For Jews of color, protests are reminders of pain — even within Jewish community
It was a sunny Saturday morning in October 2011, and Avi Rosenblum, a freshman on the football team at Laney College, was at the El Cerrito Plaza BART station headed to school. Rosenblum, who is black and Jewish, was playing his music out loud when another passenger called the police on him. BART officers pulled Rosenblum from the platform, pushed the 6-foot-2 black, 200-pound football player against the wall and put him in handcuffs.
A black BART police sergeant told the other officers to let him go, Rosenblum said. “I was scared, I’m not going to lie. God forbid I said the wrong thing. It just takes the wrong word. Everyone knows the Oscar Grant Fruitvale Station” incident, said the now 27-year-old Rosenblum, referring to the 2009 BART police killing of the unarmed black Hayward resident.
Fear for one’s life at the hands of law enforcement is a story all too familiar to black Americans, who are now leading protests around the country after the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, as well as the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of two local residents in Brunswick, Georgia.
A few years after the BART incident, Rosenblum spent three years in Israel serving in the Israel Defense Forces. He now lives back at home with his parents in Albany.
“When Avi was a teenager, one of things we said to him when he was going out the door was, ‘Be safe and sane,’” said Avi’s adoptive white mother, Debby Graudenz. “The fear is different when you send a big, black teenager out the door. We felt safer with Avi in Israel in the army than in the United States.”
On top of the recent protests, America’s other current crises — unprecedented job loss and over 100,000 deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic — are affecting black Americans in dramatic ways. According to a revealing report published in the New York Times, fewer than half of adult black Americans are working right now. And they are dying from coronavirus at disproportionate rates.
In interviews with Jews of color in the Bay Area, a portrait of anger, frustration, exhaustion and pain emerged, along with a call for deep reflection by white Jews and action to identify and dismantle racism within the Jewish community.
Some told stories of how they have been subject to that racism.
Tova Ricardo, 21, of Clayton, an undergraduate at Columbia University, said her own Judaism has been questioned by white congregants.
“We [Jews of color] have been mistaken for janitorial staff while at synagogue,” she said.
“There are people who doubt my Jewishness. They’ll doubt my Jewish knowledge,” she continued. “They will assume I don’t know their stories.”
Ricardo, who worked as a J. editorial intern last summer, thinks that her experiences, while personally painful, are damaging to the Jewish community in the long run. “I’m going to be honest, it actually makes the Jewish community look like they don’t know who they are,” she said. “You are supposed to acknowledge and treat me as if I was anyone else.”
“We as a people have wanted to be on the right side of history,” agreed Shekhiynah Larks. “And often try to do the things that will put us [there].”
Larks, who is program coordinator and diversity trainer at Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for Jews of color, said she has felt “overwhelmed” since the George Floyd killing and the start of mass protests.
“I’m confused,” said Larks, 22, who lives in Oakland. “I’m crying a lot. I’m hurt that my city is torn up.”
For the Jewish community to be on the right side of history, Larks said, white Ashkenazi Jews need to be just as serious about denouncing anti-black racism as they are about anti-Semitism.
“This is one of those times where we need to take the same stance that we take on anti-Semitism and say, ‘This is enough.’ This racism, this anti-black racism, is impacting our community,” Larks said.
When racism is discussed, she said, it’s often brought up as an external issue, but it needs to be recognized as an internal problem as well. Jews of color make up at least 6 percent of the Jewish community nationwide, according to a 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans; a 2019 academic study overseen by the Berkeley-based Jews of Color Field Building Initiative found the number to be much higher, closer to 12 to 15 percent.
“We need to address it both inside and outside of the community,” Larks said. “To be committed to the movement for black lives means to also be committed to the movement for black lives in the Jewish community.”
Black Jews aren’t the only Jews of color who have had racist encounters.
“I’ve had instances where I’m in shul and people came up to me and asked me, ‘Why are you here?’” said Gabrielle Kuhn, who is Chinese American. “It was very off-putting, someone coming up to you and questioning you. It assumes you must just be married to someone that is a white Ashkenazi Jew, because that is the presumption of what a Jew is.”
Kuhn, who has worked in several San Francisco Jewish nonprofits and now splits her time between Israel and the West Coast, said she brought her 6-year-old son to a protest in Los Angeles; they took part in it from the safety of their car.
