Meet Marcella Campbell, 1st Jew of color to head diversity group Be’chol Lashon
As the videos of George Floyd’s killing galvanized a historic wave of racial justice protests this past summer, the staff of one of the country’s leading organizations promoting Jews of color knew they had to make a big change.
For two decades, Be’chol Lashon had pioneered programming by and for Jews of color. Inspired by a Hanukkah gathering of diverse Jews in the San Francisco area in December 2000, it launched a summer camp for young Jews of color, a curriculum for children on the topic, a blog elevating the voices of multiracial Jews and a diversity training and consulting program.
But as the movement the group launched took hold, its leadership increasingly looked out of step. The group was founded by Diane Tobin and her late husband Gary, white parents who wanted their adopted Black child to know other Jews who were not white. They continued to helm the organization even as the number of groups representing Jews of color multiplied — and Jews of color took leadership roles.
Diane Tobin, now 68, saw that Be’chol Lashon wasn’t leading national conversations about Jews of color anymore. So this summer, as the country reeled, she met with Marcella White Campbell, a longtime employee and Be’chol Lashon camp parent who is Black, to talk about handing over the reins of the organization.
Campbell, a veteran of Silicon Valley, was announced as the group’s new executive director last week, in a release timed to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“We felt that it was time to build on what Diane had done up to this point. Be’chol Lashon was all about creating community … but also about amplifying the voices of Jews of color, amplifying the visibility of Jews of color,” Campbell told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And so it seemed natural to then move on to handing leadership to Jews of color and seeing what we could do.”
Campbell takes over at a moment of intense reckoning over race and inclusion for America and American Jews. She talked to JTA about the historic moment, her journey to Judaism and the work that white Jews need to do to be truly welcoming to Jews of color.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JTA: What a time to start the job that you’re starting. What were you feeling as you watched the violence at the Capitol?
Campbell: I took it very personally, actually. Both the racism and the anti-Semitism, I react to those as we should, with revulsion, but for me there’s something about that happening at the Capitol. I’m a student of history — I bore my children with it all the time. When we went to Washington, DC, several years ago, I dragged them to the Lincoln Memorial and made them look out at the reflecting pool and read all the words of the Gettysburg Address, because I really want them to understand that America is theirs. And that forcing America to look at these words and apply these words to everyone is how we become citizens, is how we cement our place in America, in the American story. I kept saying that to them when we were out on the Washington Mall: “This is yours, you need to understand that. America is yours in the same way that it’s everyone else’s.”
So something about that crowd overrunning the Capitol — it felt like a violation. And for them to be bringing those symbols of hatred into that space that I tell the kids all the time is mine, and they’re bringing those symbols in specifically to lay claim to it and exclude us on multiple levels — I found it really hurtful.
Do you feel any shred of hope that this could be a positive turning point in terms of the country’s reckoning with racism?
I suppose there are many people who over the past several years have been able to discount what was going on in our country, to discount racism and anti-Semitism somehow — I guess because neither of those things really apply to them. But the starkness, the symbolism of seeing these people in the seat of government and the very real threat of violence, I suppose people who weren’t moved by the videos of George Floyd last year can’t help but ignore this.
These people were very clear about their racism and their anti-Semitism and it’s impossible to ignore that this is the reality for people of color and Jews and Jews of color in the United States every day. So as low as a point as that is, you can’t help but go up from here, in some ways. I probably shouldn’t say that [laughs]. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past year, it’s that you shouldn’t make sweeping statements.
I was concerned after the past year that after the election, with Democrats coming back into power, that the real urgency that people were feeling last summer with reckoning with race both inside and outside the Jewish community was going to fade because there are so many problems. But I no longer feel that.
Tell me a bit about your family history, and how you ended up where you are now?
I love to lean into my family history because it very much exemplifies the various ways that Black people in America react to the American dream. My grandparents came to San Francisco from Arkansas in the early ‘40s. My grandfather had left Pine Bluff, Arkansas, because he was working for a construction company and was in a position of leadership as a foreman and realized he was making about 50 cents on the dollar as the white men he was working with and in some ways managing. And he went to his boss and pointed it out — he always had a high opinion of himself, “I’m the best guy here, I’m working harder than everyone else, I should at least be making as much as everyone else” — and the guy said no. And over the next couple of days his relatives said, “You can’t stay here.”
He got on a bus and came out to San Francisco … and he set up a narrative and a family that inspired all of us. He came and established what he called a “dynasty.” And excellence was paramount. Working as hard as you possibly could was paramount. He bought [a house] in Cole Valley, which even in the ‘50s was a very nice neighborhood, and one where they were the first Black family. When he was looking to buy a house, he basically saved every penny he ever made. Real estate agents steered him away from the neighborhood. He always said it was this white Jewish woman who basically was always getting the dregs of clients and assignments and was shut out most of the time who said, “I’ll take you over there, we’ll go do this.” And that’s where my grandfather bought.
