American Jews embrace demographic diversity

(KRT) – On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Jews across America will pause to consider how to improve themselves and their communities in the year to come. No doubt, many will contemplate how the country reacted to the terrible destruction wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A disproportionate number of the victims were poor and black, rekindling a national dialogue on race and class. Yet Americans poured millions of dollars into the affected areas, moving beyond racial stereotypes and boundaries.

We, as a nation, also need to move beyond the racial stereotype of American Jews that erroneously portrays them as a monolithic people of European origin. Jews are in fact as diverse as any demographic group in America – and perhaps the most diverse demographic group in America. In an exhaustive series of studies over four years, we found that 1.2 million, or 20 percent, of the nation’s 6 million Jews consists of black, Asian-American, Latino, Sephardic (of Spanish and Portuguese descent), Middle Eastern and mixed-race Jews. This minority within a minority is growing, and has the potential to change the traditional debate over the future of American Jewish life.

Don’t take my word for it. Go to any Jewish day school and see for yourself children whose genetic roots are set in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but who speak Hebrew just like their friends. Their parents too may be of any color, and often their families can be painted in a multitude of hues. Support groups for Jewish parents with Asian-born adopted children are growing in numbers and strength. And synagogues with predominately black congregations are building in size, and drawing in members whose level of observance is often greater than their white co-religionists. Yet to some American Jews and American Jewish institutions, this trend is invisible. They rarely are conscious of Jews of diverse backgrounds. Often, the first response to unfamiliar Jews is doubt _”Are they really Jewish?”

It is a sad truth that America’s Jews, famously liberal and open-minded, have been too closed-minded when it comes to defining who can be Jewish – and it hurts the community’s future in two ways. First, it is simply wrong. Given the historical Jewish experience with anti-Semitism, many Jews, suspicious of strangers, are reluctant to recognize this growing diversity. Consequently, they are unable to recognize a larger trend in America itself: Religious and ethnic identity is not an either/or definition any more. Younger Americans in particular do not identify with just one community. Some are both Latino and Jewish. Some are Catholic and black. And they don’t see anything wrong with identifying with multiple ethnic, racial and religious groups.

Second, Jews are missing a golden opportunity. Jews from diverse backgrounds bring with them parents, children, friends and neighbors – many intrigued by this ancient faith that speaks of justice, respect and peace. These “interested non-Jews” who are connected to the Jewish community by blood, marriage or otherwise can help dispel the non-Jewish world’s misconceptions, and prejudices, about the faith. Those interested in becoming Jews themselves may help America’s Jewish community solve the challenge of its declining numbers.

As we conducted more than 200 personal interviews and focus groups with diverse Jews and their families, we found that many diverse Jews identify strongly with all of their communities. They find in Judaism a comforting home – even if the community itself is not always so welcoming – and also a home in the black, Latino, Asian-American and American Indian communities, among others. They build communities of others who share their worldview that Judaism is something to be celebrated by new adherents as well as old, the curious as well as the cynical.

It shouldn’t take a hurricane for our understanding of racial boundaries within the Jewish community to change. It is heartening to see new faces, speaking in every tongue, to a God whose promise to Abraham is read in synagogues every Rosh Hashanah: “I shall bless you and your children, and you shall be like the stars of the heavens, and the sand on the seashore.”

— © 2005, Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.). Visit the Web site of the News Tribune at
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