To be a Black Jew is not an oxymoron. It’s not incongruous. And, increasingly, it’s not uncommon.
Some 8% of U.S. Jews describe themselves as Black, Hispanic, Asian or indigenous, and another 4% are Sephardi or Mizrahi, according to a 2020 survey of American Jews by the Pew Research Center. Other surveys have found that the proportion may be as high as 15%.
Whatever the exact percentage, the number of people of color or non-European descent in the American Jewish community is growing. Yet Jews of color often feel marginalized at all levels of Jewish communal life.
“Many Jewish people of color do not feel welcome, or treated as part of the Jewish community and, worse, feel the pain of racism inflicted on them by the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, one of just a handful of Black Orthodox rabbis in the United States. “Many have distanced themselves from or have left the Jewish community altogether as a result, taking their gifts, talents, skills and perspectives elsewhere.”
Two years ago, Rothstein, 33, created an initiative with the Jewish Federations of North America, where he works as a rabbinic scholar and public affairs advisor, to promote Jewish equity, diversity and inclusion. Known by the acronym JEDI, the initiative was launched in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 by Minneapolis police and the nationwide racial reckoning that followed.
Because the Jewish Federations represents 146 federations around North America — which themselves function as the central Jewish leadership and philanthropic arm for their communities — Jewish Federations’ JEDI work is having a ripple effect on Jewish communities large and small.
The idea is not only to ensure that Jewish organizations like federations recruit, retain and advance Jews of color, but also to teach Jewish communities the steps necessary to make sure Jews of color are not marginalized in any way.
Here are a few things important to keep in mind about Jews of color.
Recognize the depth of the problem
Many white Jews don’t quite understand the challenges Jews of color face, or how normative American Judaism can have baked-in biases that may make Jews of color feel excluded.
For example, Jewish children’s books might not have any characters of color. Black Jews might be greeted at synagogue as if it’s their first time or, worse, mistaken for staff — even when they’re regular worshippers or lay leaders. White Jews might not realize that many Jews of color are tired of — or offended by — questions about their family background.
“People make the assumption that because a person is not white that they converted to Judaism,” said Buffie Avital, a psychology professor at North Carolina’s Elon University and a board member of Beth David Synagogue in Greensboro. “Or when they greet non-whites at the synagogue, they assume these people are new when in fact they’ve been there all along.”
Avital, who is herself a Jew of color, is one of 10 fellows at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s Center for Jewish Ethics, a program that focuses specifically on race, religion and American Judaism, and an early supporter of JEDI. She also has worked with the Jewish Federations to help audiences understand the intersection of Black and Jewish identity, and with the Greensboro Jewish Federation to help the community disrupt systematic racism experienced by the Black community, eliminate microaggressions (unintentional slights that can be read as derogatory) and educate Jews about their responsibilities in being allies of Black Americans.
“Take time to understand your own bias and the ways in which you’ve been socialized to view race,” Avital said. “A lot of Jews think that because we’ve experienced oppression, we can automatically understand what it means to experience racial discrimination. But that’s not true.”
White Jews simply don’t have “the lived experience to understand the effects of racism and discrimination” on a personal level, said Avital, and that’s why it’s important to talk about it.
“The more discussions we have about these topics, the more likely everyone will be able to recognize when discrimination is happening in their own community,” she said.
Understand that Jews of color are not monolithic
Jews of color come from all kinds of backgrounds.
They may be born into families with two Jewish parents of color or be the products of multiracial, multiethnic or multifaith unions. They may be converts. They may be Ethiopian or Yemenite Jews. They may have been adopted by Ashkenazi parents. Some Syrian Jews might consider themselves Jews of color; others would not.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines a person of color as anyone who is Black/African American, Asian American, Native American or Hispanic. The term Jew of color (JOCs, for short) came into vogue about 10 years ago, yet many racially and ethnically diverse Jews do not identify with it, preferring labels such as “Just Jewish” or descriptors relating to their specific racial group, such as Black Jew or Asian Jew.
Many Jews of color are trying to transform the view of the American Jewish community from one that is “Ashkenormative” — where the norm is understood to center around the Ashkenazi American Jewish experience — to one that is more variegated.
