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Jewish Journal

When Ashkenazi and Persian worlds collide—community healing begins at shul

by Rabbi David Wolpe

February 22, 2007 | 7:00 pm

In March of 2001 I delivered the sermon abbreviated and reprinted here. Having been the rabbi at Sinai Temple for four years, it seemed time to straightforwardly address the tensions between the Persian and Ashkenazi communities.

Since that time, by dint of committees, school parents and children and genuine efforts, Sinai has managed to forge a largely integrated community.

In a comment not reproduced, I spoke about Esther's transformation in the Purim story as a model for us. We have been transforming the synagogue to a beit knesset -- a house of gathering for all Jews, a transformation which makes us proud.

I want to begin with two thought experiments. First, imagine your grandparents built a synagogue. Your parents grew up there and so did you. You knew the place and loved it.

One day, a huge population of people with the same religion but a different culture and language joined. Suddenly you felt an alien in your own home. How would you feel?

Now imagine that tomorrow a catastrophe occurs and all the American Jews have to flee. Where do we go? We go to Israel.

As American Jews lacking the time, organization or inclination to build our own synagogues, we join existing ones in Israel. We bring, of course, our own language, our own customs, our own outlooks, and it's not long before we hear our Israeli brothers and sisters say, "You know, this would be a good place if it weren't for all those American Jews."

We say to them, "But hey, we're Jews, too."

To which they answer, "You're not our kind of Jews. You don't speak our language, you don't know our customs -- you invaded our synagogue."

If you can put yourself in the place of both groups in that thought experiment, then you know what has gone on over the past 20 years at Sinai Temple. It's not the whole story, but it's a big part of it. Both groups have felt aggrieved, and as a result, they have done what aggrieved people often do, which is to dig in.

And they have not given the time, the effort or, perhaps, the emotional sympathy to understand how the other side feels.

So I want to speak very frankly to both sides about how we should be and what we should do.

First of all, let's recognize that there are differences. Sometimes these differences are painful. For example, Ashkenazim don't like to hear from Persians that our families are a mess. But it's true.

It's not true of every American Jewish family, God knows, but I have to tell you, my father grew up in a house of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, and they were all together all the time.

We have no family in this city. And that's true of almost every third-generation American I know. So when a Persian family says to an Ashkenazic family, "Look, we want our family around us. We're afraid of losing the family structure we have. We don't want our families to end up like American families," we may be defensive, but they're not wrong.

The Persian community may not be able to avoid the disintegrating family, but who can blame them for trying? Are there problems in Persian families?

Absolutely; I hear them in my office. Are there wonderful Ashkenazic families?

Yes, many. But one way of not being defensive is seeing ourselves realistically, too. And realistically, for all the blessings of America, this country has not been a blessing for the extended family.

On the other hand, to our Persian members: You must also realize that when you speak Farsi in this synagogue, this is what you are saying to your Ashkenazic fellow synagogue members, to your fellow Jews: "I do not care whether you understand my words. You are not invited to join this conversation, and that's why, in part, I'm speaking a language you don't understand."

That may not be what you intend, but it is the inevitable message.

Some of these conversations are conducted by people who do not speak English.

That I understand. But if you do speak English and choose not to use English when there are other English speakers around you, it is a way of saying, "I don't care if you understand me." That is painful, it is exclusionary, and it is a shame.

To our Ashkenazic brothers and sisters: Some of the most disturbing, prejudiced and even racist remarks I have heard in the past several years have been directed against the Persian community by the Ashkenazic community. Every time I hear about how they do business, I think "That is what people say about Jews."

How they do business. Now if you say to me, well there are members of the Persian community who are prejudiced, too, I have no quarrel with you. I'm sure you are right, but you know what? I can only change my own soul. I cannot change someone else's. So before you begin to accuse others, ask yourself what you believe and what you know about others who are not like you.

In order for us to be a community -- not an "us" and a "them" -- we have to recognize certain things. The Ashkenazic side has to realize that this synagogue will never be the synagogue that it was 40 years ago. It is not going to happen.

It has changed, and if that gives you pause and gives you pain, I understand it, but the same thing is true of this country and of this world. To our Persian members, this was founded as an Ashkenazic synagogue, as you know, and the basic rites are true to that tradition. I am delighted you chose to join us, and presumably you did so because you want this kind of synagogue. There are mores and customs that will be different from the synagogues of your origin, and we ask you to support us in those.

When two communities merge, there is enough pain to go around. Nobody gets everything they want. It is not only called a synagogue. It is called life. Here is the crucial point: When I say I want one community, I mean it so much I am ready to tell you this: If you or your children or your grandchildren are not prepared to marry a member of the other community, then you do not belong in this synagogue.

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