The Face of Judaism in America is Changing

“The face of the Jewish community is changing,” explained the TV announcer.

I had to smile. She was right. The two people she interviews are examples of that change. Award winning journalist Simone Weichselbaum comes from a family that has both German Jewish and Jamaican roots. She grew up in the thick of two communities, easily weaving these identities together. Families like hers are increasingly common and it is a change in the Jewish world. Conversion is increasingly common as well. Some are drawn by marriage, others like African American Rabbi Capers Funnye, who decades ago found his way to Judaism, are drawn for theological reasons. Conversion is changing the face of the Jewish community.

But the announcer was also wrong. Her guests are both dark skinned. And there have always been dark skinned Jewish faces. There were Jews in Ethiopia long before there were Jews in Poland. There were Jews in India long before there were Jews in Spain. Dark faces abound.

But for most of us this is still new and maybe even news.

I work as the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be’chol Lashon an organization that advocates for and celebrates the racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish community. Much of the work is exhilarating. I interact with dedicated and inspiring Jews, whose backgrounds are different than my own but whose passion is infectious. At other times it can be discouraging. Sometimes my conversations remind me of what I’ve heard tell of the early days of the gay rights movement. Take for example my conversation with rabbi of a modest congregation in a strongly Jewish city. Asking him to lend support to our effort, he demurred explaining that this was not an issue in his community. “There are no Jews of Color in our congregation. If there were I would know,” he explained with confidence. I wanted to ask him if he thought his predecessor twenty years ago had known about the gays and lesbians in the congregation.

Not a direct parallel? Maybe not, given that visible minorities are in theory visible.

The assumption that we would see the diversity if it was there does not entirely hold. Take Dr. Levy, who has always been a reliable member of the Shabbat morning Torah study but hasn’t brought her grandchildren along because she is not sure that they or their Vietnamese father would be entirely welcome. Or maybe the weekly Torah reader who joined the community when he moved cross-country has never really talked about his African American father who married his mother and raised him from age two. He is not quite sure how people would react. Or maybe it is cousin Syd and his equally white partner who show up at Sarah’s bat mitzvah with their beautiful Chinese daughter in tow.

Change is happening, but it should not be so surprising. Diversity is part of broad collective reality of Jewish life and has always been. More than ever it is also the general American reality. Increasingly it is also becoming an open part of the contemporary Jewish reality in the United States.

The Reform movement is rightfully proud that as a movement it has been at the forefront of social change and fairness, when it comes to LGBT issues. Though there were bumps along the way, many straight allies played important roles in opening door and creating spaces in classrooms, youth groups, and sanctuaries. People learned about inclusion through sermons, curriculum, and informal conversations. And while there is still much work to be done, I take heart in the changes that have occurred.

This can be a model as we work to make our congregations, schools, camps and institutions welcoming and inclusive places from Jews of all ethnic and racial backgrounds too. We need to be prophets of the possible. And diversity is not just possible it is inevitable and positive. Whether we see it or not, the announcer was right, the face of the Jewish community is changing. The historic diversity of our people is increasingly becoming—through adoption, intermarriage and conversion—part of the American Jewish narrative. How we adapt to this change is entirely up to us.

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