He just passed away on the 26th of December, we’re actually just finishing up shiva [the Jewish mourning period] now, and his legacy — it’s hard to overstate it for us. We came together in different venues to talk about him. He was not Jewish and his family’s not Jewish; some of them are Baptists. So as the oldest grandchild I found myself in the position of simultaneously planning and running the cycle of Baptist and somewhat Christian mourning, without any explicit religious elements, and then turning around and starting the cycle of Jewish mourning. And part of the reason why we’re just in shiva now is because he was just buried after two weeks … and my rabbi told me point blank: “Jewish mourning doesn’t start until burial.” So we did both.
The funny thing about that is there was no real conflict. I chose Judaism 21 years ago, although I was pursuing conversion much earlier than that, and our family always embraced it. My sister also converted a few years after me and we have this sort of Black Jewish nucleus that we raised our kids in. My kids are 21 and 15 and my niece is 4 and they’ve grown up in this Black Jewish community that I think is pretty unique.
I definitely had to lean on that attitude of ‘You’re lucky to have me in this room’
I was inspired by [my grandfather] going into Silicon Valley startups in the early mid 2000s. I definitely had that experience of being the “only” [Black person in the room]. I definitely had to lean on that attitude of “You’re lucky to have me in this room.” [My grandfather] saw what I was doing, and what my sister was doing, as a lawyer, as an extension of that dream that he had.
It feels like a privilege to work somewhere where I’m actually making a difference in people’s lives but almost selfishly also the lives of my kids and my family at the same time
I realized once I started working for Be’chol Lashon that I could really believe in this mission, that [my family] was living this mission. It feels like a privilege to work somewhere where I’m actually making a difference in people’s lives but almost selfishly also the lives of my kids and my family at the same time. So it’s a very personal mission. … I do feel that as a person of color I am uniquely positioned to make connections with other organizations headed by Jews of color and to see what kinds of coalitions we can build and where we can go with this.
How did you decide to convert to Judaism at a young age?
I wasn’t raised particularly religious. There are Baptists in my family, there are Jehovah’s Witnesses in my family … but there was sort of one moment that really got me started. When I was 15 years old, I attended the confirmation of one of my friends who was Jewish. And in the middle of getting ready for the event, he had taken me to the synagogue and abandoned me in the sanctuary while he was running around doing other things. I had never been in a synagogue and I sort of wandered around and sat down, and I opened a prayer book and — this is absolutely true — it fell open to the Mourner’s Kaddish. And at the time, it was a few months after my grandmother who had helped to raise me had died. And we didn’t have a religious tradition at home, and you know 15-year-olds, they hold themselves apart, they go hole themselves up in their room. How do you deal with grief when you’re that age?
And I was really really moved by what I read. I saw the Hebrew and then the translation, and for me, even then, there’s something about the way the Mourner’s Kaddish leans into the magnification, the sanctification of the word of God, instead of telling you, “It is so sad that this person has died, we are so sad, here’s what is going to happen to them next.” That’s not in any way what it says. It just says, “Look, we’re in the middle of the infinite, we don’t know, but all we can do is lean into this and lean into the infinite.” And I maybe didn’t have that level of understanding of that at that time, but it touched me and I just said I want to be Jewish, just like that. I dragged my mom to a rabbi and the rabbi said, “Please come back when you are an adult [laughs], here’s some stuff to read, we are not doing this at 15.” So I had to sort of wait it out.
Besides that, a really big part of discovering Judaism for me was food. In the middle of my conversion process, my daughter was a baby and I was creating a Jewish home for her, and it’s such a hands-on process. Raising Jewish children in a Jewish home, there are so many concrete things you do — you light candles, you make bread, you share this meal once a week. And I just became really invested, by tasting Jewish foods, by sharing Jewish foods with my kids. I didn’t know a lot about the Sephardic Jewish world — that’s a common thing that happens in America, where most people believe that Jewish people are essentially Jerry Seinfeld, live in New York, that’s it. And having the experience of opening up Claudia Roden’s “Book of Jewish Food” and to go to Morocco and go to Lebanon and just find out the wealth of Jewish experience, that was actually important for me as a person of color coming to Judaism, to realize before I even encountered Diane and Be’chol Lashon the idea that Jewish people live all over the world.
Jews of color in the on-the-ground Jewish spaces, like synagogues or in family members’ homes for holidays, have long talked about the feeling of being “other-ized,” or being made to feel like they don’t belong because they don’t conform to the white Ashkenazi concept of the American Jew. As the wider Jewish community continues to listen to these narratives, the goal is that that experience changes — what has your experience been like in these spaces, and do you feel it’s actually changing?
