Racism in America: A Sephardic Rabbi’s Perspective
In the fight against terrorism abroad and illegal immigration within, a dangerous drawback can emerge: xenophobia among the citizens. Suspicion is cast on anyone that looks different from the rest of society, whether it be blacks, Hispanics or Semites. Rabbi Gabriel Lumbroso, a resident of Estacada, a semi-rural town located to the south east of Portland, Oregon, has been doing his best to combat anti-Semitism and racism in his community.
A French Sephardic Jew whose family originated in Tunisia, Lumbroso teaches high school social studies and is an on-call business and fire chaplain, a legal and medical language interpreter, a published author and musician—all while leading a small Messianic Jewish congregation in the small Oregon logging town where he lives.
During World War II, Germans expelled Lumbroso’s parents from their properties in Tunisia and they eventually came to live in France where he was born and raised. He spent his teenage years in Israel before returning to France where he met and married his Oregonian wife, Christine Lumbroso, and then later immigrated to America. While his family background is not religiously Jewish, they are very much culturally North African Jewish, with Arabic and Italian often spoken at home rather than Yiddish.
According to Lumbroso, anti-Semitism has several definitions. He says the word itself most literally means, “you hate anything that is from the descendants of Shem, the son of Noah…that includes Jews, Arabs, Native Americans, the Asian world, and some blacks.” Aside from this literal definition, anti-Semitism also takes on a spiritual context that distinguishes it from other forms of racism. He added that, “After World War II, the world became more careful. But today, [anti-Semitism] has come to mean hatred of not only Jews but Israel and everything it stands for.” Lumbroso warns us, “I feel that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America and in the world.”
When asked if he personally has ever experienced anti-Semitism, Lumbroso hesitated, but answered yes. As an olive-skinned male who gets “quite brown” in the summer months, he has been approached by several angry Americans who seemed to have taken him for an Arab, recalling two particular incidents surrounding the events of 9/11. One woman at Pioneer Square in downtown Portland yelled at him, “it’s because of you people that my country is a mess now!” Another time, an intoxicated man stopped him while he was on a jog near his neighborhood and demanded to see his identification papers.
More indirectly, Lumbroso also related that finding a building for his congregation to rent for their Sabbath services has been challenging. The first place they rented was the local Lutheran church and suddenly, after several months, they were asked to leave without explanation. He and his wife decided to attend a Sunday church service with the Lutherans to get to know the members and their concerns better, and they discovered the congregants were all elderly of mostly German descent. Some expressed offense at seeing a book about the holocaust among Lumbroso’s congregational things in the building they shared, as well as décor featuring the Star of David. One man in particular hotly questioned Christine Lumbroso about their Davidic dancing, a Jewish circle-dance used during worship and at celebrations, and the idea of believers in Jesus serving God through the vehicle of Judaism. It became clear to Lumbroso that their working relationship with the Lutherans could not be salvaged and they moved on to rent a different space.
Lumbroso recalls Chanukah of 2019 being an especially difficult time for American Jews. On each day of the eight-day festival, there were violent attacks on Jews and synagogues, primarily on the east coast. “We need to promote educating people. Many problems, whether they are theological or political, they are really due to ignorance.” He went on to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “ignorance is the mother of bigotry.” Lumbroso believes people should be educating themselves and their children about racism and implores everyone to go “deeper than your party line…black studies, holocaust studies, Native American studies, should be taught in all schools to get kids to empathize with other groups.”
The month of May is both Jewish American Heritage and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage months. Unfortunately, America is still home to many who would prefer to believe that racism and anti-Semitism do not exist and are political ploys and platforms. “To me, when I hear that, it’s a form of denial. It’s very easy to deny a problem because then you don’t have to address it.” Lumbroso points out that because he is not black, he cannot know what it is like to be black in America; he can only listen to the experiences his black friends share with him and believe them. He says that racism is a problem of minorities everywhere in the world. If a white person goes to Africa and walks around the mall, they might be the only white person and they are “going to feel something.” The majority of white Americans have never felt that and cannot empathize without educating themselves on the subject. Lumbroso calls Americans to personal introspection: “How do you react to someone not like you? It’s all a test of our humanity.”