Pressing For A ‘Global’ View Of Jewry

Two local artists, both Jews from a multicultural background, are now leading dialogues on Jewish identity. But will people listen if what they hear is anger?

Adam McKinney acknowledges that he may be feeling some anger as he addresses groups around the country on how he, as a Jew from multiple backgrounds, has experienced the Jewish community.

“I think there’s some initial anger,” said McKinney, who identifies himself as an African-American, Native-American, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jew. “But then there’s the question of, ‘What’s next?’ I?m not committed to anger. I’m committed to looking at oppressive systems in our communities and the actions we need to take to make sure that everyone feels they belong everywhere.”

McKinney, 31, spoke of his feelings several days after he and Daniel Banks, a close friend and colleague, led a program last Thursday at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, L.I., on Jewish diversity. Sponsored by the Long Island chapter of the American Jewish Committee, their presentation, “Belonging Everywhere,” is one that McKinney and Banks, have given before an increasing number of groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, including branches of Hillel, Jewish film festivals and chapters of the AJC.
The program includes the screening of a film they made about a Jewish community in Ghana, “We Are All One: The Jews of Sefwi Wiawso,” and a dialogue on issues of Jewish identity and belonging.

Unlike McKinney, Banks, who is 42, grew up in a household that identifies as wholly Ashkenazi. But for most of his life he has been told, “You don’t look Jewish,” and he recently learned that he has Sephardic and several other heritages.
And the colleagues have many things in common besides multiculturalism. Both, for instance, are professionals in the worlds of theater and dance – McKinney, a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Banks, a theater director and a faculty member at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Both also come from families prominent in their respective Jewish communities. McKinney’s mother is executive director of the Milwaukee Area Jewish Committee, an independent affiliate of AJC. Banks’ parents, meanwhile, are leaders of the Jewish federation in Boston, and his mother is a past president of the AJC’s Greater Boston chapter.

McKinney, a native of Milwaukee, attended a Hebrew day school “with a Chabad flair,” he said, while Banks, of Brookline, Mass., attended Hebrew school at a Reform synagogue.

But despite those affiliations, McKinney and Banks have each felt unwelcome at times in Jewish environments, they said during their presentation and in an interview three days later. And both men, now residents of Manhattan, attribute that reception to appearances.

Banks told the audience in Great Neck that he has been treated at times as an “outsider” and “I don’t belong to a synagogue in New York City because every time I walk into a synagogue, I’m asked, ‘What are you doing here?'”
Expanding on those comments during the interview, Banks said that, on the whole, the Jewish community has been “uninviting” from his perspective.
Discussing the same issue, McKinney began last week’s presentation on a sarcastic note, saying that people often ask him, “‘How are you Jewish?’ And I answer, ‘I’m fine Jewish. How are you Jewish?'”

What emerges in talking to the two artists is not only a desire for more inclusiveness, but a certain bitterness toward Ashkenazi Jews and a readiness to blame them for the community’s racism.

“People of European heritage don’t get asked, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you here?'” Banks said to a reporter. Only Jews of color or perceived to be of color are asked those questions. At another point, McKinney was discussing the steps he’d like audiences to take in fighting racism, including the development of new curricula, when Banks suggested that people also examine “white privilege in the Jewish community.”
Neither do McKinney or Banks allow for the possibility that their perceptions may be wrong, especially in a city with a healthy share of progressive synagogues and rabbis. Asked whether they may be confusing curiosity and racism, Banks said he considered the two “inseparable.” Those asking about his background, he said, are making assumptions about Jewish identity that shouldn’t be made.

As a result of their experiences, both men have become involved in groups like the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organization dedicated to building a more diverse Jewish community. Both are consultants to the group and organize some of its programming.

McKinney and Banks made their film two years ago while working in Ghana, where both taught courses in one of NYU’s study abroad programs. They visited the Jewish community of Sefwi Wiawso after searching the Web for information about the country’s Jews.

As described by Kulanu, an organization that aids “lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people,” the community was born more than 30 years ago when a local spiritual leader had a “vision” that he and other members of the village were actually Jews – descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes. The community now numbers about 100 members, a figure that appears to wax and wane.

During their visit, McKinney and Banks told Jewish residents that they noticed some discrepancies on the Internet about the community, and the pair offered community members the opportunity to tell their story in their own words. The U.S. Embassy in Ghana gave the two a grant to make their video, which was shot during two subsequent trips to the village.

Running about 45 minutes, the film includes interviews with several men from the village, each of whom recounts stories of the Jewish community, why Judaism appealed to them and how their friends and relatives reacted to their joining the “House of Israel,” as they call it. The film also includes footage of the village’s children, many of them singing Jewish songs, and the village’s synagogue, a small, cinderblock building painted blue and white.

While cautioning that neither he nor McKinney is an expert on Sefwi Wiawso, Banks said one of their objectives in presenting the film is to spur dialogue on Jewish identity. More specifically, Banks continued, they want viewers to use the information to think about who they are and how they can build community.

In Great Neck, Banks told his audience that viewers have responded to the film through their own lenses. As such, he said, there’s no right way or wrong way to react to the film, but he hopes people will try on “a different set of lenses.” He also cited a scientific study indicating that many Ashkenazi Jews have a small percentage of African heritage, suggesting a broader and more diverse Jewish community than some of its members may have thought.

During the discussion, shortened because of foul weather, one of those who attended said she found it hard to relate to the villagers, while others expressed feelings of kinship. Still another, Chapter President Marion Bergman, said she was heartened by the program’s principal message – that “Judaism is such a universal religion” with a presence in every part of the globe.

The diversity of the Jewish community also comes across in figures gathered by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. In a phone interview, Tobin said that at least 20 percent of all American Jews, 1.2 million people, are those he would call “racially and ethnically diverse” – a category that includes Jews of Sephardic descent, as well as Latinos, Asians and blacks.
Commenting on the feelings discussed by McKinney and Banks, he said it was important to note that “the vast majority of Jews,” including those who consider themselves white, are currently unaffiliated with a synagogue. At the same time, Tobin continued, he could cite hundreds of examples of black and Latino Jews who are leaders of their synagogues and feel completely at home in those institutions.
As for the questions that so many find disturbing, Tobin said they sprang from “the tremendous amount of curiosity” about an evolving Jewish community. But rather than blame that curiosity on racism, as Banks seems to do, Tobin said it comes from a lack of awareness.

And that, too, is crumbling, just as other barriers have, in Tobin’s view. In another 10 years, he and his colleagues believe, “the curiosity factor will give way … to one of embracing racially and ethnically diverse Jews throughout the world. As more and more people become aware [of the diversity around them], it will just be a part of everyday life.”

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