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Counting, Community, Census

05/22/2020 03:44:23 PM

May22

Shabbat Shalom! It is time to count the Omer!   

            Today is 44 days, which is six weeks and two days of the Omer. The kabbalistic realm of this Shabbat is strength in majesty.

            This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar, tells us of the census of the Israelite people in the wilderness, the one time such a thing is sanctioned. However, unlike our ancestors who are told that they should generally never count themselves outside of this one time, the United States holds a Census every ten years, and this year is that year. April 1st was “Census Day,” though at this point, almost two months later, only 60% of American households have responded. All dates regarding follow up from the Census offices, counting Americans experiencing homelessness, and the decisions made based on the census response have been pushed back significantly due to the COVID-19 crisis.

            There are many valid critiques of holding a Census in general, some of which we discussed in our Torah study on Thursday. There is a danger sometimes for minorities to allow themselves to be counted. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary writes, “A census is a practical tool but also a mode of enforcing power. Who does the recording and who is recorded are not incidental issues: rather, the answers provide a form of centralizing authority and of creating a definitive hierarchy…While there is something rousing about the emergence of organized troops from newly liberated and still somewhat beleaguer people of Israel, other occasions of census taking unleash chaos on the Israelites.”[1]

            Yet, due to the way many decisions are made based on Census responses – such as the distribution of tax dollars in different geographic as well as categorical areas, redistricting for legislative and school districts, and reapportionment of House of Representative seats – answering the Census is incredibly important for your local community. You can also be fined for ignoring it.

            It doesn’t seem any great distributions of power or wealth were dependent on the numbers of each tribe in the Israelite Census of Parashat Bamidbar. The numbers were largely to determine their military might, and perhaps secondarily to strategically assign placement and jobs around and within the camp with the Mishkan as its center (which could be seen as related to the socioeconomic classes of the day). But it’s clear it was important for the health of the community nonetheless, seeing as it was a special exception to a law otherwise forbidding it. I urge you all now, if you haven’t already, to go to https://my2020census.gov/ and fill out the Census to ensure you and your family are counted, and your district gets appropriate funds, representatives, and delegates to serve and represent your community as fairly as is currently possible with an imperfect system.

            May we each count, find strength in our collective numbers, and majesty in our individuality.

           Yael Rosenbloom wrote the following kavannah for this day of the Omer for Ritualwell: “We are all majestic beings here on this precious planet for but a brief moment. May we commit to remembering each other’s holiness, living from love, and standing up for our sacred Mother Earth.”

            We may all be majestic beings, full of our own strength and holiness, and called to look upon each other with love and Divinity, but we know this is not always what comes through in systemic community relations.

            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar, a census is taken of “the whole Isralite community”. In actuality, only men of military age are counted. Women, children, the elderly, the disabled, the mixed multitudes, and probably many others I can’t even think of are discounted. As we read this parasha, we must ask ourselves: who throughout history has not been counted as full parts of our communities, whether as Jews or Americans or merely as people? And what have we all lost as a community, when some are left out.

            This past Sunday, an article was published in eJewishPhilanthropy, and later reposted in The Forward, about the percentage of American Jews who are Jews of Color. The article, written by demographers Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, disagreed with the other most recent survey on the matter, citing that Jews of Color make up half of what that survey claimed (6% vs. 12%). I admit when I first heard the 12% statistic, I was surprised that it was that high, but I certainly felt no need to prove it wrong. The survey that concluded in higher numbers of Jews of Color was commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, which supporters of the Sheskin and Dashefsky results point out as though that makes it more likely to exaggerate its numbers for their own agenda. My inclination would be to assume that a Jews of Color Field Building Initiative has a better idea, based on personal experience and deeper or more relevant research, of what questions to be asking or how to expand who is answering in order to get more honest results about Jews of Color.

            Tema Smith, a writer, Jewish educator, and Jew of Color, pointed out in her rebuttal to the Sheskin and Dashefsy piece that often Jewish community studies are executed by “creating lists of people with ‘typically’ Jewish last names, random dialing through organizational databases, random dialing in neighborhoods above a certain concentration of Jewish homes per the census, and disseminating a call to respond through mainstream Jewish communal organizations – all areas where Jews of Color are woefully underrepresented.” If surveyors like Sheskin and Dashefsky don’t even know how to reach Jews of color to respond to their surveys, how can Jews of Color be accurately counted?

            However, beyond the short-sightedness of this article and it’s claims, Sheskin and Dashefsky do land on a positive conclusion: “responsible planning by the American Jewish community demands recognition that not all Jews are of Eastern Europe and Ashkenazi origin; and future research on American Jews needs to be sensitive to discerning Jews of Color.”  

            Although I would defer to the Jews of Color responding to this controversy that they – and thus the whole Jewish community – are better served when everyone is counted accurately, I also acknowledge the importance of each individual person. Whether 6% or 12% or 1% or 70% of the American Jewish population are Jews of Color, Jews with disabilities, intermarried Jews, Queer Jews, and so on, we know that all of these varieties of Jewish identities exist and that they matter. This week’s Torah portion conducts a Census, though not a very complete one. In other areas of the Tanakh, the Israelites are forbidden from taking a census. We are to understand from this that although it may have been necessary to count their potential military force at the very beginning of Israelite nationhood as they leave Egypt, ultimately the numbers don’t matter because the community as a whole and each individual within are holy unto themselves.

            This Shabbat, let’s move beyond “who counts” and enter a reality of “We’re all here together.” Let’s honor each other’s differences and work together to create more just systems for us all. May we see the holy majesty in each other and honor the Divine strength of every Jewish person. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

[1] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary 791 - 792

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Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780