When Yitz Jordan and Rabbi Shais Rishon first began discussing the possibility of a Jewish community center for Jews of color, about 10 years ago, they envisioned little more than a “small reading space” in a Brooklyn storefront, Jordan said last week.
That vision remained pretty much the same as late as only a few weeks ago.
But in recent weeks, they have allowed their vision to expand as word about the project suddenly spread, drawing support from more people than they imagined.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of interest from Jews of color and from the [Jewish] community at large,” said Jordan, 42, a rapper and computer programmer in Bushwick also known by his stage name, Y-Love.
“Now we’re collecting for a much larger project,” hoping to raise at least $360,000, he added.
The idea for a JCC organized and led by Jews of color wasn’t even on the radar until recently for the established Jewish community. But the hopes of its two principal organizers, Jordan and Rabbi Rishon, received a major boost last week when they met with three representatives of UJA-Federation of New York, the area’s largest Jewish philanthropy. It was a meeting initiated by the federation, whose representatives are now waiting for a budget from the two men.
Rabbi Rishon, an African-American, is the religious leader of an Orthodox congregation in New City, N.Y., in Rockland County, as well as a blogger, author and activist. Also known as MaNishtana, his blogging name, he recently spoke at the rally in Brooklyn that followed the Jewish community’s “No Hate, No Fear March” against anti-Semitism. The rabbi grew up in Brooklyn as the son of an African-American father who converted to Judaism through Chabad and an African-American mother whose American-Jewish roots date back to the 1780s. Jordan spend much of his childhood intensely interested in Judaism and “converted chasidish back in the day.”
In addition to meeting with federation representatives, Jordan and Rabbi Rishon have met with the leaders of two other Jewish organizations, neither of which Jordan wished to identify at this point, along with realtors. The group behind the project now has a name, the TribeHerald Foundation, and a website, TribeHerald.org, which is collecting donations. Meanwhile, at least one other organization, the 4-year-old Torah Trumps Hate, is partnering with the foundation to raise funds for the new JCC.
Jordan and Rabbi Rishon both belong to Torah Trumps Hate, which has about 2,700 members around the world, said Victoria Cook, the group’s its founder.
Tentative plans call for locating the JCC in what Jordan, a traditional Jew, jokingly calls a “shtetl-adjacent neighborhood,” such as Bedford-Stuyvesant. Although led by Jews of color, it would be open to Jews of all backgrounds, Jordan said – no different from, say, a Sephardic synagogue or center aimed at meeting the needs of Sephardic Jews but open to the entire Jewish community.
In fact, Jordan said he and Rabbi Rishon are hoping the JCC will serve as a venue for bridge-building, both between Jews of color and other Jews, and between Jews and non-Jewish minority groups. Bridge-building activities might include kosher potluck dinners (“because everybody loves to come together over food,” Jordan said), hip-hop concerts and block parties.
In many ways, Jordan said, he and Rabbi Rishon are building on the work of organizations like the Be’chol Lashon (“in every language”) and the Jewish Multiracial Network that have worked for years to promote a more inclusive Judaism. But the idea for a JCC took root spontaneously after the 2010 death of Yoseph Robinson, a Jamaican immigrant who turned to Orthodox Judaism, worked in a kosher wine store and was fatally shot during a robbery attempt.
“At the funeral,” Jordan recounted, “there were so many Jews of color, and we all looked at each other with the same questions: ‘Why haven’t I met you before?’ ‘Do you know so-and-so? And ‘I haven’t seen you in shul for years?’” That planted the seeds for a discussion about creating a community center for Jews of color and for the effort to bring that to fruition.
Since then, the JOC population has grown even more, rising to an estimated 20 percent of American Jewry, according to surveys of American Jewry. As Jordan defines it, the term encompasses all non-white, non-Ashkenazi Jews, including black, Latino, Native American, North African and Yemenite Jews.
But although their numbers are growing, many Jews of color speak of being treated as outsiders by a large number of Jewish institutions, where they’ve encountered suspicion or, worse, outright racism. Jordan said the feelings of alienation, disenchantment and resignation have grown so intense and so widespread among Jews of color that they have given the years-long effort to create a JCC a sense of urgency it didn’t have before.
The new JCC would give local Jews of color a home they have never had before, Jordan said — a place in which they would be perfectly comfortable studying and practicing their Judaism without feeling the need to explain themselves or defend their presence.
“We want to be the face of Judaism for a lot of Jews of color,” he said — a desire reflected in the name TribeHerald he and Rabbi Rishon chose for their foundation. “We were looking for something Jewish representing the tribes from all four corners of the world, as the Torah says.”