Rabbi Seth Goren is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program.  Rabbi Goren serves as the Associate Chaplain and Director of Jewish Student Life at Lehigh University.  He can be reached at seth.goren@lehigh.edu.

As part of a course on race I was teaching a couple of years ago, we took some class time and examined a variety of media materials with an eye toward how race was reflected and portrayed in each publication’s articles, photographs and advertisements. 

Among the newspapers, magazines and books was a recent issue of the university’s semi-weekly newspaper, which, by chance, had an article on a recent campus-based student trip to Israel.  The group I was sitting with flipped to the classic image of jubilant young North American Jews at the Dead Sea with their faces, arms and legs covered in mud, prompting an African-American student to gasp.  “Why are they wearing blackface?” she asked, incredulously.

I fumbled for a response.  I tried to explain the Israel trip rite of going down to the Dead Sea, floating in liquid salinity and slathering on mud.  I stammered that, no, this wasn’t minstrelry or an attempt at racial mockery, that this was a celebration of re-connection with the Jewish people’s homeland.  While she intellectually understood what I was saying, none of it seemed to temper her initial shock; what to me was an image of Jewish young adults celebrating their connection with the Land of Israel was, in my student’s eyes, something indelibly racist and far more transgressive.

Our own powerful and compelling narratives, whether individual, Jewish or flowing from our membership in another group, can be so overwhelming that they eclipse how the exact same event and image can have interpretations and receptions radically different from our own.  When I recall this particular interaction, I remember how important it is to consider an audience broader than myself and to anticipate how others might respond to what I set in front of them.