Finally, not all Jews of color feel comfortable publicly identifying as Jewish, having faced discrimination both as Jews and as people of color.
Gamal Palmer, who worked for several years at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, rising to the position of senior vice president, is the child of a Jewish-born mother and an African-American father. He said he often felt “not Jewish enough” in Jewish spaces and not Black enough in Black spaces. When Palmer enrolled in Jewish day school as a child, he ended up leaving after feeling pressure from being the school’s only student of color and what he described as racism from some teachers.
“We often say we want to be inclusive,” Palmer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2020, “but we do not always do the work prior to bringing diverse people into an organization or community.”
Expand educational curricula beyond the history of white Ashkenazi Jews
Too often, the American Jewish view of history marginalizes the experiences of non-Ashkenazi Jews.
“When you’re in Hebrew school, you’re learning about the exodus from Egypt and the Holocaust — but not the persecution of Jews in Ethiopia or Nigeria or Morocco,” said Stacey Aviva Flint, the JEDI Initiative’s director of education and community engagement. “You’re learning it from a very small, Eurocentric lens. Growing up, my children went to Hebrew school and Jewish camps, and the kids around them had no concept that Jews of color even existed.”
Flint, whose online moniker is the Mocha Jewess, argues that diversity has defined the Jewish community since biblical times. Jewish education should focus not only on Ashkenazi and Eurocentric history, but also include the experiences of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews as well as Jews of color, Flint said. The multicolored reality of Jewish history and the multiethnic face of contemporary American Jews should be reflected in Jewish curricula and books, she said — as is the case with JEDI’s curriculum on race.
Create pathways for Jews of color to become institutional leaders.
In Colorado, where Flint lives, about 12% of the state’s 98,000 Jews identify as Jews of color, but they are mostly invisible in organized Jewish life, she says.
That’s one of the areas of focus for Jewish federations, which have created special pathways for Jews of color, including mentoring, and are taking steps to ensure diverse representation in recruiting, hiring and professional advancement.
The JEDI Initiative, for example, aims to build diversified access points into Jewish leadership for Jews of color and others underrepresented in Jewish communal life. While increasing their representation in professional and lay roles, the initiative is building networks to support the needs of these historically marginalized Jews.
For example, the Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore recently hired Harriette Wimms as its inaugural Jews of Color engagement fellow. In that capacity, she works with the federation and other local agencies to create a welcoming environment for all Jews while also creating programming specifically tailored to the needs and interests of Jews of color.
In Wisconsin, Kai Gardner-Mishlove, another Black Jew, recently became executive director of Jewish Social Services of Madison; formerly she was director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
“If we want to increase representation of underrepresented groups, then our leadership should also be reflective of that diversity,” Flint said. “We should have CEOs, cantors, rabbis, executive directors, communal volunteers and Jewish professionals who are Jewish people of color.”
Help Jews of color flourish
Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Jew who is CEO of the diversity consulting group Dimensions Inc., pointed to the establishment of the JEDI Initiative as a milestone in American Jewish history.
“There have been various different individual efforts, including my own, to support local initiatives, but no center to address issues of diversity — regionally or nationally — until JEDI came together,” McCoy said. “This will help our Jewish community see the big picture.”
Part of what makes the JEDI Initiative so significant is that it is being undertaken by the federation system, which serves as the backbone of the Jewish community in the United States and Canada. Collectively, the federations represent 300 communities in North America, raising and distributing over $2 billion every year. That goes to everything from senior care facilities in America to soup kitchens in Ukraine to after-school programs in Israel. Federations also support programs like Birthright Israel, Jewish summer camps and security upgrades at Jewish institutions.
“As the world’s largest Jewish philanthropy, Jewish Federations are taking justice and equity issues to the next level to ensure we are able to support, engage and retain the most socially and culturally diverse generation in American Jewish history,” Rothstein said. “The moral imperative is clear.”
Jewish Federations of North America
This story was sponsored by and produced in collaboration with the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents over 300 Jewish communities and distributes over $2 billion annually to build flourishing Jewish communities around the globe. This article was produced by Hey Alma's native content team.