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Finding Their Voice: Jews of Color Are Slowly Putting Their Concerns on the Communal Agenda

This article first appeared in The [New York] Jewish Week and is reprinted with permission of author. Visit This article may contain information that has changed since first published.

Just last week, in a pricey Chelsea accessories boutique, Danielia Roberts encountered an attitude that she finds herself getting used to. As she purchased some candleholders, it somehow came up that the sales clerk was Jewish.

“When I said ‘so am I,’ she said ‘You are?!’ She was young and seemed to be pretty liberal, but she was really taken aback,” said Roberts, an African American who converted to Judaism last year.

Yolanda Thomas, also an African-American Jew-by-Choice, has been dealing with similar attitudes for as long as she’s been attending the Upper East Side’s Temple Emanu-El, where she is now an active member.

Security guards routinely block her from entering the synagogue because they assume that she doesn’t belong there. Once she gets into the sanctuary, she has to deal with it all over again, when other worshippers presume that she’s not Jewish and is there as a nanny or with a friend.

Jews of color say they constantly encounter disbelief in all sorts of settings–and more often from Jews than people from other faith backgrounds.

“When you tell Jews, they do a double take,” says Roberts. “I get less of a reaction from the non-Jew, 9 times out of 10. I don’t even think they’re conscious of how much their preconceived notions about the face of a Jew are ingrained.”

When Angela Warnick Buchdahl was in college, she often acted as Hillel service song leader. “I would be chanting in Hebrew and wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), and afterwards people would still say ‘Are you Jewish?’ ” says Warnick Buchdahl, whose mother is a Korean Buddhist and whose father is an Ashkenazi American Jew. “I would feel like saying ‘are you blind?'”

“All the clues were there but they couldn’t suspend their stereotypes enough to see me,” says Warnick Buchdahl, who was raised in a Reform synagogue community in Tacoma, Wash. As a young adult she underwent a traditional conversion to Judaism and last year was ordained a rabbi. She now works as assistant rabbi and cantor at Westchester Reform Temple.

Through the experiences and activism of the growing population of Jews of color, their concerns and issues are beginning to creep into the margins of the Jewish communal establishment’s agenda. And at a time in which national surveys indicate that the American Jewish populace is shrinking, aging and failing to replenish itself by having enough children, this is a population of Jews asking to be included in the life of the community.

They number in the “hundreds of thousands,” says demographer Gary Tobin, who next week is convening a first-ever Jewish Diversity Think Tank in San Francisco, and will have a report on Jews of color out next spring.

“Jewish inclusivity is the only reasonable antidote to the shrinking of the Jewish community,” said Reena Bernards, the advocacy campaign chair of the 6-year-old Jewish Multiracial Network, at a meeting of staff from mainstream Jewish organizations held last month.

Jews of color also constitute a population finding its own voice, through a burgeoning number of grass roots organizations and conferences springing up nationwide. What they want, say leaders of these efforts, is to see their own faces reflected in the materials and leadership of the Jewish community, and for their fellow Jews to confront the racism which is sometimes subtle and sometimes unwittingly, but frequently, expressed.

What they want, they say, is not to be exoticized and not to be treated like strangers.

“The piece that’s hard for me is feeling objectified,” said Yavilah McCoy, an Orthodox Jew and African American.

“Instead of being able to walk with my identity, I constantly feel I have to defend it or authenticate it for people. I’m at ease with the whole idea, but it says that the presence of Jews of color is a shock,” she says.

In Manhattan, Danielia Roberts is establishing a multiracial Jewish children’s choir at her synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Sholom. “Kids and music are a powerful thing,” Roberts said. “Through music you can cross lines that ordinarily you’d be tiptoeing around.”

McCoy grew up in Brooklyn as part of the Lubavitch community, attending a Sephardic-oriented synagogue where “there were a lot of dark faces.” But at Bais Rivkah yeshiva and Yeshiva University high school for girls, there weren’t. She went on to teach in the Bobov girls’ yeshiva in Borough Park, shocking her young students when she recited the proper blessing before eating a bagel, and bringing in the stories of Maya Angelou. She also tried to sensitize them to the “everyday racism” that is part and parcel of their culture–such as using the term “nigger boxes” for boom-box radios, she said.

Now she, with her husband–an African-American Jew-by-Choice who converted before they met–and their three young children, lives in St. Louis and works as a diversity educator in corporate and Jewish settings.

