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Stacey Aviva Flint: Interstitial Voice

I am the Northern Star, born on the banks of the Ohio River, AKA the Jordan River. 

I am the Star of David, a Jewess through and through. 

I am all my people, and I will never forget. — Stacey Aviva Flint 

Stacey Aviva Flint, the new executive director of Bonai Shalom, first set eyes on Boulder after a successful blind date arranged as a shidduch.

“My partner moved to Boulder a week after we met and invited me to visit,” says Flint, who has been the executive director at the Conservative synagogue since July 1, 2020. 

“As we got to know each other, he told me why he loved Boulder so much. He also told me about his congregation, Bonai Shalom, which we attended together on my visits to Boulder.” 

Flint learned that the city is a college town, which thrilled her daughter, 19. “When I brought up moving here, she said, ‘This is the only place I want to go.’” Her son, 16, will join them soon. 

“Everyone I loved was here, and I’d found a supportive Jewish community,” Flint says. “Now I just needed a job.” 

The position opened up at Bonai Shalom, Flint applied, and her skill set proved right. She worked remotely from Illinois until August, when she arrived in Boulder. 

“I went right into preparing for the High Holidays,” she says. “We had lost most of our staff, so I was the only staff person besides the rabbi (Marc Soloway) and school director.”

Flint ran the office with volunteers until she hired an assistant on Oct. 5. A new accountant, accounting rm and computer-software platforms followed, all inside 30 days.

“It was totally crazy,” Flint laughs. “I think I’m just starting to process it now.” 

Her multiple responsibilities include business operations, expenses, income, facility maintenance, rabbinical and educational support, and member engagement. 

Flint, who spent time in the Orthodox world prior to Boulder and describes herself as a religious Conservative Jew, loves Bonai Shalom. 

“Our community is a wonderful blend that runs the gamut, and has many traditional elements I really appreciate,” she says. “It’s amazing.” 

IJN: You are descended from slaves, who prayed to the Northern Star during their voyage across the Atlantic. You wrote, “The G-d of Israel haunted me all my life, pursued me all my life until I just surrendered.” 

I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, which is right on the Ohio River. A lot of our people still live in Northern Kentucky. My grandmother Emma B. Clark, born in 1927, and my great grandmother Laura B. Clay Williams, born free (as were close relatives before her) in 1881, raised me. These two women were my closest condantes; my parents — people of wisdom, depth and experience. 

My great-great-grandmother was a slave in the house of Senator Henry Clay Sr. (1777-1852) and my great-great grandfather was a son of Henry Clay. So I am a product of slaves and slaveholders. 

My family has been multi-racial for hundreds of years. We come from a small Appalachian town in Northern Kentucky where black and white neighbors married each other. That’s how we grew up. My DNA goes back to Poland and Russia, and Madagascar, Ethiopia and Nigeria. 

My grandmother and great-grandmother lived in paradoxical times. They felt comfortable with their white relatives, but also faced racism. They didn’t talk very much about the bad things. When they did, my heart broke. 

But when they spoke about their relationships with the Jewish community, their demeanor changed. They just sat up taller. There was conviction in their voice. 

My grandmother worked for several Jewish families, but there was one in particular. I can’t remember the name off the top of my head. My grandmother kept a kosher kitchen for them, helped raise the kids and played with them. 

Once, when the Jewish family was having work done on their house, a worker told the mother to inform the maid of their schedule. She said, “Who are you calling a maid? Emma is not the maid. She is our children’s companion. Never address her as a maid again.” 

The family’s little son David would get in my grandmother’s bed and snuggle with her. Aware of the prohibitions against segregation, my grandmother apologized and offered to stop this. The mother said, “You’re part of our family. Of course he can cuddle with you.” 

Describe your journey. 

I wanted to find G-d at age seven. My family said we were Christian but we never went to church. I read the Bible — the Old Testament — and I wanted to find the people I read about. I decided to dress up and visit houses of worship. I told people, “I want to find G-d.” 

