Young, Black, Jewish and Profiled

Camp Be’chol Lashon

Like many, I would like to find some sort of resolution in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. Beyond the details of that tragic night, there is a deeper concern about racial profiling that has divided the nation and that no trial and no verdict can assuage. In the San Francisco Bay Area in recent weeks, this concern has reached a fever pitch. Perhaps serendipitously, a series of protests against the Zimmerman verdict coincided with the release of “Fruitvale Station,” an independent film about the Oakland police shooting of a young black man on New Year’s Eve 2008.

I read great reviews of the new film and asked my son Jonah if he wanted to see it. He doesn’t. He said it’s too sad, and perhaps too close for comfort. Jonah is sixteen years old and African American. As he gains more independence, I caution Jonah to be especially aware and careful because he may be seen and treated differently than his white friends. Dealing with racial profiling is a reality he lives daily and it is undoubtedly unfair.

Yet, “racial profiling” is not just about situations that potentially involve the police. For Jonah, it is about more often than not looking different than those around him, about constantly fielding stereotypes and assumptions, some flattering, some insulting. Whether at school, synagogue or simply walking around San Francisco, this is the day-to-day reality of life for him. He is rarely surrounded by people that share most of his characteristics and helping Jonah deal with the wide variety of misconceptions people have of him has forced us to understand the breadth of the profiling phenomenon. It exists in all walks of life, even within our own community.

When we, a white Jewish family, adopted Jonah in 1997, we anticipated that he would face challenges to his identity and questions about his belonging. The fact that the majority of modern Jewish emigration came from Central and Eastern Europe created the mistaken perception in America that Jews are only white.

We feared that Jonah would be forced to choose between his racial and religious identities. Every time a diverse Jew has his or her Judaism questioned, it is racial profiling; a religious “stop and frisk.” It may be harmless curiosity but the consequences of treating those we perceive as “different’ with suspicion can be damaging, not just to the individual but to the community as a whole.

In response, we created a non-profit organization dedicated to race, ethnicity and culture in the Jewish community and named it Be’chol Lashon, or “In Every Tongue.” Our goal has been to raise awareness that Jews speak in all languages and come from all backgrounds, be it Black, Asian, Latino, White or mixed-race. Be’chol Lashon highlights and represents not only the extensive history of Judaism in the Diaspora, but also an increasingly diverse American Jewish community. A recent New York study of the Jewish community mirrors our 2004 national finding; that 25% of the Jewish population of New York is “non-white” or Sephardic, with over 400,000 Jews living in diverse Jewish households.

Camp Be’chol Lashon, our new summer program for multi-cultural Jewish youth, is in session right now. It is the only camp dedicated to racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in the Jewish community. All of our campers receive “passports” and travel virtually each day through arts and culture to Jewish communities around the world. Awareness of global Jewish communities strengthens campers’ sense of Jewish belonging.

We work with our campers to hone their skills and help them be leaders, spokespeople and ambassadors. Fair or not, multi-cultural Jews are often in the position of educating their communities about religious and/or racial diversity. We strive to help our teens turn their multiple identities into valuable assets. Hopefully this will help them to successfully navigate potentially uncomfortable or even volatile situations that will inevitably arise, both in and outside the Jewish community.

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