People often call me a foodie. And because I’m a vegetarian environmentalist, sometime’s I’m called “a crunchy tree-hugger.” I don’t always feel like I fit these descriptions, but I still walk away flattered by these “labels.” Call me crazy, but I like it when people label me based on things I am passionate about and work actively towards.
As Jim Keen wrote in a recent column in the Detroit Jewish News, “Our society craves labels. We love to know how to identify and classify objects, places and people.”
But labels can also make people or a group feel excluded. Jim identified a struggle that JOI has long championed: inclusive language and inclusive labels, specifically the language we use to refer to those in our community who have religious backgrounds other than Judaism. All too often individuals who contribute much to our community are referred to using words that are explicitly derogatory (is my mother who has been a member of a synagogue for 20 years, a “stranger”), or in a language that only the ‘inside’ know intimately.
Jim tackled this issue in his column and challenged the Jewish community to find another word—he resorts to Spanish: otrafe or, “other faith.” We at JOI do our best to also include what people “are” rather than what they “aren’t.” The moms in our Mothers Circle program aren’t non-Jewish women raising Jewish children; they are mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children. We still need to work to overcome that challenge of negatively identifying individuals who are an integral part of our community. While difference and diversity are beautiful and contribute to the strength of the Jewish community, how can we derail that language of inequality and instead embrace the diversity in a proactive manner?
I appreciate Jim’s sentiment and, while he might not have the perfect solution, I agree with many of his challenges to the words currently employed to refer to “non-Jews” who are a part of our community. Look out for JOI’s continuing efforts to create a vocabulary that identifies what these folks are, as opposed to what they are not, in a language that we can all understand.