Synagogue: Breaking the Color Barrier

Ask any person in the St. Louis area what our greatest challenge is and the answer you’ll get is racism. As is true of many Midwestern cities, racism is the poison at the root of our devastating disparities in health care, education, housing, transportation, employment, and poverty. Racism also leaves many of our institutions, places of worship, and neighborhoods segregated, allowing fear and ignorance to grow in hearts and minds.

Twenty-five years ago, a group of 30 Jews decided to start a new community, and I was the lucky one chosen to guide the group. We located Central Reform Congregation (CRC) within the city limits—a direct response to the urban sprawl (read: white flight) that, with the last Jewish congregation leaving for the suburbs, was further segregating the people of St. Louis.

As the only rabbi in the city, I participated in vigils against racism-induced violence as well as Dr. Martin Luther King birthday celebrations. CRC also developed a relationship with Cote Brilliante, a black church: Our two institutions began mentoring 87 first-grade students, following them until they graduated from high school, inspiring the city-wide Mentor St. Louis initiative.

Jews of color were starting to find their way into our sanctuary.

Some of these Jews attended services at various area congregations. A few attended Orthodox congregations and day schools where, by their own accounts, they felt marginalized. Another two Jews of color had grown up in white Jewish homes before CRC was founded. In third grade they’d noticed they were different. By junior high they felt they had to make a choice between being black and being Jewish; there were no role models for being both. They couldn’t choose not to be black, so they stopped identifying as Jews.

1997 was a transformative year in our congregation: The beautiful Josephine was born to a white Jewish mother and a non-Jewish African American father. There was no question that her parents would raise her to be a Jew. And when I held her at her naming ceremony, I promised her: By the time you begin to notice how you fit into your surroundings, we will have a community that includes others who look like you. You will see yourself reflected in the diversity of our temple. Your parents’ good intentions [to stay active in the synagogue] and our own [to treat you with respect] are not enough.

As a first step in fulfilling my promise, we invited as a speaker and teacher Julius Lester, a black Jew, professor of Judaic Studies and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is also author of Love Song, an autobiography reflecting on his Jewish journey, from learning that his maternal great-grandfather was a German Jew to converting to Judaism as an adult. Julius taught us that for him becoming Jewish was less a choice and more a naming of who he really was. While he had found a niche in the Jewish community, I sensed he didn’t hold out much hope that CRC would ever become an integrated, safe, and welcoming place for Jews of color. As an African American, he resonated with the sounds, rhythms, and stories of black America. That wasn’t our culture at CRC, not then.

I began to understand that to authentically embrace black culture, I’d need the help of black Jews, but this would not be easy in St. Louis, where separation and segregation run deep. I worried about my promise to Josephine.

It became clear that the first work we needed to do was internal. In that way the process was similar to what we’d learned in reaching out to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. At first we had made a commitment to welcome the GLBT community, but we soon learned that welcoming wasn’t enough; we had to listen and respond. We couldn’t expect them to sign on as other members did. In the 1980s many didn’t feel safe being “out” in our presence. They could suffer discrimination, perhaps lose their jobs, even their children. So rather than just talk about being inclusive, we decided to support and staff a gay and lesbian havurah outside the synagogue, to consider gay and lesbian households family units, and to invite same-gendered couples to participate together on the bimah. We also made sure that gay members taught in our religious school—an especially important and controversial choice in the early ’80s during the HIV-AIDS scare. In addition, we instituted the practice of inviting prospective members to brunch so we could tell them, among other things, that if they were uncomfortable with same-gendered couples showing affection and participating in the same manner as heterosexual couples, this was probably not the congregation for them. We engaged in advocacy for GLBT rights, too. But the most important thing we did—all of us, even the GLBT members—was to face our own inner homophobia. We put it out in the open and worked to dismantle it.

Perhaps, I reasoned, this same model would work to tear down the barriers keeping us from racially integrating the synagogue. I prayed for help.

Help came in 2000 in an unexpected way, after we did something we said we’d never do: build a building. Although we’d never wanted to put more money or resources into bricks than into people, we’d long outgrown the church that had hosted us for 16 years and it was time to move on. Our first funeral in the new building was for an African American Muslim woman who had been raised Baptist. Her family wanted a welcoming and inclusive place for her service. She had many friends in our community, and I was honored to participate with the imam. At the end of the service, a lovely African American woman asked me if we were going to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for our friend. This is how I met Yavilah McCoy, the founder of the Ayecha Resource Organization, dedicated to raising awareness of Jewish diversity and supporting Jews of color in the United States. I could hardly believe that a fourth-generation African American Orthodox Jewish woman devoted to assisting Jewish organizations to become more inclusive lived in St. Louis and was sitting in our sanctuary.

Still, it took us a few years to commit to seriously integrating our community. Finally, in 2003, with the help of Betsy Goldberg Zangara (an intern from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work), Linda Holtzman (a member experienced in dismantling internalized racism and anti-Semitism), and CRC’s co-rabbi Randy Fleisher, we launched a two-year congregational engagement program to help us achieve our goal of building a truly diverse community.

