Being a “Non”

A hot topic of conversation here in the Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) office is the barrier of language. We often consult with Jewish organizations about language used on their program marketing and websites, identifying the use of Hebrew and Yiddish words or organizational acronyms as potential barriers to participation. But the language barrier goes beyond invitations to programs and events.

Take, for example, The Mothers Circle, a program of education and support for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children within the context of intermarriage/partnership. The question often arises of why not just say participants are “non-Jewish women” raising Jewish children? It would certainly save space on flyers and Facebook posts, so what’s so bad about being a “non?”

A few weeks ago, I faced this very issue. But this time, I was the “non,” and I didn’t like it.

I was invited to a gathering hosted by a friend of my boyfriend’s. I knew that most of the people there would probably be of my boyfriend’s ethnicity. Not only are my boyfriend and I in an interfaith relationship, but we also come from two often-opposing ethnic backgrounds, adding another layer of issues to our already complicated interfaith relationship. For this post, I won’t identify the ethnicity, but you’ll get the idea.

The first time I met his group of friends, I was apprehensive of being not just the only non-[insert ethnicity] person, but also the only Jewish person. However, their warmth and welcoming instantly put my mind at ease. So when I was invited to this next shindig, I didn’t think anything of it. I know this group has accepted me, and that was that.

…Until someone said to me “don’t worry, you won’t be the only ‘non-[insert ethnicity]’ there.” This completely changed my attitude toward attending. Five minutes earlier, I was excited to see these new acquaintances again; but now, I felt different—as if I didn’t belong. My friend was trying to make me feel comfortable, but in doing so, made me more uncomfortable with the situation. Pointing out the fact that I was not of their ethnicity, no matter what phrase followed or what intention it stemmed from, made me feel like even more of an outsider than I already was. My first encounter made me feel at ease, but this simple statement set me back, making me feel like I would always be seen as “not one of them,” as something else. I had to wonder if I would ever truly be accepted. Hearing that I was a “non” meant, to me, that I would always be a “non,” no matter how many parties I attended.

Now what if my friend had said the same statement, but had replaced the “non” phrase, like this: “don’t worry, you won’t be the only person of another background there.” This is how we refer to the women of The Mothers Circle, so would it make me feel better about the party? In a way, yes. It would remove the negative inherent the word “non;” but in truth, what I really wanted was to not have it acknowledged at all. I just wanted to be someone’s girlfriend going to a party with his friends.

For the women of The Mothers Circle, we have found there is comradery in learning how to raise Jewish children with other women who were not raised Jewish. For institutions to find these women and to let them know the program is out there, it should be explicitly stated on promotional material. But when these women are just with a group of people—with no religious or cultural context—wouldn’t they rather just be their husband’s wives and their children’s mothers, and themselves?

Using inclusive language isn’t about sticking to a list of rules, but rather having an understanding of the people in your midst. It’s about recognizing when the need to identify differences serves the newcomer, and when it’s only making those already inside feel even more insular. There are times when one wants to be identified, and times when one wants to blend in with the crowd, and making newcomers feel welcome means being sensitive to these subtle differences.

While to some, saying “non-Jewish” is simply a way to identify people in our community, many fail to realize that this can make newcomers, and those who have chosen a place under the Jewish tent, feel excluded. No matter how welcoming we are in our programming, and regardless of our good intentions, using the wrong phrase can undo all of the good work we are doing to reach out to newcomers in the Jewish community.

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