How Is Biracialism Changing America – And The Jewish community?

As the parent of a Black Jewish child, I want my son to feel at home in the Jewish community. It seems to me that it is in our self interest to welcome everyone with open arms, yet it occurs to me that we may need to be sensitive to what Alvin Toffler described in the 70’s as “Future Shock”—the stress and disorientation of too much change in too short a time. I wonder how much time is too short? And, what role does race and ethnicity play in being Jewish in America.

Jews are part of American life and are affected by social trends. Taboos around interracial and LGBT unions are diminishing, transracial adoption is increasing, and people see being Jewish as one of many identities.

The election of President Obama opened a new chapter in racial politics, leading to increased interest in racial identity and what it means to be “more than one.” Among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent (to 4.2 million) since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country.[1]

This is not surprising given the vast majority of Americans (86%) now approve of interracial marriage.[2] This is a dramatic shift from 50 years ago when only 4% approved. The approval rate did not exceed the majority level until almost 15 years ago, the year my son Jonah was born.

One of the main influences of the shift in attitudes toward race is the result of socially progressive young adults. Pew reports that the next generations (those born in the 80s and 90s) are more racially diverse than previous generations.[3]

Jonah is now a freshman in high school. Like every parent, I am watching to see how he makes choices in life, and specifically, how he navigates his racial and religious identities. When I adopted Jonah 1997, I didn’t know any Black Jews. As part of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, we launched studies of race and ethnicity in the Jewish community in 1999 and 2004. We discovered that Jews are more diverse than many assume. Approximately 20% of America’s 6 million Jews or 1.2 million are racially and ethnically diverse, 10% Sephardic and Mizrahi, and 10% African American, Asian, Latino, and mixed-race. One of the major findings of the study was that many diverse Jews feel isolated, so Be’chol Lashon was created to make the Jewish community more inclusive through education and dialogue.

For example, Lacey Schwartz, Be’chol Lashon’s Director of Outreach, explores her biracial Jewish identity in her upcoming documentary, Outside the Box. She hopes her film will get people talking and thinking about the family, community, and identity issues, she grapples with. “For me it took a long time to integrate my two identities of being Black and Jewish. Initially I compartmentalized both identities and looked at being Black as disconnected from being Jewish. I had been raised in a world where being Jewish meant being white. I challenged myself and that assumption by connecting to the many racial and ethnic diverse elements of the global Jewish world.”

Be’chol Lashon’s CampSpeakers Bureau, and educational outreach campaign uses films like Outside the Box in classrooms, museums, and community centers to spark discussions about how Jewish identity is transforming in the 21st century.

Although race presents itself as the most “visible” identity, all Jews have multiple identities. Globalization and technology expand the range of choices and ways of identifying, especially for younger generations of Jews. Young Jews relate to a more international vision of the Jewish people. The challenge of making Jewish life relevant is a contemporary dilemma facing the entire Jewish community.