Jews embrace rich history of diversity

Gary and Diane Tobin with their adopted son, Jonah. (Mark Costantini/San Francisco Examiner)

Victor Osborne does not, as they say, look Jewish. Neither does Patricia Lin. But Osborne, an African American, and Lin, of Taiwanese descent, will be among thousands of Bay Area Jews breaking unleavened bread at sundown Wednesday to celebrate the beginning of Passover.

They belong to a little known subgroup in American society: Jews of color. Their acceptance is important to Gary and Diane Tobin, leaders of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, who want to see the same for their sixth child, 21-month-old Jonah.

Jonah, who is adopted, is black.

“For me, one of the key issues in thinking about a trans-racial adoption was the potential bifurcation between my child’s black identity and his Jewish identity,” said Gary Tobin. “It occurred to me that there must be other ethnically diverse Jews around this country and around this world.”

Little Jonah inspired a new research project for the institute, a nonprofit think tank “that looks at issues of religious identity behavior, largely in the Jewish community,” said Tobin.

The project involves “looking at the Asian, Hispanic and African American character of Jewish life, which is not very often considered because most Jews in this country were of Central and Eastern European origin,” he said.

Tobin said there are several pathways that lead members of ethnic minorities into Judaism.

“First, there are Jews marrying people of color and some of the spouses convert to Judaism,” he said.

Osborne’s wife, Sophia, converted to Judaism before they met in 1987. When they became engaged, Osborne followed suit.

“All of my life I had a fairly good understanding of a relationship with God, but I was also looking for something just a little bit more,” recalled Osborne, 38, of Antioch. “I had to make the conversion to Judaism and, as I found out more about it, it turned out to be the religion that suited me.”

They belong to Congregation B’nai Emunah, a conservative synagogue in San Francisco. Rabbi Ted Alexander said Osborne has been given the important role of blowing the shofar, the ceremonial ram’s horn, to mark the onset of high holy days.

Passover, or Pesach, in Judaism commemorates the ancient Hebrews’ liberation from slavery under Pharaoh Ramses II in Egypt. It also observes the “passing over” of the forces of destruction, or the sparing of the firstborn of the Israelites, when the Lord “smote the land of Egypt” on the eve of the Exodus, according to one of the best-known stories in the Old Testament of the Bible.

The festival marks the most momentous event in Jewish history, with Moses leading the Jews to the Promised Land, as described in Exodus.

On those seven or eight days, all leaven, whether in bread or anything else, is prohibited and only unleavened bread, called matzo, may be eaten. Matzo symbolizes both the Hebrews’ suffering while in bondage and the haste with which they left Egypt.

The first night of Passover is celebrated with a seder, at which special foods commemorating the liberation are eaten and special prayers of thanksgiving offered.

Different welcomes

Alexander said Osborne’s ethnicity is irrelevant.

“We don’t know any difference, none whatsoever. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew,” he said.

B’nai Emunah’s welcoming attitude might not be universal, said Osborne. He recalled the time that he and his wife visited a Sacramento synagogue.

“It was a very cold reception,” he said. “We walked in and you could hear it getting hushed. That kind of put us off, but we stayed for the rest of the Shabbat service.”

Tobin said another route into Judaism results from the churning religious stew that characterizes this country.

“Religious denomination switching is a really widespread American phenomenon now,” he said. “In America, people choose their religions as adults” – as did Lin, a 29-year-old lecturer in history at UC-Berkeley.

Raised in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Boston, Lin said Judaism was a natural place to turn when “I had a number of personal crises and was looking for a sense of God.”

Asian Jews

She said she never felt bonded to the Asian community – having been raised away from it – until she began researching the matter of Asian Jews. Even the study of Hebrew, which she loves, “has actually allowed me to look at the characters in Mandarin in a different way,” she said.

Lin leads services, delivers sermons and serves on the ritual committee at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco.

Lin said she’s learned that Jews began arriving in China about 1,000 years ago. The best-known community, in Kaifeng, boasted 5,000 members by the time of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644).

The first arrivals were probably caravan traders from Persia, said Lin. Over the centuries, they interbred with the locals and produced generations of Jews who looked entirely Chinese.

“To this day there are still, in the census records, some 500 to 1,000 people in China who count themselves as descended from the Kaifeng Jewish community and they record themselves as Jews,” said Lin.

Jews showed up in India even earlier, she said. One group claims to be descended from refugees from Galilee during the second century B.C. Others later arrived from Persia, Portugal and Iraq. She said most Indian Jews migrated to Israel several decades ago.

Early Jewish migrations also account for the belief among many blacks that they are descendants of the Hebrews, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., an African American and spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.

Funnye recently spoke at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium as part of a lecture series on ethnic and racial diversity in the Jewish community, sponsored by Tobin’s institute. (Lin will speak on the Asian Jewish experience on May 2.)

“The experience of black Jews in the United States is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the Jewish community,” said Funnye.

Tobin estimated there are between 100,000 and 200,000 black Jews in America, most of whom do not regard themselves as converts.

They “are of the opinion that they are descendants of African individuals of Hebraic stock who were transported to the Americas during the years of chattel slavery,” said Funnye. “We view ourselves not as converts to Judaism, but rather as reverts to Judaism.”

On a map, Funnye traced what he said were early migration routes of Jews deep into the heart of Africa, ending on the southwestern coast of the continent. He said several well-known African tribes, including the Ibo and Tutsi, cling to some Jewish customs and consider themselves of Jewish heritage.

The best-known African Jews – the Falasha of Ethiopia – constitute “the oldest community of Jews in the world,” said Funnye.

Black Jewish rabbis from early East Coast congregations had to go to Ethiopia to obtain ordination because the Board of Rabbis in New York would not acknowledge them as Jews.

Today, said Funnye, “there are 12 African American rabbis serving congregations in the United States.”

Soon he will travel to Brazil, where “there are 150,000 people who had Jewish fathers and black Brazilian mothers and they are ready to come to Judaism. . . . They want to be part of the tribe.”

Integration in N.Y.

San Francisco’s Rabbi Alexander, who moved to the West Coast in 1947, remembers the early black temples: “I was very close a generation ago to the black Jewish community in New York. Most of the black synagogues have since died because most of the African American Jews have joined regular synagogues and were very well accepted.”

But, said Tobin, a full embrace of ethnic Jews has yet to be seen.

“The recognition that the Jewish community is diverse may lead us to thinking about the way our institutions and organizations operate,” he said. “Are they inclusive? Exclusive? Are there segments of the Jewish population that could be more connected than they are?”

Tobin said that, for him, it all goes back to Jonah: “I’m now able to look my son in the eye, and say, “There are lots of people like you.’ ”