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Weintrob: All the best people

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(Flickr photo)

The phone rang. “Susan, I have such good news for you!”

I knew “Emily” from our small Jewish community, with about 50 synagogue members. My curiosity was piqued. Emily had never called me before. “What’s the good news?” I asked

“A wonderful sorority wants you to belong! I was asked last year,” she replied.

“Oh?” I responded, trying to put some enthusiasm into it. “What does it do?”

Emily listed the sorority’s pet causes, extolled its sisterly bonding and community betterment.

“So you just joined last year?” I asked

“Well, you can’t join, you have to be asked,” she explained. “I was the first Jewish woman asked.” 

Warning bells went off. “You mean before you were asked, there were no Jews allowed?”

Emily realized her error. “It’s not that exactly. The sorority is reaching out and wants us to become part of its good work.”

I asked a question I already knew the answer to. “Are black people allowed in?”

“No. But the doors were just opened to Jewish women last year! These things take time.”

“Emily,” I said calmly, “Why on earth would I want to join an organization like that?”

“So many important and well-known women in town are part of it. They are philanthropic. All the best people belong.”

“I guess all the best people will have to belong without me,” I answered, ending the conversation.

Emily never did understand my decision. She thought I threw away an opportunity.

It’s true that there are times when it is critical to be the first, even as a token. Many minority groups, Jews included, were barred by quotas or altogether from universities, businesses, professions, housing developments, and social clubs. And that battle was worth fighting. 

Would it work here? Or would it take years to change minds? Would others think I agreed with its membership decisions? Would I sit next to women at meetings who weren’t comfortable with Jews or blacks as members? Perhaps Emily would make that change – but I could not.

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That was 30 years ago. Recently, I discussed the incident with my son, (who was too young to remember when it happened). We talked about exclusions then and now. “It’s always wrong to exclude people because of prejudice,” he said, “whoever does it, whenever it occurs.”

Once at a meeting I attended, I rose and forcefully argued against an item presented. I urged a friend who agreed with me to do the same thing. “It’s so easy for you, Susan,” she said. “I could never do it!”

The thing is, though, that it isn’t easy. My mouth went dry, my heart pounded – I was well aware that when we speak for what is right, we can affect our family, employment, social standing and even safety.

A few years after I refused the sorority invitation, my daughter entered Grade 4
in public school, the only Jewish child in her class and one of a handful in the school. Her teacher couldn’t understand why we didn’t celebrate Christmas, even though I was at the time president of our synagogue, taught in the Sunday Hebrew school and wrote its newsletter. Exasperated after our conversation about the school’s Christmas programs, the teacher cried out, “If you weren’t so Jewish, your daughter would be happy to celebrate Christmas!”

The teacher had no right to interfere with our religious choices, of course. Yet, I came to realize that, in a way, she was right. My Jewish values and activities affected my family – and beyond. Those values are the reason I wouldn’t allow myself to join a sorority that had denied membership based on religion or continued to do so based on race.

I knew then that I couldn’t change worldwide trends. But I could make personal decisions that were based on right and wrong as I saw it. Looking back, I am not sorry that I turned down that sorority.