On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, dreams of a better conversation about race
When Shekhiynah Larks runs an ethnic diversity training program for a Jewish community organization or school, there’s one question that never fails to make people uncomfortable. “What race are you?” she will ask the program participants point blank.
Sometimes there’s nervous laughter, or averted glances, or awkward shifting in seats. “It’s uncomfortable,” says Larks, 22, a black Jewish educator and program coordinator for Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization that promotes ethnic diversity within the Jewish community. “That’s why most people step away from the conversation. There are so many incentives not to talk about race.”
For the first time this year, Be’chol Lashon has released special educational resources for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed in the United States on the third Monday in January, in order to encourage more Jewish groups to start talking about race.
The purpose of the curriculum, explained Be’chol Lashon’s founding director Diane Tobin, is to move away from a superficial celebration of equality and dive into difficult and charged conversations surrounding race.
“People are afraid to say the wrong thing. It’s awkward. So people just don’t talk about it,” said Tobin.
“This conversation on many levels is an uncomfortable conversation,” Larks added. “People would rather not have this conversation. And we’re all going to make mistakes and continue to make mistakes.”
Exacerbating the reluctance to start the race conversation is the complicated Jewish identity, Tobin said.
“If you’re talking about the history of Jews in America, after World War II, Jews suddenly became ‘white,’” said Tobin. “Jews don’t want to think of ourselves as racist, as we’ve been persecuted ourselves. It’s a complex conversation to understand that the persecution is real, that some Jews do not identify as white, and yet yes, some of us do benefit from white privilege. You have to hold both conversations.”
Be’chol Lashon’s MLK curriculum approaches the question of race through the telling of stories. The curriculum encourages people to tell stories of their own traditions, culture, and roots, and then read the personal stories of a variety of Jewish leaders and educators who come from diverse backgrounds and countries.
Especially in the age of social media when information moves so quickly, many people are reluctant to even start talking about race issues because they are paralyzed by fear that they might say the wrong thing, unintentionally offending someone or causing others to think that they are racist, Larks said. However, she said, mistakes and misunderstandings will inevitably happen — especially when trying to determine the language and labels to use when discussing different racial groups.
“I like to tell people that ‘my bad’ goes a long way,” said Larks. “Owning your mistake means a lot.”
“A lot of people need to become more comfortable being uncomfortable,” she added. “That’s one of the biggest barriers.”
Larks, who is from Oakland, California, knew from age 12 that she wanted to convert to Judaism. “I grew up in a Pentecostal family with a deep connection with the divine, and they always said to put yourself where you hear God, so I did,” she said. Larks said her own story proves that Jewish identities don’t necessarily come with a prescribed skin tone. “I identify as an Ashkenazi Jew, because those are my traditions and melodies.”
Tobin and her late husband Gary started Be’chol Lashon in 2000 after adopting a son, Jonah, who is black. They wanted more resources and connection with other Jews of color, including Jews who are adopted or converted, and Jews who trace their roots to countries other than Eastern Europe.
Be’chol Lashon started as a research initiative to document Jews of color, and, with the years, morphed into an advocacy organization educating the larger, mostly Ashkenazi American Jewish community about the diversity of Jewish identities. In the early 2000s, the organization estimated that around 20 percent of American Jews are “ethnically and racially diverse,” a statistic that also includes Mizrahi/North African Jews and Latino Jews.
The organization runs a summer camp for Jewish children who come from diverse backgrounds, as well as a monthly Family Circle to connect diverse Jewish families with resources and support. Larks said that while she was on her conversion journey, some rabbis assumed she would feel uncomfortable at their synagogue because she didn’t match the stereotypical appearance of American Jews. One of the purposes of the summer camp and Family Circle is to connect kids with other Jewish kids who look like them, or at least look different from the so-called “typical Jewish look,” to stress the idea that Jews come in all shapes and colors.
Be’chol Lashon’s curriculum is aimed particularly at American Jewish communities, because race is so specific to each country. In America, the conversation about race is rooted in slavery, while in Israel racism is much more connected to immigration, said Tobin. Originally, Be’chol Lashon tried to expand its resources to support international Jewish communities. But the race conversation in Capetown, South Africa is vastly different from the race conversation in Beersheba, Israel, or Chicago, USA. Today, the organization concentrates its advocacy and education efforts on the United States, while offering other types of support to international Jewish communities in places such as Uganda.
Today, Be’chol Lashon works with American Jewish federations, day schools, Hebrew schools, and synagogues implementing their Passports to Peoplehood curriculum. Although the organization has been involved in racial identity and Judaism since 2000, there has been a huge increase in the number of Jewish organizations seeking out Be’chol Lashon’s diversity training since 2016. This echoes a national trend of people being more open to discussing racial issues in the political climate around the election of US President Donald Trump, and the emergence of social movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Tobin said the Martin Luther King, Jr. curriculum is meant to be a jumping-off point, but these conversations require longer periods of time to truly effect change in how people understand race.
One of the main points of the Passports to Peoplehood program is highlighting the fact that Jews come from all over the world. This is clear to Israelis, where the hodgepodge of Jewish identities from places such as Iraq, Libya, and Iran have influenced all parts of society. But it is less obvious in America, where the vast majority of Jews are Ashkenazi and trace their roots to Eastern Europe and Russia.
“Once they see it, they say, ‘Oh yes, of course, there are Jews all over the world,’” said Tobin. Starting the larger race conversation by learning about diverse Jewish customs is one of the easiest ways to enter the conversation about race. “No one objects to Moroccan cooking,” said Tobin.
“It’s the first time they’ve considered it — ‘of course there are Jews in all different countries and of course they don’t look like the Jews in America,’” said Larks.
The recent deadly anti-Semitic attacks in New York and New Jersey have further complicated racial politics for black Jews, Larks said. In New Jersey, the perpetrators claimed an association with the Black Hebrew Israelites, a movement that has many different sects. Larks said sometimes black people assume she is a member of this group, which is not considered Jewish, and both Jews and non-Jews are surprised to hear that she is a convert.
Since the spate of attacks, some of which were carried out by black people, Larks says some American Jews are increasingly wary of her being present in Jewish spaces because she is black. “Or people ask me, ‘Why are black people killing Jews?’ and they assume I have the answers, and I don’t,” said Larks.
She hopes the Martin Luther King Jr. curriculum will be a springboard for Jewish communities to start having difficult conversations about race, both within the Jewish community and in other parts of society.
“This is ultimately a tikkun olam [repairing the world] project,” said Larks. “That was everything King stood for: creating a just world. And we can’t do that if we constantly avoid conversations about injustices in society.”