To celebrate February’s Black History Month, Lions Gate in Voorhees invited a lifelong student and educator of Judaism to talk about the challenges he faces as not only an African American, but as a Jew.
Chai Respes’ faith was instilled in him at birth: He is the grandson of Abel Respes, the first rabbi of color in Philadelphia, who founded Adat Beyt Moshe Congregation in North Philadelphia. Chai’s uncle, Gamliel Respes, is also a rabbi who has spoken of the challenges he and many others face as Jews of color in the region.
Chai is a founding member of Achim Sheli: My Brothers and Sisters, at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, a new group that celebrates diversity in Judaism. Lions Gate welcomed Respes to hear about his distinguished family legacy.
“The folks at Lions Gate are a warm receptive crowd …” he said. “I’ve known a lot of people through my relationship with people at Congregation Beth El. I have been teaching at Beth El since 2008. Before that, I taught in many synagogues in the tri-state area.”
Respes grew up at his family’s home in Elwood, Atlantic County. Along with teaching at local synagogues, he accompanies members of his own congregation on trips to Israel, where he serves as a teacher and leader of students.
Respes believes that teaching – and leading – are all about how you approach people, but he doesn’t believe it’s his place to tell others what to think when it comes to religion.
“It’s not my place to impress upon (people) that you should have a certain belief or belief system. It’s my job to treat you right,” noted Respes, who explained that ethically, the way you treat people cannot be solely based upon whatever faith you belong to.
“For me a fundamental principle that reinforces those values is my faith,” he added. “I will meet (people) where they need to be met.”
Respes is currently a student at Rabbinical Seminary International in New York state, where he enrolled at the urging of his mother. She wanted her son to use his unique skill set to “take that next step” and get ordained as an official clergy member.
Growing up, Respes doubted he could become an ordained minister as an African American Jew at a conservative synagogue.
“It wasn’t something when I was going through college and looking at career options … that was a viable option(to me),” he recalled. “But things are changing; the community itself is growing and changing.”
When Respes lost his mother in 2020, he decided he could honor her memory by taking that next step she talked about. He also cites the support of his wife Tonia and their three sons.
In addition to teaching, Respes is the state’s deputy director of human resources, work that is impacted by his faith.
“In HR, there are not many days when you are interacting with someone where they aren’t coming to you out of a place of sadness, place of fear, place of tragedy,” he explained. “…. My faith has personally helped me be way more empathetic to the needs of others.
“You need to have a place where you know that you don’t have the answer to everything,” Respes added. “Sometimes you just need to sit there with that person and be honest with them and say, ‘I can’t promise this is going to be okay, but we will figure it out together.’”