Time to Look Within: Some Thoughts About Racial Diversity.

Recently, there has been important attention paid to Jews of color in the Jewish press. The JTA printed an article, “Black, Jewish and challenging ideas about the face of federation,” about our colleague at the Jewish Community Federation, Ilana Kaufman, and The J. Weekly ran an opinion piece by Kim Carter Martinez, “To heal world, show solidarity with Jews of color, too,” Ilana and Kim are Jews of color, and both offer important insights into building an inclusive Jewish community. At about the same time, the Journal of Jewish Communal Service published a piece entitled “Racial Diversity and the American Jewish Community.”

I found these articles helpful as I struggled to figure out for myself how to be in solidarity with the African American community after Ferguson. To show solidarity we do not have to look far; we as a Jewish community should look internally to derive inspiration and a focal point for creating greater racial inclusion from the diversity we already have within our community. Kim Carter Martinez stated in her opinion piece:

“Our stories of racism and discrimination inside and outside the Jewish community must be lifted up and heard. We must welcome Jews of color to tell their stories of racial discrimination in our organized Jewish community, such as synagogues, federations, social groups and Jewish nonprofits. We must not just listen to the stories of racism that Jews of color have endured, we must stand up to it and act, because these are not just black or brown issues, they are Jewish issues. And all Jewish people matter.”

These articles, along with my own work in intergroup relations, and my personal family make- up, with children of both Jewish and Colombian decent, have me thinking a lot about our communal need for a broad tent. As a mother, I want my children to wear both their Colombian and their Jewish heritage with pride, and to live without fear of not being accepted for who they are by their own community. More than 20 percent of Jews are of color – Jews of African American, Asian, Latino, Sephardic, Mizrahi, or bi or multi-racial decent (B’chol Lashon 2004). Our institutions would be well served to be more inclusive of these voices and to actively and organically make room at the table in ways that are authentic and accepting of cultural differences. Jews of color should not have to choose between identities, but be supported in valuing all identities.

In their article, “Racial Diversity and the American Jewish Community: Best Practices to build cultural competence in Jewish communal organizations,” Diane Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg offer some interesting insight into ways in which we can build a more inclusive community, including:

1. Engage in programming that celebrates identity.

2. Talk about race. Tobin and Weinberg state in their article, “When people choose a color blind frameworks they are not just ignoring the bias and oppression but they are also ignoring a rich and varied Jewish cultural history.”

3. Allow people to self-define their identity.

I believe that authentically including Jews of color will benefit Jewish institutions: Our community has an opportunity to grow, and to build bridges with other ethnic groups through Jews who have both identities. As Ilana Kaufman stated, “My purpose in the world has always been to be a bridge.” As a Jewish community professional whose work includes building bridges between Jews and communities of color, I have observed an interesting phenomenon around Jewish identity and race (and I am not the first to see it). Many Ashkenazi Jews do not consider themselves white, yet to communities of color we are just that. Our historical place in the world as a marginalized people has left us feeling connected to people of color, but generally speaking does not seem to have left people of color feeling connected to us in the same way. As we ponder that dissidence between these perceptions, we can look to Jews of color for their experience as part of both worlds to unravel why this large difference in perception exists.

As part of that introspective process of looking at our perceptions, we, the Jewish community, with all of our diversity, need to wrestle with finding the language to describe the differences in our community without reinforcing hierarchies based on race or how one enters into Judaism. I have found that hard to do just writing this blog. We need all voices empowered and at the table together to find language that describes distinctions but values everyone the same.

I hope that as the conversation about racial justice in American society continues, the Jewish community picks up this stream of dialogue and finds an authentic and welcoming way to ensure Jews of color feel we are all one people of Israel.