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Diversity in the United States


Diversity characterizes the American Jewish community, partially through historical antecedents and partially through contemporary social forces. The Jewish community is growing and changing through intermarriage, conversion, and adoption. Some of the individuals entering the community are people of color, which should hardly come as a surprise.

As Jews become more integrated into the overall American society, growing numbers of African Americans, Asians, Latinos and mixed-race individuals are becoming part of the Jewish community. However, this growth augments a diverse Jewish population that has existed in America for hundreds of years. The first American Jews were Sephardic and African, before Ashkenazi Jews came to the New World.

Ironically, Jews, as a group, were defined by the American majority as non-white well into the 1950s and early 1960s. Jews were considered by others to be “black” or “Oriental.” It is no coincidence that racially-restrictive covenants and housing laws in America, prior to the late 1940s, targeted African Americans, Asians, and Jews, all considered to be foreign, non-white racial groups.

On the timeline of Jewish existence, the white status of Jews is something of a novelty. For many, especially younger Jews, it may be difficult to fathom that all Jews were recently considered to be non-white. Some Jews, will never think of themselves as white at all, considering themselves to be part of a minority that exists outside the white mainstream of America. They feel that they are strangers in the land, still. Yet, as they relate to people of color, most Jews in the United States are clearly white, even if they can sometimes empathize or identify with people of color.

There are many racially and ethnically diverse Jews who are born Jewish. These individuals are not necessarily of mixed-race. Around the world, including within the United States, there are long-established families and communities of color who have been Jewish for generations. Additionally, significant numbers of Jews marry someone who is not born Jewish. Even when the non-Jewish partner does not convert, their children may grow up with a Jewish identity, with multiple religious identities, or with no religious identity at all. Some people of color become Jews through formal conversion, and still others live as Jews transforming their identity psychologically and functionally without undertaking rites of conversion. An increasing number of children of color become Jewish when they are adopted by Jewish parents. Many, but not all, of these adopted children undergo a formal conversion while they are still minors and grow up just like other Jewish kids in America.

Race in America
The definitions of racial categories are changing for sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers, as well as the public. Conventional categories are muddled as a result of hundreds of years of racial mixing. We have outgrown the racial definitions we created. They were artificial and problematic from their inception. Moreover, language does not exist to talk about the complex combinations of race, religion, ethnicity and nationality.

Diversity in Jewish families has been part of changing racial boundaries in the American landscape. As they have always been, Jewish Americans are African-American, Caribbean, African, Asian, Latino, and a myriad of different combinations of racial and ethnic groups- as other Americans have been as well.

Like many Americans with mixed heritage, Jews of diverse backgrounds have multiple identities that are sometimes conflicting, complicated and difficult to resolve. Others embrace and are comfortable with their multiple identities. Diverse Jews who do not feel welcomed by the Jewish community may find it less complicated to identify with his or her racial community than to identify as a Jew. At the same time, they may face discrimination from their racial group for their identification with Judaism. Jews of color may have bifurcated identities; culturally relating to their respective racial communities and religiously to Judaism. Others navigate multiple identities with ease, and feel privileged to be part of many different cultures.

Jews of color may feel isolated
Some Jews of color feel isolated, not knowing others like themselves. These Jews of color exist outside the majority communal structure. They are even more alienated than other disaffected Jews. Put simply, they do not fit. Of course, Jews of all kinds are also removed from Jewish communal life. They do not belong to synagogues, they do not contribute to Jewish philanthropies, and so on. Institutional barriers are a problem for many Jews, no matter how welcoming many Jewish organizations think they may be.

The history of rejection of minority Jews in America has now produced internalized rejection, particularly among some African-American Jews. Some minority Jews have been questioned so often, treated so poorly by the mainstream Jewish community, that they themselves often develop an ideology of isolation. The mutual history of rejection is now at least two generations old between some communities of black and white Jews. Slow progress is being made to heal the rift.

How Do We Define “Jewish Diversity”
Just as Ashkenazi Jews are a mix of many peoples encountered during centuries of wandering throughout the Diaspora, Jews of color have different backgrounds, different life experiences, and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. These differences include geography, socioeconomic class, ideology, culture, skin tone, language, paths to Judaism, and so on. What language can be used to describe multi-racial and multi-ethnic Jews? What about those who are adopted from Asia by Ashkenazi parents? How would one categorize Indian Jews? Some African Americans whose families have been Jewish for over 100 years prefer to be known as “Hebrew Israelites,” feeling that “Jew” refers to whites. Still other African American Jews have joined mainstream synagogues. What about the Anusim (known also as Conversos or Crypto-Jews), who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal over 500 years ago?