A couple of years ago she established an organization, Ayecha (Hebrew for “where are you?”), to provide support for Jews of color and promote tolerance in the Jewish community.

The challenge of remaining Jewish is particularly hard for Jews of color, she said. Of the eight black Jewish chasidic families she knew growing up in Brooklyn, all but two “left the derech,” or Jewish path, she said. One of the families had eight children. “Those are terrible statistics for the Jewish community,” she said.

Ayecha has an on-line discussion group with about 75 participants, and frequent gatherings in St. Louis and New York. It will hold one such gathering Jan. 11 at Touro College in Queens.

The group will also host its second annual national conference Feb. 28-March 2 at a conference center in Warwick, N.Y. They’re expecting about 200 Jews to attend.

Swirl, a social group for those of mixed-race heritage, was started by Jennifer Chau, whose mother is an Ashkenazi Jew and whose father is a Chinese non-Jew. After facing racism at the Queens Conservative synagogue she grew up in, Chau felt excluded from Judaism. She was called “Chicken Chau Mein” by Hebrew school classmates so often that “I used to go to sleep wishing I could wake up with the name Bernstein,” and her father was, at the last minute, not permitted on the bima (podium) at her Bat Mitzvah less because he is not Jewish than because he is not white, she says.

Now 25 and assistant to the president emeritus of New York University, she began Swirl for all people of mixed racial heritage. Many of its members are Jews.

“A lot of Jews of color and mixed Jews are unaffiliated with Jewish groups because they’ve had negative experiences,” says Chau. “A lot of us are not in synagogues,” turning instead to other sources of support. Swirl has an on-line discussion group with 370 participants worldwide. There’s also a film series, a book club and a writers’ circle. “We try to find ways to discuss the mixed experience in different ways,” she says.

Mainstream Jewish organizations are also, slowly, starting to view the diverse face of Judaism as an issue worth their focus.

The Reform movement’s Commission on Outreach and Synagogue Community had a panel discussion in mid-November on “Realizing the Gifts of Diversity.”

“We’re noticing many more Jews of color,” says Dru Greenwood, director of the commission. “There’s hardly a congregation that doesn’t have at least one, connected with adoption and conversion. When you talk about the changing face of North American Judaism, there it is.”

The Reform movement is starting to consciously put a rainbow of faces on its publications. The cover of its guide to outreach programs for new families has on it the faces of four babies: two Caucasian, one black and one Asian, and a new early childhood music curriculum and new children’s book have been given similar treatments.

The Reform movement in the last couple of years has ordained two Asian-American Jews, and has its first African-American Jew-by-Choice currently in rabbinical school.

The Jewish Multiracial Network recently brought together about 25 representatives of Jewish organizations, from the Jewish Museum to the Central Queens YM & YWHA, to hear from Jews of color and discuss their own programming.

A Jewish Museum representative, Susan Chevlow, said that the museum is now developing an exhibition of commissioned works “exploring identity in a multicultural society.” The museum is commissioning eight to 10 photographers who will shoot pictures representing every face of the Jewish community, and the results will be shown in an exhibit in the fall of 2004.

But funding for efforts to promote a diverse Jewish community is inconsistent.

Yavilah McCoy recently received a $60,000 Joshua Venture grant for the part of Ayecha which is trying to bring together rabbis for a retreat to develop a strategy to address diversity issues.

But the Jewish Multiracial Network may soon be closing its office doors, as it is losing funding from The Nathan Cummings Foundation, Righteous Persons Foundation and Jewish Outreach Institute.

“We’re worried,” says network director Amy Posner. “We’re a start-up organization right now, a small one without a lot of infrastructure. And the climate of the day is difficult,” she said, with other needs, like Israel and Sept. 11 relief, being perceived as more critical.”

Also at the Network’s conference, the head of Jewish programming at the Sol Goldman Y, on Manhattan’s 14th Street, spoke about their constituency of Hispanic-Jewish families and Japanese-Jewish families.

The Y has established an entire Japanese-Jewish family department, said Wendy Levinson, which holds sushi Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners and a yearly traditional Japanese celebration of daughters.

“There are so many resources in our community for interfaith families, but very, very few for interracial ones,” Levinson said.

“This is an amazing start but just a small piece of what we need to be doing,” she said. “We all need to do more.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.