurately, what was not asked.
Are you OK? What can I do for you?
I can count quite literally on one hand the number of people—friends, strangers and clergy alike—who asked if I was OK. Or if I needed support following Biennial. And that really surprised me. Had I, God forbid, been in an accident, people would have come bearing flowers or chocolate chip coffee cake. They would have asked if I’m OK. And what they can do to support me while I heal.
But was there no coffee cake on offer amidst the outrage and sadness. And, really, I could have used some.
It is often said that people do not ask questions that they do not already know the answer to. But I have come to learn that, many times, people do not ask questions that they know have an uncomfortable answer.
In my case, we all know that the answer is no. I was not OK after Biennial. We who are dehumanized for our race, religion, sexual orientation, or abilities are never OK when attacked. On my book tour, I tell people that it feels like my heart has been broadsided by a truck moving 75 miles per hour each time that I meet racism and intolerance. That I am never sure if my heart will start beating again. When I will be able to breathe again. And it is always a hit and run, where the offender slams into me and keeps moving. Without care or apology.
When it comes to speaking uncomfortable truths, I find that I am an exception rather than the rule. I am finally at a place where I am very comfortable speaking out when an incident takes place. And I am quite comfortable saying that I was not OK. But it has taken decades of therapy and very hard work to become this version of me. For many years, I choked on my silence, put on a brave face, and pretended that I was OK. And there are many—too many—who still remain silent, simply because we don’t find that there is really an open-ness to discussing it.
Until we are at a place where each person is greeted with the same warm communal embrace, I believe that it is important that we also consider proactively how to respond in the aftermath. To be asked, “Are you OK?” “What can I do for you?” is a critical place to begin because these questions say that we do not have to carry the pain alone.
And to be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.
I acknowledge that these conversations can be uncomfortable ones for all of us. People who love me dearly did not ask if I was OK after Biennial. Some could not bear to even acknowledge what took place, including people who saw it for themselves. But I believe that sharing the truth of all of this a big part of how we begin to make sure that it does not continue.
As our rabbis, leaders and teachers, I encourage you to consider both the before and the after. We welcome the outrage, sadness, anger and sermons. But, please. Ask if we are OK. Ask if we need support. It matters so much more than you know.
Marra B. Gad is a Los Angeles-based author and independent film and television producer. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and holds a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University. Her memoir, Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, was published by Agate Bolden in November 2019.
Photo credit: Bobby Quillard