If you’re anything like me, the news that the Jews of Color Initiative commissioned a landmark study exploring the experiences of Jews of Color in the American Jewish community felt extremely exciting and horribly overdue. As a mixed race Jew myself who speaks and trains frequently about race and racism inside the Jewish community, I haven’t had much to go on beyond anecdotal evidence, my own experiences and those of my friends and colleagues, published first-person reports and a healthy dose of common sense. This has meant that the “evidence” skeptics have sometimes asked for to back up my points has not passed muster.
But now, “Beyond the Count” is finally here, and the results are telling.
Eighty percent of respondents indicate experiencing discrimination in predominantly white Jewish spaces, ranging from racist microaggressions to outright challenges to their Jewish status. And the majority of respondents feel that the organized Jewish community is not doing enough to address it.
The study was not all bad news, though. A slight majority of Jews of Color report feeling that they belong in Jewish spaces, and it is clear that being Jewish is important and meaningful to the respondents. And what should cause all of us who are leaders in the Jewish community to sit up and pay attention are the concrete recommendations for advancing the work of addressing racism inside the community and building an increasingly inclusive and diverse community that represents all Jews, not just some.
Of particular salience to me is the fact that the largest group of respondents to the study (42%) were Jews of Color with one Jewish parent—that is, the children of interfaith families. We know from the recent Pew survey that Jews in interfaith partnerships are four times more likely to be in an interracial relationship than Jewish-Jewish couples, so this data point should come as no surprise.
This underscores something that I have argued for the last decade or so that I have been doing work on inclusion in the Jewish community: There is no successful interfaith family engagement effort that does not pay attention to the experiences of people of color. Likewise, there is no successful Jews of Color engagement effort that does not pay attention to the experiences of interfaith families. The overlap between the two constituencies of our Jewish community is real, and it is growing.
The data also tells us things that we know to be true in interfaith families. For instance, sometimes the parent who is not Jewish is the primary driver of Jewish identity in their household, or that Jewish grandparents are hugely influential—in ways that are sometimes helpful, but also sometimes harmful.
While many respondents indicated they feel the need to compartmentalize their identities in certain spaces, the majority of respondents also indicated that honoring the wholeness of their identities—that is, their Jewish identity and their racial or ethnic identity—is meaningful to them, and they have found unique ways to do both at the same time. For example, through infusing Jewish celebrations with traditions from their racial background. Encouragingly for our work of fostering strong Jewish connectedness, many respondents felt most comfortable expressing the fulness of their identities around their Jewish family members.
“Beyond the Count” poses as many questions as it answers and suggests numerous future avenues for research. I would propose at least one more: exploring the experiences of Jews of Color from interfaith families. Until that more specific research is done, though, this study provides important analysis and observations, and most important, suggests paths forward for our work of creating a Jewish community that represents and embraces its true diversity.
18Doors recently presented a roundtable conversation on responding to anti-Black racism in the Jewish community, “What people who work with interfaith families need to know about… Anti-Black racism.” Did you miss it? You can watch the recording here.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, focusing on anti-Asian racism.