What does it mean to be a Jewish person with class privilege?

I grew up believing that the majority of wealthy people were Jews, that this was something to hide, and that therefore I should do my best not to let anyone know I was Jewish or wealthy.  This belief was supported by my lived experience:  I was raised as a wealthy white Ashkenazi Jew in a middle class, white, primarily gentile suburb of Chicago.  My brother, my cousins, and our two next-door neighbors comprised the entirety of the Jewish population at the local public schools.  The nine of us also made-up the majority of the wealthy folks.

I invited a few classmates to my Bat Mitzvah, but besides that, I stayed quiet about my Jewishness.  Unfortunately for me, I was way too “Jewish” to hide it.  I was loud. I was hairy. I had hips. I did not fit in with the normative body type of my skinny, mostly blonde, Abercrombie-jeans-wearing classmates. I also did my best to fit in with my peers and hide the difference in my class background.  This proved a failed attempt as well, as my last name was also the name of my family’s well known lumber company—the company that allowed us to move up the economic ladder.  Nonetheless, I continued to stay under the radar as best I could.

Some snapshots of my journey from then until now:

 2007: “Jews are the worse oppressor!” claims a close friend and mentor during my junior year of college.  Since taking a seminar called “whiteness”, she’s had a chip on her shoulder and believes that she is more politically aware than the rest of us. She’s proud to share with me all of the reasons this is true.  “They understand what it’s like to be oppressed but then they assimilated, became privileged, and now they oppress others,” she explains.  I have no counter argument, and succumb to her assertion.

 2008: A close friend confesses to me that she’s appalled by my lack of proper etiquette and persistent loudness.  I feel barbaric and like I’m “too much.”

 2009: My Dad forwards me an email about an organization called Resource Generation that organizes young people with wealth to leverage privilege for social change.  They are holding a conference at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center called Making Money Make Change.  I am immediately turned off.  A retreat for rich kids like me at a JEWISH retreat center?  You must be kidding, I think.  That sounds like my worst nightmare.  I immediately decline the invite.

 2010: Making Money Make Change is not at a Jewish retreat center this year. I decide to attend. I find myself blown away by the community of people I meet, but still cautious to define myself as a donor and prefer my identity as an organizer.  I join the Shabbat dinner table, my first Shabbat dinner in years, and feel isolated and unfamiliar with many of the traditions.

 2012: I leave my job as an organizer in New York City to participate in the ADAMAH farming fellowship at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.  I connect to traditions long lost in my lineage and begin to make Judaism my own.  I see how the Judaism I was raised with was void of a richness, depth and ruach that now feeds me.  Through conversations, reading and reflection, I come to understand that this loss was a result of assimilation to normative Christian culture for the sake of upward mobility and safety.  I grieve how this has resulted in a loss of rootedness for myself, and imagine I am not alone.

 2014: I attend a workshop on Jews and class, and begin to understand the role of Jews as the middlemen, hiding those truly in power (ie white Christian men), and how this role is required in order for anti-semitism to persist.  I reflect on my great grandpa’s job as a door-to-door fruit salesman, and wonder if he was blamed when the cost of fruit increased.  I realize that those off handed comments I received over the years about “being the worst oppressor” and being “too loud” were all a part of anti-Jewish oppression.  I begin to treat myself and other Jews with a greater sense of compassion for all the ways we are as a result.

 2014: I live and work at Isabella Freedman and help to organize the Making Money Make Change Retreat that’s back again this fall. I co-organize the Jewish caucus and lead Shabbat after meal singing.  I am seen as a leader within this space.  I feel proud to be Jewish.

 2015: I still live and work at Isabella Freedman, organizing pluralistic Jewish retreats that connect Jews from across the country to a vibrant and joyous Judaism.  I’ve co-created a retreat called Lefty Shabbaton, a space for radical Jews to connect to Jewish traditions, practices and rituals.  I move boldly as a donor, giving away more than I am told is “safe” and giving it to communities and projects that are deemed too risky.  I follow the lead of those most impacted by racial and economic injustice in this process.  I work in collaboration and partnership with Jews and non-Jews of all class backgrounds fighting for the radical redistribution of wealth.    I navigate the contradictions of being a Jew with wealth by being visible as a wealthy Jew who advocates for the redistribution of wealth and rejects narratives that say we hold all the power.  I resist the feelings of isolation by being in deep relationship with other wealthy Jews with a shared politic.

 2016: I’ve given a third of my inheritance away and can imagine a future not too far down the road in which my sense of safety does not depend on excess wealth.  I am giving not out of a sense of guilt but out of a deep commitment to racial and economic justice and a deep knowing that my liberation depends on it.

 While I have come along way since the hiding of my youth, I still have so much to learn and figure out.  Today I grapple with the questions of: What does it look like to center wealth redistribution around reparations? And what does a liberatory and powerful collective decision making process to implement this look like?  How am I breaking down barriers in my relationships that having wealth has caused? How do I continue to unlearn owning class patterns of entitlement and superiority? What is my role and the role of other radical Jews with access to wealth in dismantling zionism? And in centering Jews historically marginalized from Jewish community? How can wealth be used as a tool to dismantle capitalism and enhance and not undermine social movements? And how do people with wealth do this in ways that are accountable to communities most impacted by injustice on a national scale?

As I navigate this path I’ve chosen, I’m sometimes still afraid that people will see me and think of me as a wealthy Jew responsible for the world’s problems.  But more often I am filled with gratitude to get to bring my full self to my relationships and to the movement, and to not be doing it alone.

 Margot is a white, cisgender, genderqueer female identified owning class queer ashkenazi Jew with a strong commitment to racial and economic justice and to building resilient, vibrant Jewish community beyond Zionism.  She is a founding member of Regenerative Finance, a project working to shift the economy by transferring control of capital to communities most affected by racial, economic, and environmental injustices.  Since 2010, Margot has been a member leader within Resource Generation and was part of a collective that started the Hummingbird Fund for Migrant & Border Justice.  She is also a founding organizer of Lefty Shabbaton, a retreat for radical Jews structured around the celebration of Shabbat.  For the past 2 years, Margot lived and worked at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center as part of the Transformative Experiences Department  and co-created the Let My People Sing! Jewish Song Weekend Retreat.  She is also a student of Shefa Gold’s Kol Zimra Hebrew Chanting Program, a proud member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a ritual weaver, and a healer in training.  She fills her time with music & magic making, singing, creating art, cooking as-locally-grown-as-possible meat, and going on adventures with her best friend Lev (age 3). To get in touch, email margot@regenerativefinance.org.

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