Liz Kleinrock Is Here to Talk About the Intersection of Religion and Anti-Racism

As an Asian American and Jewish educator, Liz knows firsthand the importance of intersectionality when fighting against bigotry and hate.

Liz Kleinrock has the same 24 hours in a day as the rest of us, but you wouldn’t know it by seeing what she’s accomplishing. The Asian American Jewish educator is a full-time sixth grade teacher in Washington D.C. She just finished writing a book on anti-bias, anti-racist education strategies for teachers. She facilitates professional learning on anti-bias and anti-racism, from her Patreon community to schools all over the country to corporate workshops at companies like Nike. Her Instagram account, with over 135,000 followers and counting, is a blend of teaching resources, anti-bias and anti-racist education, and peeks into Liz’s daily life in D.C. with her pet bunnies.

I know Liz through the “teachergram” community, where she’s beloved by classroom teachers and social justice advocates for her practical tips and keeping-it-real communication style. I caught up with her over Zoom to talk about how she’s navigating pushback and creating community while using her platform to spark conversation about religion, spirituality, and anti-racism. Now, with anti-Asian hate crimes on a sharp rise since the beginning of the pandemic, including the horrific domestic terrorist attack that targeted Asian women in Atlanta on March 16, leaving eight dead, it is more imperative than ever to listen to voices like Liz’s.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to start with a question I heard you ask someone else in one of your Instagram lives, which is, what does being Jewish mean to you?

It’s so hard to answer, because there’s no one particular way to be Jewish. I think a lot of it has to do with shared customs and beliefs and cultural practices and kindness. I was raised Reform and now my family identifies as Conservative; I feel like I’m kind of somewhere in the middle there.

But I feel like being Jewish at its core is really about being in community with other Jewish people — not that you can’t be Jewish if you’re the only Jewish person in your neighborhood or town, but continuing on this legacy from our ancestors that’s existed over thousands of years. It’s taking certain Jewish values and thinking about how they can apply to our lives, even though the context we’re living in is very different than our ancestors. That through line is something really beautiful that I love about identifying as Jewish.

You’ve had a large following on Instagram for a few years, but it seems like it’s only within the last year where you have been much more vocal about your Jewish identity. I’m wondering about your journey with that.

I think I was silent for a very long time because of the trauma that I experienced within the Jewish community. I was the only person of color within my Jewish family, within my synagogue. The majority, if not all, of the racism I experienced as a kid came from within the Jewish community. On a confirmation trip when I was 15 or so, they took us to Orthodox Hasidic Brooklyn to go to bakeries and tour historic neighborhoods. The Hasidic Orthodox rabbi took one look at me and singled me out and told me that I wasn’t really Jewish and that I never would be. I remember being so hurt but also really angry. The chaperoning rabbi from my synagogue didn’t say anything. And my friends, a handful of 15-year-olds, were the ones who spoke up to this rabbi.

Or going to synagogues and having people say like, “Oh, are you new here?” and all the assumptions that I didn’t belong. That was truly just a part of myself that I hadn’t really faced or unpacked when I first started being more present on social media.

What’s been the response as you started speaking about your Jewish identity and educating people through Instagram?

As I started speaking out, I get an enormous amount of pushback — nastygrams and stuff from people when I talk about antisemitism and being Jewish. A lot of the pushback comes from a place of ignorance, and pushback from liberals about Israel/Palestine. Like if you’re even going to mention the fact that you’re Jewish, you have to come out with a statement on that, and unless you have that, nobody wants to listen to you.

[The pushback I get] is really different than the types that white-presenting Jews get. The exclusion of Jewish people from anti-bias and anti-racist work has to do with people’s perception of proximity to whiteness. It’s very similar to why Asian people often are not included. Because I’m a person of color, people who consider themselves very liberal, progressive, anti-white supremacy look at me and think, “Well, she clearly doesn’t have the same proximity to whiteness as white Jewish people do, so I’m more likely to listen to her.” It’s been really weird.

You’ve also created some fantastic educational resources on your Instagram page about understanding anti-Asian racism and violence, and encouraging people to include Asian people in their anti-racism work. How have folks responded to this work?

Folks have mainly responded positively, but it’s taken a couple weeks for them to [do so]. There’s a lot to unpack in terms of the model minority myth in the United states — that Asian people haven’t struggled or aren’t oppressed. People have been in denial or [have] a lot of ignorance. It’s been better received lately since people of non-Asian identities are speaking out more.

You hosted a series of conversations on Instagram Live with people from many faiths and spiritual traditions about anti-bias and anti-racism work. What did you learn from that experience?

That the majority of religions are inherently really beautiful. We are all so much more alike in our belief systems than we think we are. We just have different names for things, or we celebrate in different ways, or eat different food, or wear different clothes. Even looking at the difference between Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity — there are so many shared values! Like focusing on justice and community. When we don’t spend the time having these conversations and learning about the different values and customs, that’s on us, that we’re ignorant of one another.

When talking to [my friend] Asmahan, I learned so much about how values of justice and fairness are so embedded within the Islamic faith. I knew of it, but just wasn’t aware of how deeply entrenched those values are in practice.