“I am Asian, and because I am Jewish and because I have a son, I think it is important for him to stand up for what’s right and to teach those values to him,” Kuhn said. “I think there is symbolism in people who aren’t black showing up as allies.”
The Jewish community can start committing itself to chipping away at its own internal issues by seeing anti-Semitism and anti-black racism not as separate forces, but as inextricably linked, said Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative.
“When white Jews want to fight anti-Semitism but not racism, or first want to fight anti-Semitism then racism, they’re not seeing how anti-Semitism and racism are connected,” Kaufman said. “You’re not paying attention to the common enemies. They’re after all of us. Why would we make a hierarchy? We could be in a movement together.”
Kaufman also said this is a time for everyone in the Jewish community to think about where they have power to help protesters.
“Where’s my influence?” she urges people to ask themselves. “Do I work in the legal field? Am I a person of financial means? Do I have political power? Really do a personal inventory and explore what is it that you can contribute right now that will actually help dismantle white supremacy.”
Kaufman said that the Black Lives Matter movement is just as important inside the Jewish community as it is outside of it.
“We need to just be super-duper clear, like, unequivocally clear,” Kaufman said. “Black lives matter. We matter in the Jewish community. Black lives matter outside of the Jewish community. We have to shut down whatever system that has people thinking that black lives are disposable.”
Batya Brose, who is Mexican American and enrolled in Berkeley City College’s biotechnology program, said rabbis and heads of Jewish organizations need to “do the hard thing.”
“Say, ‘We understand our whiteness,’” said Brose, 25, whose family has been longtime members of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. “We want to know what it’s like for you. Have conversations with these black and brown Jews so they can make adjustments accordingly. What can we do as a community to make people feel more welcome? It requires a certain amount of consciousness.”
There are examples of congregations doing just that. Lily Marylander, 18, who is Asian American, said her family’s synagogue has done a good job at reaching out to Jews of color. She said the leadership of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley sends out a survey every year to see if they are ever feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome. And Marylander says she’s seen the shul make efforts to place Jews of color in leadership roles.
“Some communities are really proactive about that,” said Marylander, who just graduated from Oakland School for the Arts.
Sarah Grace Gladstone, the East Bay program coordinator at Jewish Youth for Community Action, a youth-led program that seeks to “educate, empower and inspire” progressive social action, suggests that the act of listening is just as important.
“Follow the lead of black folks and black Jewish people,” said Gladstone. “Being able to not just react, and to really take a step back and to listen to what affected people are saying. It’s not always what feels the best to do.”
A contingent of JYCA’s youth joined a protest on June 1 in Oakland, where 15,000 participants, led by black students from Oakland Technical High School, marched from the school to City Hall. About 100 stayed after curfew and marched to the police station to confront police.
Marylander, who is not part of JYCA but has friends in the organization, took part in the protest and used her art-making skills to spray-paint signs of raised fists.
“It was an amazing show of solidarity,” Marylander said. “I saw people with babies in strollers and old people. People of all races.”
The outpouring of support among protesters from across the spectrum of race and religion does feel different this time compared with previous protests against police violence, said Marcella White Campbell, marketing director at Be’chol Lashon.
When Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Campbell said she saw “silence” among her friends on social media.
“I would post about Ferguson and then someone would post about a cat,” she said. But with the most recent protests, Campbell said, that isn’t the case.
“It gives me hope that some sort of critical mass is coming that could make some changes.” But Campbell did add that she’s still fearful for her 15-year-old son, who is becoming more independent.
“I had, in some ways, a different response when he was younger,” she said. “Today he is going out on his own. I have a very visceral feeling about all of this. Remember that this is a problem that’s all over the U.S. But [also] remember that this is a problem in the Jewish community. So don’t forget that when expressing solidarity.”
Kenny Kahn, assistant principal at Monte Vista High School in Danville, is raising two young boys and wonders what kind of society they will inherit.
“As they get older and become more aware of the world around them, I’m not always going to be able to be there for them,” said Kahn, who is a black and a longtime activist with Be’chol Lashon. “That creates fear and vulnerability for them.”
He intends to raise his kids to see the best in others, but admits that it will be challenging. The story of George Floyd illustrates the reality his family faces every day, he said.
A positive outcome of the protests sparked by Floyd’s death is the opportunity to pose critical questions to law enforcement — and to demand answers.
“Did you lead with humanity?” Kahn said. “Did you lead with compassion? Or did you lead with seeing a black man and assumed the worst?”