How do we talk about ourselves when the language we have is too narrow and confining, like outdated racial categories on a census form? How do we describe a group for which there is no group label?

We must use what is admittedly inadequate language: “Jews of color,” “diverse Jews,” “racially and ethnically diverse Jews.” All of these terms refer to those who are in currently distinct subcultures from the majority different from non-sephardic European backgrounds. Many people who fall into this category may not define themselves as “people of color.” Yet they may feel marginalized and many in the mainstream may see diverse Jews as being “other”. Whatever their origins and culture, whatever their skin tone, whatever their path to Judaism, we include them in our discussions of Jewish diversity.

Why Ethnic & Racial Diversity is Important
Racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community is important for five reasons:

Whatever percentage of the American Jewish population diverse Jews may represent, their numbers are increasing.
Diverse Jews help grow the Jewish population. The potential for increasing that number, thereby increasing our communal numbers overall, is significant and intriguing. Numbers are important for their own sake. Despite the outcries so common in Jewish institutional circles that quality not quantity matters, both are important. A larger, more expansive Jewish community is healthier than a shrinking one. Considering the number of “connected” non-Jewsh already in existence, as well as those Americans, including people of color, who feel free to choose or reject the religion of their birth, the Jewish community could greatly expand, perhaps by millions, if it were more open and could attract new individuals, including individuals of color. Jews should consider those individuals, who may not be officially? Jewish, as friends, and should treat them as such, as they would graciously treat guests in their homes. In addition to the fact that being unwelcoming violates Jewish values, Jews should cherish those people in the world that they can count on for support in the face of rising anti-Semitism.

Diverse Jews are deeply identified as Jews
Although population growth is critical, numbers alone will not sustain the Jewish community. The depth of involvement and participation of individual Jews is also essential. The wider Jewish community should care about diversity because most diverse Jews, regardless of their path to Judaism and regardless of their degree of institutional or religious affiliation, are deeply identified as Jews and want to build a stronger Jewish community.

Diversity within the Jewish community helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups.
For the last several years, anti-Semitism (sometimes hidden in the form of anti-Israelism) has been rising in the United States, in Europe, and especially in the Muslim world. Encouraging diversity within the Jewish community is one way to address that threat. Increasing the numbers and visibility of racially and ethnically diverse Jews helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups. Anti-Semites portray Israel and Jews as “white colonialists,” sometimes unfairly likening Israeli actions to the former South African policy of apartheid or even to Nazi practices. Those who want to destroy Israel attempt to appeal to individuals of color to oppose the “white colonialists.” The misrepresentation of Israel, Jews, and Judaism is harder to promote when it is made clear that Jews are also people of color.

Diversity helps make Judaism more meaningful
For the Jewish community to continue to thrive into coming generations, the American Jewish mainstream must find a way to make Judaism more meaningful to the growing numbers of disenfranchised Jews, which include younger people. Diversity is one of the keys to that future. People around the world, including younger Jews, long for a world where racial or ethnic insularity are less polarizing. Communities that separate themselves from other minority cultures are considered archaic. Popular music, film, and other art forms that appeal to younger people borrow freely from many cultures and no longer disguise their origins. Diversity is such an important part of American identity that the Jewish community would be well served by devoting resources and energy to racial and ethnic diversity within its own ranks.

Top of Page

“The Jewish community is growing and changing through intermarriage, conversion, and adoption.”


“The first American Jews were Sephardic and African, before Ashkenazi Jews came to the New World.”


“We have outgrown the racial definitions we created. They were artificial and problematic from their inception.”


“A larger, more expansive Jewish community is healthier than a shrinking one.”


“...the Jewish community could greatly expand, perhaps by millions, if it were more open and could attract new individuals, including individuals of color.”


“The wider Jewish community should care about diversity because most diverse Jews, [...] are deeply identified as Jews and want to build a stronger Jewish community. ”


“Increasing the numbers and visibility of racially and ethnically diverse Jews helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups.”


“People around the world, including younger Jews, long for a world where racial or ethnic insularity are less polarizing.”