Our next step was to participate in a retreat for change agents facilitated by Yavilah and Linda. We practiced listening without excuses. We tried to stop patting ourselves on the back for “marching in the ’60s” and focused on the challenges facing us today. Just about everyone cried at some point. By the fourth day, we began to embrace privilege, not as a source of embarrassment, but as a tool we could use to be effective allies.

As part of the larger congregational engagement program, we asked every adult member of the congregation to read Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel, a supportive how-to book designed to help white people understand the dynamics of racism and act on the belief that it is wrong. Over the course of a year, every group within the congregation, including the board, spent at least one meeting in a directed discussion of the book. We also participated in a series of listening programs which were often painful to hear. The Jews of color and their families spoke about being shunned, ignored, even feared. Many related how no one would sit next to them at services. At one retreat, in which white board members, religious school teachers, and the rabbis surrounded a group of Jews of color in a “fishbowl,” we heard reflections such as, “White Jews think we’re usurpers and ask questions like, ‘Are you Ethiopian?’” “I walk into CRC and many people assume I’m visiting—and it’s my temple!” “Some Jews think that for black Jews it’s just about religion, but for white Jews it’s a way of life.” “I miss the songs of my African American heritage. Do you have to lose one culture when you enter another?” “People look at converts as being different from being really Jewish, but I know my soul has been Jewish forever.”

At the end of one “fishbowl” session Yavilah broke into a stirring gospel rendition of Adon Olam, a standard at her family’s Shabbat table. We were all drawn in by the deep gospel sounds with Hebrew words. I could not control my tears, and I was not alone. And there was revelation for each person within the circle, too, coming out of exile into the embrace of a Jewish community that recognized and valued their whole, black and Jewish selves. They no longer had to choose.

We also ran programs to expand our cultural experiences. Dr. Ephraim Isaac, a leader in both the Ethiopian and Jewish Yemenite communities, spoke of our shared Semitic origins and chanted “Song at the Sea” from the Torah in Yemenite trope, captivating especially the children of color, who saw a black rabbi in African robes teaching Torah on their bimah. Rabbi Capers Funnye of Chicago (Michelle Obama’s cousin) modeled how the sounds and rhythms of black culture are a garment for a soulful Judaism—how seamless the merging of the worlds can be. Joshua Nelson, a black Jew known as the king of kosher gospel, performed in our sanctuary. In addition, we framed multiple copies of the Multiracial Jewish Network’s “Because Jews Come in Many Colors” poster and displayed one in every classroom and in our gathering areas, hoping that the many different faces would relay the message that we can only be our best within a culturally and ethnically diverse community. And a Jews of color havurah emerged that gave our families a chance to participate socially together around Jewish themes.

During this period we also nurtured a relationship with the St. Louis branch of the African Hebrew Israelite community, which has close ties to its sister community in Dimona, Israel. Though many of their members are not Jewish, we share the rhythm of the holidays, the Hebrew language, and a love of Israel. We’ve enjoyed many shared meals and programs, among them the annual co-developed Jewish Diversity Seder. For the past five years we—as many black Jews as white—gather to tell the story of American slavery using the liberation theology of the Exodus. The haggadah takes the same form, but rather than wine, we sip from the life-giving water that wet the dry lips of the slaves in the fields, and we’ve added a dandelion to the seder plate to remember this food staple of slaves. Each year our longtime member Janet Ward tells how her great-grandfather attained his freedom and bought her great-grandmother from slave owners. She reads the African American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s stirring “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” written in the voice of slaves, and we can all imagine our ancestors walking with Moses toward the dream of something better:

Now ole Pher’oh, down in Egypt
Was de wuss man evah bo’n,
An’ he had de Hebrew chillun
Down dah wukin’ in his co’n;
’T well de Lawd got tiahed o’ his foolin’,
An’ sez he: “I’ll let him know—
Look hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher’oh
Fu’ to let dem chillun go.”

We’ve made significant strides since Josephine’s baby naming. I see the changes reflected in the collaged photographs on seven large picture boards that chronologically depict the story of our congregation. The last two collages look a lot like the “Because Jews Come in Many Colors” poster: About 20 of our active adult members are black and many of them have children. On some Friday evenings, African drumming and dance are part of our Shabbat service, and a growing number of African Americans worship with us. I’ve even officiated at a marriage of a biracial couple who decided to raise their kids to be Jewish because of us, because they have a place to do this.

Still, I know that we have a long way to go to keep my promise to Josephine, who will celebrate her bat mitzvah next year. But for this congregation, situated in the city just a few miles from the Old Court House where the slave Dred Scott lost his case for freedom, I have hope that we are chipping away at the racism that plagues us.

In our prayers for Shabbat we read:

To pray for a Sukkat Shalom is to pray for a full house; a shelter that reflects creation in its glorious diversity. As we continue the holy work of uprooting the scourge of racism from this and all communities, we look forward to the time when our Jewish family will embrace Jews of all colors. Then, our Sukkat Shalom will become truly multi-racial as it was always intended to be.

May it come soon.


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