I love that. I also grew up in Reform Judaism and there’s a huge focus on justice and tikkun olam. To me, that’s a driving part of my activism. There are all these Jewish values about teaching and dialogue and questioning. I’m wondering if drawing on those values is part of your teaching and activism story as well?

Definitely. I would actually credit my Jewish upbringing and the fact that I went to a Quaker school for most of my life, too. This idea that the inner light is in everybody, that we have a shared responsibility when it comes to humanitarian work and looking out for one another. You’re never too young to start. Within Judaism, [it’s] the notion of tikkun olam and what it means to repair the world.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also focused on unlearning a lot of bias and saviorism and paternalism that can also come along with it when you’re not being critical. Something that I really appreciated from my parents is when we would talk about mitzvot and tzedakah as a kid, looking at the different levels; the highest act of charity or giving is performed anonymously because you’re not concerned about receiving credit.

Oh, yeah — Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah.

Yeah. I loved that — it shouldn’t be about having your name known or anything like that. You just do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.

We spoke about how your Jewish upbringing and identity influences your activism. What are the ways that your Korean/Asian identity influences how you do your work?

There’s a Korean word, han. Essentially, it has to do with rage being part of the Korean identity because of the trauma of colonization. The concept reminds me of the anger I feel towards the harm done to my people but also gives me the power to rise above it and channel it into something productive.

There’s a tension that’s really present right now that Jewish communities have these values around justice and at the same time, many primarily white Jewish communities are really beginning or recommitting to understanding anti-bias and anti-racism in their context. What advice do you have for them as someone who does this work all the time?

I would encourage communities, in particular Ashkenazi communities, to be mindful of intersectionality. There are a number of congregations who have folks of color who are members, and to remember that it’s important to center our voices and experiences, especially when thinking about what are your anti-bias or anti-racist objectives for your community. You also have to do it in a way where you can’t expect us to do all the work for you, and to relieve our trauma just so everyone else can understand.

How do you want to see Jewish communities responding to the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence?

I want the Jewish community to remember that there are Asian Jews. They aren’t separate communities. I would love to see education and inclusion of Asian Jewish folks when it comes to Sunday school, Hebrew school. I would love to see Jewish spaces who are focusing on anti-bias and anti-racism speak out about [anti-Asian racism] and invite folks from the Asian community to help educate the Jewish community, too.

We’ve talked about some of the pushback and negativity in response to you sharing about your Jewish identity on Instagram. Tell me about some of the positive and affirming responses.

The really positive aspects have been to connect with other Jewish people, especially folks who don’t live in a community where there are many Jews. Last year, since Passover fell a couple weeks after the pandemic began, I hosted a virtual Passover. I did the first night with my family and then the second I just opened it up. We had at least 40 people, on three different continents. That was really amazing.

I held an affinity space after the January 6 attempted coup at the Capitol. It just seemed like there was an enormous amount of pain and trauma and hurt that Jewish folks were holding onto, and we were being gaslit left and right by people in the community, by people on social media. It just seemed like, wow, we really just need a space to come together, to vent and to share our feelings and our experiences and to cry and laugh or whatever need be.

About 180 people showed up. It was amazing — my cousins in LA came, my parents came for a bit. The feedback I got from folks afterwards was just incredible — how energizing it was, and how it made them feel whole, when like they felt like something had really been lacking. I hope I get to do another one.

That circles back to what you said about what being Jewish means to you. The community, the connections, and sustaining them. It’s pretty magical to be able to do that, during the pandemic.

As weird as this sounds, what makes you Jewish is just identifying as Jewish. There were so many people when I set up the affinity space who felt like they needed to show some receipt or explain why they were there, but it’s like, I don’t need to know that you’re Jewish on your dad’s side, I don’t need to know that you converted five years ago, it’s all good. If you consider yourself Jewish, you are welcome here. You don’t owe me anything.

Can you tell me a little bit about your book that’s coming out?

So the book is called Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community. It is meant to be very practical. It reads as a guidebook or workbook, but also a narrative at the same time. It’s my response to what the community says they needed. Each chapter is based around an issue or perceived barrier a teacher might encounter for why they’re not engaging in ABAR work in the classroom, like if you teach really little kids, or you mainly teach white kids, or your administration is really not into it, or parents and caregivers are not into it. It’s very proactive and gives so many strategies and examples. I hope everyone feels empowered to try something if they’ve been stuck.

Are your Jewish parents like my Jewish parent when it comes to hyping up my work: over the moon, making all their friends buy a copy?

Yes, very much so. I actually got written up in Global Jews “8 Asian-American Jewish Women You Should Know” and my parents sent that thing to like, literally every Jew in their contacts. They emailed it to all three rabbis at our synagogue! I was so embarrassed [laughing]. I’m not on Facebook, but my mom shared on Facebook and she would text me every time it got more likes or someone commented on it. It’s like — I don’t need this, that’s fine. But it’s very sweet.

Keep up with Liz’s work on Instagram at @TeachandTransform

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