Noticing Jews of Color in Our Communities

The challenge is to become more aware that Jews of Color rightfully belong in our communities, and then to welcome and support them in the multiple ways in which it may be appropriate.

Watch the author’s Evolve web conversation based on this essay. Transcription available here.

During this year’s High Holidays, Jews of Color will be among the smiling attendees on our Zoom broadcasts. I will be among them. Recent surveys have estimated that between 8 percent to 15 percent of Jews in America are people of color, and that the segment is fast-growing.

Reconstructing Judaism is rooted in an American egalitarian, rational tradition that allows for evolution, even as it conditions it on personal devotion and commitment to rescuing valuable tradition. Jews of Color have the potential to meaningfully expand Jewish moral memory and action, assuming that, like with all integration, there is an intersubjective process of recognizing each other’s particular needs, histories and aims for the future.

Most Jews of Color will arrive at synagogue after a different trajectory from that of other American Jews. Some Jews of Color come by choice, others form part of a Jewish diaspora that extends throughout the world, some have married a Jew or were adopted, and still others have one Jewish parent. Like all other Jews at synagogue on the High Holidays, Jews of Color want to participate in ceremonies that connect us to Jews over thousands of years, and to seek the comfort and companionship of community.

There is no single, essential Jewish experience, but Reconstructionists, as well as other Jews, coalesce through ritual around collective memories of our origins. With time, that collective memory may include the origins and history of Jews of Color. When Jews meet one another with eyes open to our similarities and our differences, we have the potential for transformation. As we recognize the heterogeneity of Jewish experience and endurance, we can begin to imagine new philosophical approaches and tikkun olam (repair of the world) imperatives.

The Jew of Color who arrives heartbroken and angry because of racial injustice, who weeps because members of her family have struggled and fallen sick during the pandemic, who fears being deported or who even lacks the Internet access to connect to services this year has needs and memories that may be unlike those of most members of the community. Those memories may reflect the racial injustice and economic disparities that have afflicted the United States and belied its egalitarian tradition. “All Jews are interconnected and responsible for one another,” we are taught in the Talmud.[fn]Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 29a[/fn] To meet one another face-to-face is to experience the possibility of becoming identified with, and responsible for, one another. . As we ethically assume each other’s struggles as just, there is goodness and the potential for justice.

There are also, as we might expect, interstitial gaps in our understanding, false binaries and essentialist ideas that have kept Jews of Color from crossing the synagogue door, or else left them disaffected after they do. Judaism is premised on the idea of a birthright so that, inevitably, there is anxiety about who may belong and under what conditions. The challenge is to become more aware that Jews of Color rightfully belong in our community and then, with that change in consciousness, welcome and support them in the multiple ways in which it may be appropriate.

We are in the midst of the largest civil rights movement in American history. People of good will and of all backgrounds are working to effect positive change. In the peaceful protests, we see the presence of white allies, including many Jews. Even in Crown Heights, N.Y., where there have been historical tensions between Black communities and Jews, there have been ultra-Orthodox Jews marching in support of Black civil rights. Likewise, protests against the demonization of immigrants and the inhumane conditions under which many are being held have included the active participation of Jewish communities.

Among the false binaries that many people hold about Judaism is the idea that all Jews are white, and that only white Jews have experienced antisemitism or a history of persecution. In fact, Jews have lived in places like the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa for hundreds of years, in many cases longer than they have been established in the United States. While some may assume that Jews have maintained a matrilineal line of descent throughout time, many Jews of Color grew up abroad in places where their access to synagogues or Jewish communities was curtailed; they may be children of mixed marriages or a racially mixed history. In Cuba, where I am from, most Jews are children of Jewish fathers, not mothers, because Jewish migration before World War II was predominantly male. Sephardic Jews have a history of forced conversion and of practicing Judaism in secret at home (a practice observed since the Spanish Inquisition). Many became estranged from the meaning of rituals their families kept observing and yet want to return to being Jews. An Ethiopian Jew, an Argentine secular Jew, a Black American Jew who finds great comfort in the Old Testament, and the Conversos: All of these people should be welcomed in our synagogues so that they can explore and fulfill their faith and wish for community.

In the Yom Kippur fast, in the sweetness of Rosh Hashanah, we can find new possibilities for tikkun olam, knowing that Jews of Color are an inherent part of our congregations, sitting at synagogue, listening, meditating, looking to repair ourselves and the world like all other Jews worshipping on the same day around the world. This is not to say that there will never be conflict or disagreement among us, but rather that in awareness, we may begin to transcend those historical impediments together.

Part of the tragedy of enforced racism, segregation and homogenization is that we may lose the ability to see and recognize ourselves, and that others may also not see or recognize us. When we think of Jewish ethics, we imagine wise and perfect comportment, when in fact real life and real memory is full of fault and lapses. We are more anti-heroes than heroes. And so, we will make mistakes in the ways we behave or in what we say about these issues. The purpose of examining these issues is not to develop new orthodoxy or to merely re-examine ourselves, but to evolve with our changing world. Evolution, as much as tradition, are key Reconstructionist values. Jews of Color may experience some form of racism at synagogue, but also great joy. Last year, with great pride and happiness, I saw my daughter Cari become a Bat Mitzvah. We keep moving forward. Together.

I will end with a blessing: May this year 5781 be a year when Jews of Color everywhere experience the joy of finding home and celebration in Jewish community.

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