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For Jews of Every Culture and Color, Identity and Belonging Are Key Issues

March 21, 2005
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Pele Browner, a 19-year-old Jew of African-American and Native-American heritage, was playing basketball at his local Jewish community center in West Bloomfield, Mich, when one of the other kids on the court asked him if he was Jewish. “Yes,” he said.

“How does that work out?” they asked.

Adam McKinney, 28, a Jew of African-American, Ashkenazi and Sephardi ancestry, often has fielded similar questions.

People say, “How are you Jewish?” he said. “I say, ‘I’m fine Jewish. How are you Jewish?’ “

Since their modest beginnings in the Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago, the Jewish people has added ethnic groups from around the world. Today, Jews come in all shades and colors, spanning the range from black skin and nappy hair to blond hair and blue eyes.

Nonetheless, say many Jews of color, white Ashkenazim often have a set idea of what “Jewish” looks like and where “Jewish” comes from, leaving many unable to make sense of a Jew who does not physically resemble and practice Judaism like those from Central and Eastern Europe.

Ayecha, an organization that supports Jews of color, and the Jewish Multicultural Coalition held a conference, called Jewish Leaders of Color, at New York University’s Bronfman Student Center in late February. Browner and McKinney, who were there, were relieved that for once they did not have to defend their Jewishness.

“It was important for me not only to see in person so many Jews of color — because I always knew they existed — but to actually be in a place where the fact of my being Jewish would never be called into question,” said Wilbur Bryant II, 35, an African-American Jew who was part of the planning committee.

Since he moved to New Jersey from Philadelphia, where he had attended a welcoming Reconstructionist synagogue, Bryant — who was wearing a knit yarmulke and a Star of David earring — has avoided going to Shabbat or holiday services.

“I think there are white Jews who haven’t dealt with their own racism, so I’m very wary of going to synagogues that are strange to me,” he said. “I find generally that people look at me with that ‘What is he doing here?’ look.”

Linda Jum, a Chinese-American Jewish educator, fully understands Bryant’s reluctance. “I feel like a big wind follows me whenever I walk into a sanctuary because the heads all turn,” she said. “I know where all the restrooms are in every synagogue, because I’m always directed to them, with the comment, ‘The room you’re looking for is that way.’ “

In response to these kinds of experiences, Jum has served on the boards of many Jewish community institutions. “That’s given me a forum to put a different face — this face — in many Jewish spaces, broadening the very narrow American definition of what Jewish is,” she said.

Nadav Davis, 30 , an African-American and Cuban Sephardi Jew, also uses activist tactics. Sometimes they’re literally in-your-face. “I’ve poked my black face in a whole lot of shuls,” he said. “I’ve allowed them to see me. The issue is getting your face out there, for them to recognize the differences.”

Davis and Jum say that as Jews of color, they constantly have to play teacher — whether they like it or not. “At times, I’d like to be the Jew in the pew and be left alone,” said Jum, as those around her nod and smile in agreement.

Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Jew and Ayecha’s executive director, said that’s why she thought of creating this conference. “I was watching a process of Jewish leaders of color getting burnt out around doing this work in the last four years or so since I’ve been working on it myself,” she said.

So she organized an ongoing conference call with Jewish leaders of color across the country, exploring what issues were most pressing in doing Jewish diversity work. The conference developed from the discussion. Participants included Rabbi Alysa Stanton, the first African American to graduate rabbinical school; Davi Cheng, the first Asian-American president of the first gay and lesbian synagogue; and Beejhy Barhani, executive director of Beta Israel North America, an advocacy group run by and for Ethiopian Jews.

A primary concern the leaders shared, McCoy said, was that they “didn’t have faith in a process of working within the Jewish community, because ideas of inclusion and challenging racism were not welcome there.”

To help them cope with the feeling that they constantly were banging their heads against a wall, organizers structured the gathering around themes of self-care, rejuvenation and alliance-building.

A theme that ran throughout the conference was exploring how to feel compassion and love for white Ashkenazi Jews, through understanding the factors contributing to ignorance of and resistance to Jewish diversity.

In her workshop on Jewish multiculturalism, McCoy asked participants what happens to a group that experiences persecution. Answering her own question, she bowed her head and hid behind her arms. “How are you going to get me to put down my defenses?” she asked, peeking out. The answers ranged from “Have patience” to “Judge favorably.”

“I’m focusing on coming from a place of love internally,” McCoy said in a later interview. “That itself is more nurturing to the person doing the work, because a person carrying anger with confrontation is breaking themselves down. Anger is not a regenerative state. It diminishes energy.”

Reflecting that belief, the atmosphere of the conference was intentionally upbeat. “I learned a lot of positive things,” said Tedros Bicha. One of the two Ethiopian Jews at the conference, Bicha is a member of Shmella, a new organization run by and for Ethiopian Jews living in New York.

The conference drew about 100 participants, but a relatively small number were of Ethiopian, Mizrachi or Sephardi descent. McCoy said that there are significant differences in identity between those groups and Jews by choice and mixed-faith/mixed-race Jews.

The difference, she said, is “the journey of people who have immigrated and of those who have grown up as Jews in America.”

McCoy tells a personal story to illustrate her point: “I have an Indian Jewish friend who is the same color as I am, literally, but doesn’t consider herself to be a person of color,” she said.

“When she walks out in the street, people might treat her with the same racism that they treat other people with brown skin. But that’s not how she perceives herself.”

Similarly, McCoy said, Mizrachim and Sephardim “identify in various ways — as Arab, as Israeli, as Iraqi — by country. They don’t necessarily identify by color. When they are forced to make the decision to be black or white, a lot of them would chose white.”

White Ashkenazi Jews are taught to see the Jewish world as divided between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, but the Jewish world in truth is far more diverse and that, says McCoy, is one of the issues that Jewish multicultural leaders must explore and discuss with each other.

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