They would let me inside. But I’d feel, “This is not G-d; these are not the people I’m looking for.” I was so confused. But I continued the experiment until I was about 13. I rebelled and found a group when I was 16. It was a multiracial congregation that seemed to know the scriptures well. They were like my family. No segregation. Then things changed. It presented itself as anti-Christian but morphed into a strict Christian sect. 

I was starting to doubt everything and back away from the group on my own, at least internally, when I was sent as a missionary to East Africa. I taught English as a Second Language, and one of my students was an Israeli. That sparked my Jewish interest again. 

I came back to the US when I was 21. I reentered college at the University of Cincinnati, right across the street from HUC-JIR, and added Jewish studies to my major. This opened up a new world for me. I took Hebrew from an Israeli native. She taught us the aleph bet in the rst half hour of the rst class and then spoke only Hebrew the rest of the time. I thought, “Lady, this is much too much for me!” We turned in all our homework in Hebrew. 

I dove into this world of Hebrew and literature and the Holocaust. This was a part of me that the group couldn’t touch; I just kept it to myself and watched it balloon. I went to Hillel on campus. I pledged a sorority — a Jewish sorority, although I had no idea. I thought, why is everything I do connected to the Jewish community? 

Years later, I moved to Illinois and attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I majored in urban planning. When I graduated I applied for a job at the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs in Chicago. I wasn’t Jewish then. JCUA was a career — but it was also absolutely transformative. 

It gave me the impetus to leave the Christian sect, which I now see as a cult. I stopped being a very staunch conservative, homophobic person who believed in the death penalty. 

I read Talmud in preparation for housing affordability projects. As I read these things, I reformed my own thinking and ideas. Judaism became my life, my friends and my community. 

I didn’t convert until about 20 years later. I’d had so many jobs in the Jewish community that people assumed I was Jewish. “Why are you converting?” It felt like I had been raised again; that I’d had a second upbringing. 

I was steeped in Judaism. My rabbi had to explain the need for my conversion to my kids: “Uh, mom, aren’t we Jewish already?” I converted under Rabbi Adir Glick, a Conservative rabbi. 

I’m very happy where I am, and the decision I’ve made. Whether you’re born Jewish or are a convert, Judaism is something you’re always choosing, reguring, mulling over, questioning. This feels right to me. 

Are the two identities you inhabit ever at odds? 

One of the most powerful things about having intersecting identities is that there is nuance. Just like Hillel and Shammai, you have to be able to fully understand both sides and find a kernel of truth in each. Then, and only then, do you reach a fuller understanding. 

People want me to choose one side. I can’t. I’ve got to be that interstitial voice, which I learned from my mentor, Rabbi Robert Marks, founder of JCUA and author of The People in Between. 

That’s who we are. We are powerless in many places, but we are powerful in many places. How to be both powerful and powerless is the solution. I believe my family make-up prepares me for that. 

I’m a living paradox: a descendent of Henry Clay, and the descendent of slaves. I have to live with that. I don’t throw away my European ancestry. I can actually speak to this part of myself and say, “Sit down and listen, because I too am a daughter of the Revolution.” 

I also can go to the other side and say to my African American brothers and sisters, “Remember the value of our people.” We respect our elders. If our elders are speaking — we don’t always have to agree — we need to listen to and honor them, and ask questions so we can understand where they’re coming from. 

We also need to respectfully explain our generation’s paradigm. Blend the old and new together. 

Black Lives Matter is embraced by many people, yet feared by others, including some Jews. 

If you think of Black Lives Matter as a couple of statements and articles instead of an organization, then yes, they can say some frightening things. 

But if you think of the words black lives matter, there’s no problem, because that is a moral statement of human value — and I never let a value statement get in the way of an organization. 

It’s the same thing with Israel. Jews love Israel. But don’t we sometimes object to the leaders, the systems, the policies? We won’t fight tooth and nail about policy, but we will fight [for Israel] tooth and nail because Israel has a right to exist. 

