Recently, I had my Bar-Mitzvah, a coming of age ceremony that comes at the age of 13 for Jewish boys. This is an excerpt from my D’var Torah, the final part of my Bar-Mitzvah, where I give a speech that connects to my Torah portion and my Bar-Mitzvah Project:
Shabbat Shalom everyone.
In my Torah portion, Exodus, chapter 14 verses 15-25, The Israelites are trapped, with the Egyptians behind them, and the sea in front of them. God helps Moses part the sea, and creates a barrier between the Israelites and the Egyptians, stopping the Egyptians from capturing the Israelites during the night. The Israelites made it across the sea, escaping the Egyptians, and they were finally free.
Even though they were free, they were not content. A little later in the Torah portion, the Israelites complained to Moses about not having enough food, and shortly after that they complained about not having enough water.
This Torah portion shows how the road to freedom is rarely short and easy. For example, the Israelites faced many challenges after they left Egypt. They had to cross the parted sea with the Egyptians chasing them. Once the Israelites reached the other side of the sea and found themselves in the wilderness, they complained about not having enough food and water.
In this part of the Torah, the Israelites escape from slavery, but find that they still do not have everything they need. For them, they do not have enough food or water. And do not have homes to live in. This can connect to what happened, and still happens to Black people in America. African Americans also were once enslaved, but once they were released from slavery, just like the Israelites, they were still not truly free. For example, less than 60 years ago, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Why? Many southern states required Black people to pass a literacy test to vote. The test was given by white people who did not want the African Americans to vote, so the judges were often biased. The Voting Rights Act made it easier for Black people to vote by outlawing literacy tests as a voter registration requirement. This was just one of many big steps taken to level the playing field in society for African Americans. However we still need to fight against discrimination of all kinds.
My Bar-Mitzvah Tzedakah Project also connects to this big idea that freedom is not always what it seems, and is rarely immediate. I am making and selling mosaic pendants on my website, skatependants.org. I started working on this project to raise money for The Diversify Ice Foundation, an organization that raises money to help Black and Latino figure skaters who want to compete at the highest levels of figure skating get the resources and coaching they need to do that. My starting goal was to raise 3,000 dollars, and thanks to donations from so many of you, I have already raised around 2,400 dollars.
Diversify Ice is an effort to fight back against the discrimination of African American and Latino skaters. One of the challenges they face in the figure skating world is trying to feel like they belong. A lot of African Americans who might want to figure skate may feel like figure skating is not a sport for them because they see so few people who look like them in the sport. Skating is also very expensive for some families. This is why The Foundation was created to address these and other barriers.
Before my bar mitzvah project, I thought I was pretty aware about racial discrimination and bias in our world. But when I started working on my bar mitzvah project, I realized I still had so much to learn. Several weeks ago, in English class, we were discussing a certain part of the short story, American History. In the story, a 12 year old Puerto Rican girl named Elena becomes friends with the new kid on the block, a white boy named Eugene , with the only house that has a lawn, and trees. Shortly after they become friends, President John F Kennedy is assassinated. The kids are all sent home early from school. It was the same day that Eugene had invited Elena over to his house for the first time. When Elena reaches the house, Eugene’s mother greets her, and then turns her away, showing disdain towards Elena because she lives in El building, the large apartment where many Puerto Ricans live. The mother gives the excuse that since they are moving soon, her son does not need any friends. In my class, we were asked why Elena was turned away. My classmates made several guesses, taking the mother’s excuses literally. I finally spoke up, I said,” she was turned away because she was Puerto Rican, and the mother was white.” Before I started my project, I would have not immediately made this assumption. My project taught me to better spot examples of systemic racism and racial stereotyping. You can contribute to my project by going to skatependants.org to support Diversify Ice.
The African American experience in America links to what happened to the Israelites when they escaped slavery. The Israelites did not have enough food and water, and had other challenges in the wilderness. Similarly, the African Americans also had challenges, even after they were officially freed from slavery.
What can we do to make it easier for racial and religious groups who face discrimination and barriers? For starters, when you see or hear racial stereotyping or other similar incidents of bias, try and do something about it. Don’t just stand to the side. The next step would be to take action to help repair the damage that has already been done to society by racism and religious bigotry. For example, you can learn more about the challenges faced by racial and religious minority groups and support organizations working to address those challenges.