Sunday, April 13, 2008

Metzora & Economic Segregation

I wrote last week that "just as our ancestors were inclined to reject individuals based on unjustified fears, we are prone to excluding others for reasons that are equally unwarranted, and these two parashot (especially Metzora) teach us to do better."

Anyone who teaches children and adolescents is familiar with this problem, but the tendency to exclude others for flimsy reasons isn't confined to young people. Growing up, I knew that no one in my family was welcome in the region's most prestigious country club - that was why there was also a Jewish country club.

My family didn't belong to the Jewish country club, either. We didn't play golf; it was a distance away; and it was expensive. But that's not the point.

The point I want to make is that many of our Jewish institutions, unfortunately including some congregations, tend to act like a country club. I don't mean that they have golf courses (although I did work for one congregation that had tennis courts and a swimming pool and was building a basketball court). Too often, however, they act as if they're composed of homogeneous groups of affluent Jews, to the point that less affluent Jews feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.

For example, a decade or so ago I had a student in the school who was planning not to celebrate as a bat mitzvah because her family could not afford the kind of lavish kiddush lunch and elaborate evening party that had become the norm in the congregation. To my mind, being called to the Torah at the age of religious majority ought to have nothing to do with the kind of party a young person's parents might throw.

It's by no means a new problem. Centuries ago, some Jewish communities had "sumptuary laws" intended to limit the expenditure connected with a simcha.

It's not, however, just a matter of the cost of celebrations. While it is a reality of nonprofit life in the U.S. that institutions need to cultivate donors of large amounts of money - which, to be clear, helps to keep membership affordable for the rest of us - social mores that make anyone feel less welcome because of income level or occupation have no place in our congregations.

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