Yisroel and Israel are two separate entities on two different planes. There is the spiritual dimension, and the secular, Zionistic society. We are able to nuance and hold both those concepts together. I don’t see why we can’t do this with Black Lives Matter. We do it with Israel all the time.

Have you been to Israel?

Yes, I have. [Pause.] I felt peace in my bones. My bones felt warm. I walked down the street and I was like everyone else. Nobody paid me any mind. I was overwhelmed. Tel Aviv was like New York City in the middle of the Mediterranean. Too fancy. But I loved Jerusalem. 

Do you experience difficulties or challenges in the Jewish community, among blacks, or in yourself? 

One thing I’ve learned is that when you have been in a protective bubble, often you see only your own experience. This means you have to intentionally work harder to connect with people who don’t share it. And that’s where I, as an African American woman, can speak to my Jewish brothers and sisters. 

I know what it’s like to walk around for most of my life and never think twice about being black. That’s just one of my bubbles. There was a time when the news stories I heard from my African American brothers and sisters made me wonder, “Where does that happen? Why does it happen? They must have done something wrong.” 

I was 49 when I was first called the “n” word. I thought the person was having a mental breakdown and asked if I could help him! The second time I was 50. A kid yelled out of a car and threw a water bottle at me. I was frightened; upset. 

This made me confront myself. “You know what? It doesn’t matter if you’ve never had those experiences. Even if you’ve been in a protective bubble, it matters that people are hurting and being treated unjustly, unfairly.” 

I thought of the Jewish woman who had the courage to stand up for my grandmother when she was diminished. That woman could have remained quiet, but she didn’t. She spoke up. 

For many years, I was the person who looked at the news and just shrugged it off. I was fortunate. I was accepted by wonderful Jewish organizations, and the door opened for me. Now I say, “Get out of your bubble and realize that this is not right.” It’s time for me to remove the blinders and realize that everyone should have the privileges that I’ve experienced. This should be the norm. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched together for civil rights. It’s not the same world today. 

[African Americans] now have different memories and associations. The civil rights alliance was built on a prophetic connection. Dr. King was very prophetic. Rabbi Heschel was very prophetic. 

Now you’re talking about a black community that comes from Haiti and Africa. They don’t have the same cultural experiences. I’ve watched panel discussions trying to revive the 1960s, but I don’t know anyone younger than me who cares anymore. African Americans are very secular; those tropes of Sinai and gospel singing don’t work. They don’t have roots in the black church or prophetic ideas. 

We’re not speaking the same language — but we can speak the language of trauma and suffering. 

Given your unique perspective, what would you teach American Jews? 

The first thing I’d teach American Jews is something I always think of when I see the lm “The Lion King,” when Raki says to Simba, “Remember who you are.” 

Who are we? We are a people that come from four different mothers, two of them slaves. We come from a people who are ethnically diverse. They called us Mongrels in Europe instead of white because we had so many ethnic strands in us. We were everything. When we get to America, all we want to do is assimilate and be like those around us. Why not keep our uniqueness? Be truthful about our own stories? 

Jews need to realize that we are so rich in heritage. We are different in every part of the globe, and even in our Jewish practices. When we are fully our Jewish selves, we are open to being one with the world. 

I would tell my Jewish brothers and sisters, “We talk about our trauma. But we must also remember our privilege. We haven’t lived the lives of others, and we need to be empathetic.” 

Americans gave the slaves a piece of paper and said, “You’re free; now go be free.” We didn’t ask to hear their family stories, or cry or mourn together. Similarly, some Jews hid stories of their families and the Holocaust. 

It’s time to dig deep and have that conversation now. 

I took African-American children to the Holocaust museum. I think Jewish children should be required to visit the lynching museums. They will understand us. We will understand them. 

That’s how you get to it. 

Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News
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Tue, April 13 2021 1 Iyyar 5781