I’m part of a small Reconstructionist synagogue, Or Shalom in San Francisco, and so we’re a pretty small organization. Jews of color and converts as a whole — and this is not the synagogue where I converted — you develop this bubble where you feel comfortable and everybody comes to know you and so you’re just one of the people in the congregation, when you’re worshiping and going to events. And what’s really jarring is when you go outside that bubble — you show up at a congregation where they don’t know you and they assume that you aren’t Jewish. My husband is a white Ashkenazi Jew, with dark hair. He has never in his entire life gone into a Jewish congregation and not have people assume that he is Jewish. Not one time, around the world! [laughs] And I always say “As long as I’m on your arm it’s OK.” It’s sort of this umbrella of privilege that extends over me and people go, “OK, she’s with him.” But by myself it’s not always and I have had some very negative experiences.
My husband is a white Ashkenazi Jew, with dark hair. He has never in his entire life gone into a Jewish congregation and not have people assume that he is Jewish
We’ve been really heartened in the past year by how many organizations started contacting us. It was a phone-ringing-off-the-hook kind of thing last summer. The firehose has slowed down a little bit as we make connections with people, but it was just this groundswell realization in the Jewish world that something needs to be done and that it would be wonderful if we could do it from a Jewish perspective, talk about diversity from a Jewish perspective.
The recent Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock Senate victories in Georgia have been hailed as a milestone moment for Black-Jewish relations, especially after they each leaned into that narrative in their campaigns. Do you feel that ties between the two communities have been strained in recent years?
It can be difficult to talk about the history of Black relations and Jewish relations in part because they’re often seen through this narrative of Crown Heights, of New York in particular, of communities side by side who don’t get [along] together, when the reality is so much more complicated than that.
There are times when I’m called upon — people say, “Have you condemned Louis Farrakhan?” as an example. And I don’t know him, you know? And I’m sure as I say to people, I’m sure there are a lot of Jews who you do not agree with and who you do not feel called upon to denounce. It’s very much an othering thing that implies that Jews of color have dual loyalties, which is not accurate. And how often are Jews called upon in the United States and around the world to denounce other Jews or to prove their loyalty to the country where they live? It’s just pretty ironic to be put in that position.
It’s not just about two individual communities reaching out to one another, it’s grayer than that
For me I feel that understanding the diversity of the Jewish community can only help in terms of relationships with Black people outside the Jewish community, because the lens of the civil rights movement — and to in no way denigrate the very real contributions of white Jews during the civil rights movement — there’s this sense of reaching across the aisle, or across boundaries. But in reality, because there are Jews of color, this is much more fluid. It’s not just about two individual communities reaching out to one another, it’s grayer than that. So it’s hard for me to speak in absolutes and say Black-Jewish relations are worse or better. There are individual interactions and conflicts but it really does do us all a disservice, I think, to boil it all down to the fact that there are two groups of people.
Even though the term “Black lives matter” has become more than just one organization, the organization of the same name alienated some Jews with arguably anti-Israel language in its 2016 platform. From your perspective, after this past summer, how much tension is there still over that?
There’s definitely still tension about that, we get a lot of emails about that. Particularly when we came out in support of Black Lives Matter and we turned our entire website black for several weeks going into the summer. As an organization we had not done enough work. We had never come out and said point-blank “Black lives matter” as a multiracial organization, and it was important for us to do that.
[Since 2016] the phrase “Black lives matter” has come to mean so much more than any one group. There are people who originated it who should definitely be credited with that, but the weight and the power of those words transcends any one group of people.
It’s very challenging to refocus people’s attention once they’ve heard that there was this platform this one time that could definitely be seen as anti-Israel. The Jewish community — that being said, we’ve established that there are many Jewish communities — needs to be able to understand that change and to hold that change and to move forward. Many things change. Many movements change over time. Many leaders of movements change over time. And this is such a potent example of that. When we say “Black lives matter,” we are talking about the humanity of Black Jews. And that shouldn’t be up for debate.
What’s something you’re looking forward to in the new job?
One of my favorite things about our organization is our curriculum for children because in another life in Silicon Valley, one of the things I did was to develop craft kits and hands-on educational kits, and the hands-on nature of “Passport to Peoplehood” I find very exciting. Making recipes from Egyptian or Ethiopian Jews, it helps diversity to click in kids’ minds.
I’m also really excited about a conversation I’m having next week with Denise Davis who is one of our longtime board members, one of the cofounders of Camp Be’chol Lashon. She is a doctor and a scientist and we’re going to talk about the history of Black America and the health system in the United States, in relationship to these vaccines, and to some of the distrust in the Black community around those. And she also wants to bring in a Jewish lens to talk about these issues.
That kind of thing is so exciting to me. At my heart I’m an academic and I love to have these conversations where we just explore all of the overlap and all of the different ways we can approach these issues, and isn’t it great that we can take our experience as Black Americans and as Jews and talk about something that’s so relevant?