Grantee Profile: Be’Chol Lashon

Diane Tobin, center, with her children.

With Jews constituting only 0.2% of the world population, inclusivity ought to be a value of the utmost importance – for ethical and moral reasons, for cultural and spiritual richness, and to ensure our continued existence as a people. And, yet, when it comes to accepting Jews of color into the mainstream of Jewish life, challenges and obstacles abound.

Facing those challenges, Diane Tobin, a mother of six, including Jonah, an adopted child of African-American origin, founded Be’chol Lashon, a Federation-supported nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the Jewish community through initiatives that imbue ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness.

”Be’Chol Lashon (Hebrew for ‘In Every Tongue’) started out as an initiative of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and was primarily focused on research studies.” explained Diane, from her San Francisco headquarters.

“One of our primary findings showed that, of the 20% of the American Jewish population that is racially and ethnically diverse – and that includes African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Sephardim, Mizrahim and biracial Jews – the majority feels a deep sense of isolation from the rest of the community. We are working to change that,” Diane noted.

Much of that work is done through a combination of educational resources, leadership networks, and community conversations that occur here in the Bay Area and around the country. But it’s far from easy. Sometimes, in fact, it is downright awkward.

“The conversation about race and diversity is incredibly important but it can also be tricky,” said Diane. “Because, it can make people feel uncomfortable, particularly in the Jewish community, where so many people with absolutely no racist beliefs purposefully avoid these discussions for fear of saying something politically incorrect or accidentally offensive. And then what happens, ironically, by ignoring the obvious, the opposite effect occurs, and well-intended people end up being perceived as racist and unwelcoming. So what we’ve learned is that even though we are going to make mistakes and sometimes say the wrong things, that’s okay, so long as we continue the conversation.”

Indeed, as that conversation has continued over the 14 years since Be’Chol Lashon opened its doors, things have “improved dramatically” as their message of inclusiveness permeates our community through interdisciplinary educational initiatives, compelling international speakers, and summer camps for children. And Diane is quick to acknowledge the role that the Federation has played in Be’Chol Lashon’s success. “As the primary arbiter of Jewish life in the Bay Area, the input and support of the Federation is key to providing multiple doorways for participation in the Jewish community and helping Be’chol Lashon build a stronger and more vibrant Bay Area community.”

Of all the Be’Chol Lashon success stories – and, indeed, as its website can attest, there are many – one of the most heartwarming involves Diane’s own son, now 17. “One day, I was driving Jonah to school and, looking out the window, he saw a black man in a suit, reading a book. ‘Look, mom. A rabbi!’ he said. I swear, it even took me a little while to realize who he was talking about. And I do this for a living!”