Faith draws more blacks: The changing face of Judaism

Pamela and Jim Harris have gotten used to the stares.

It’s not that people have never seen traditional Jewish garb before. They’ve just rarely seen it on a black couple.

“For a black male to put on a kipah and go wandering around in a predominately black community, you get the strangest looks,” said Pamela Harris, referring to the traditional Jewish head covering.

Soon the Harrises, former Christian evangelicals, will complete their conversion to Judaism. If their choice seems unusual, it’s apparently becoming less so.

At Congregation Shearith Israel, a conservative synagogue in Virginia-Highland, where Pamela Harris works as the senior nonclerical staff member, at least eight of the roughly 20 people learning about Judaism with Rabbi Hillel Norry are black.

At the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody, roughly 20 percent of the nearly two dozen people enrolled in Steven Chervin’s introduction to Judaism classes are black.

Although there are no sound statistics on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that, in the past 15 years, increasing numbers of black Americans are exploring Judaism, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

“Ten years ago, it was almost unheard of that a black person would come in and want to convert,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman, who is working with the Harrises and two other black people pursuing conversion.

Until their conversion courses intensified last year, the Harrises led a weekly learning/support group in Decatur for about a dozen African-Americans interested in Judaism.

So what’s going on?

Tobin cites three major trends. One, people are increasingly switching religions, he said. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey in February that found 28 percent of American adults have left the faith they were raised in for another one or none at all.

The Internet, too, has played a role, allowing people to readily access information on different faiths, he said.

And racial barriers have been breaking down over the past 40 years, with intermarriage leading to multiracial families and communities, he said.

American Jews now marry non-Jews at a rate of nearly 50 percent. Plus, there are more instances of interracial adoption and conversion, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. That’s contributed to more ethnic diversity, especially within the Reform movement, Judaism’s largest and most liberal branch.

“It’s a safe assumption that the number of black Jews in America is growing because of integration by both Jews and blacks,” said Chaim Waxman, senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank in Israel.

Next year in Cincinnati, the first black female rabbinical student will be ordained through the Reform movement.

‘I felt this is my place’

Latesha Jones’ introduction to the faith came through Jewish friends she met after moving to Atlanta from Richmond.

Though she was born into a Baptist family, the 29-year-old said she felt more at home in a synagogue.

Before long, she was studying Judaism and decided to convert, changing her name to Elisheva Naomi Chaim.

“I felt welcome,” she said. “I felt like this is my place.”

But not everyone felt comfortable with her decision. Chaim cites more than one awkward conversation with family members.

They asked which God she was serving, and whether Jesus Christ was involved. When she explained that she was not worshipping Jesus, her aunt told her she’d go to hell.

“They’re coming around one at a time,” Chaim said of her relatives. Her mother now says that as long as Chaim is “doing something spiritually,” she doesn’t have a problem.

It’s not always easy at synagogue either, said Chaim, who attends Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in Sandy Springs.

“There are some that will look at me strangely because I’m black, but I try not to let that get under my skin.”

Once she talks to them and shows a knowledge of Judaism, she said, “their attitude changes.”

They’ll say, “Welcome to the tribe” or “I have a lot of respect for you,” given the historic persecution of Jews, she said.

Under the radar

Since the turn of the century, there have been black congregations around the country that identify as “Hebrew Israelite,” that is to say, as descendants of the biblical patriarchs, said Lewis Gordon, founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University. But often these groups don’t consider themselves Jewish, despite some of them having similar traditions.

The 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by the United Jewish Communities, North America’s central Jewish fund-raising organization, found that 1 percent of Jewish adults, or 37,000 people, identified as black or African-American. An additional 1 percent of Jewish adults called themselves biracial or multiracial.

However, that was based on a total estimate of 5.2 million Jews in America, a number that Tobin and other key Jewish demographers have called too low. Tobin believes the number of black Jews in America exceeds 150,000.

The notion of black Jews is hardly new. The Jewish history of worldwide migration has led to Jews of every ethnicity. But much of the black Jewish experience in this country has flown under the radar of other Americans, Gordon said. That’s because many black Jews historically practiced privately or in segregated communities, he said.

The population was “swept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions” that saw Jews as exclusively white, even though American Jews of European descent did not consider themselves white until recent decades, Gordon said.

“There have always been communities of either black people who are already Jewish or black people considering coming to Judaism. What is different is that institutional structures are changing,” he said.

“There is an increased effort to creating a welcoming environment for them.”

Gordon speculates that as many as 1 million black people in the United States have Jewish roots, among them African-Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants and Afro-Latinos.

Which is why Gordon thinks that, among the rising numbers of black Americans coming to Judaism, some of them are simply returning to it.

Coming home

That’s how Sivan Ariel sees her experience.

Born to a Catholic family in the Virgin Islands, Ariel now believes her biracial grandmother practiced Jewish customs she learned from her mother.

“She would always talk about the laws of God” and the Exodus story, Ariel said. Her grandmother would light white candles, which now remind Ariel of those lit on the Sabbath.

“She was the only person I knew that actually did that, so I wondered if it was actually witchcraft,” Ariel said with a chuckle.

Ariel left Catholicism when she moved to Atlanta for college and joined a Pentecostal church for a while. But she never felt comfortable there, and she began a spiritual search that led her to convert to Judaism.

“A long time ago, religion was not something that you thought about,” Pamela Harris said.

“You went to whatever church that Mama and Daddy went to.”

Ariel, referring to her experience and those of other black Jews, said, “Some of us know beyond a shadow of a doubt we’re here because we’re home.”

Rabbi Norry called this an “unprecedented time” of interest in Judaism.

“Business is booming,” he said. “On any given Shabbos, there’s 10 non-Jews at our service, visiting or studying to be Jewish.”

Still, he asks every convert: “Why would you ever want to be Jewish? Don’t you know how many people hate us?”

The black converts respond differently, he said. They look at him as if to say: “Welcome to my world.”

And yet, for Pamela Harris, race was always beside the point. In fact, her Jewish identity trumps her racial one.

“My community is the community of B’nai Israel,” she said, using the Hebrew expression for the children of Israel.

“I was on a quest for a relationship with God,” she said. “That search has nothing to do with race or creed or color or even your religious preference. It has to do with fulfilling a deep need.”