Black Jews: A Minority Within a Minority
Aaron Freeman is a Jew and very proud of it. The Chicago-based talk-show host and comedian is also African-American. He converted to Judaism and is a member of a Reform congregation. Rabbi Sholomo Levy is also a Jew, also African-American, but he is not a convert — like his grandfather, and his father before him, he chose to become a rabbi. His New York congregation is somewhere between Orthodox and Conservative in its customs; when he is not serving that congregation, he teaches college courses and gives lectures on religious tolerance.
There is no firm estimate on how many American Jews are black, but several sociologists have placed the figure at about 50,000. As Rabbi Levy writes on his Web site, “We exist both within our own congregations and in predominately white congregations. Some of us have converted to Judaism, others are products of intermarriages, and yet others have been in this way of life for generations. The amount of diversity within our group is as varied as the colors in a rainbow.”
No matter what one’s ancestry is, raising children in our complex world can be a challenge. The majority of black Jewish parents confront the same problems that any Jew would face. There are, however, several issues which are unique to those who are both black and Jewish; this holiday is an excellent time to examine them.
When I was in high school in the 1960s, I found that a black classmate of mine was a Jew. She and I had a number of discussions about it — her love for Judaism was very strong, she always wore a beautiful Star of David, yet people were amazed, and often incredulous, that she was Jewish. Naturally, this bothered her — she wondered why people had any doubts about her Jewishness. Years later, the reaction towards black Jews is often the same.
“My own kids have gone through some of it,” Rabbi Capers Funnye told me. Rabbi Funnye, who is a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and a frequent guest speaker on talk shows, recalled how teachers were surprised that his children would be out of school on a Jewish holiday — the existence of black Jews even 15 years ago was still relatively unfamiliar. And in 1995, when a history of the Jews of Chicago was written by a noted historian, the sizable black Jewish community was not even mentioned. (I called the author and asked him about it — he claimed he had never heard of any black Jews in Chicago…)
In some ways, however, things have changed in the past 15 years: for example, there is much more awareness of Ethiopian Jews, and in the United States, several organizations, such as the National Alliance of Black Jews, have been formed to make Jews of color better known. There are entire Web sites devoted to rabbis and lay people who are black and Jewish. But the general belief persists in most parts of the USA that a Jew is usually Caucasian, with the exception of a few celebrity converts like the late Sammy Davis Jr. Black Jewish parents sometimes find themselves having to prepare their kids for being questioned about whether they are ‘really Jewish’. “My kids learned to handle it,” Rabbi Funnye said, “but a sense of humor helps.”
At Congregation Beth Elohim, which is an African-American congregation, Rabbi Sholomo Levy conducts a special observance in King’s memory. Rabbi Capers Funnye, whose Congregation Beth Shalom B’Nai Zaken is mostly black but does have a few white members, uses Martin Luther King Day for outreach — ecumenical activities between various religious groups. “It’s a good way to keep what he stood for alive.”
The men and women with whom I spoke for this article believe that maintaining a strong Jewish identity and having Jewish observances in the home are essential, no matter whether one is Caucasian or African-American. Making Jewish observance joyful whenever possible is a priority. Rabbi Funnye told me how he has lots of singing at his services, and the music tends to be vibrant and up-tempo, enabling kids to participate actively. He hopes for a time when people won’t find it odd that the majority of his congregants have black skin, and he continues to raise consciousness about black Jews wherever he goes.
Robin Washington, who is the former editor of Boston’s black newspaper, the Bay State Banner, believes consciousness has been raised. “When we first founded the National Alliance of Black Jews, there was a lot more curiosity about who we were and what we were doing. Today, many people have met or heard about black Jews, and the concept isn’t as unusual as it used to be.”
Still, black Jews feel there is more that needs to be done. Most of the Jewish text books and curricula feature illustrations of only white faces. And black Jews are still asked if they are from Ethiopia or if they converted. Says Rabbi Funnye, “I can understand why some black Jews almost prefer to find an all-black congregation — it’s not a desire for segregation, but a desire to pray without people staring at you because you look different from everyone else.”
But there are definite signs that things are changing for the better: at the Boston-area temple I attend, the rabbi sometimes calls the children up to the bimah for a blessing, and I notice more children from a variety of ethnicities every year. In a recent article in “People” magazine, it was mentioned that the respected black author Jamaica Kincaid, who became a Jew four years ago, is now the president of her synagogue in a Vermont town that does not have a large black population.
There is now a Web site which offers information about conversion to Judaism, and several of the advisors are Jews of color. As more people of color become actively involved in Judaism (or re-claim their involvement, since a number of black Jews trace their ancestry back as far as when Moses married the Cushite woman in Numbers, Chapter 12), Robin Washington and others are certain that acceptance by the greater Jewish community will continue to grow.
The black Jews I know are committed to creating a strong sense of Jewish identity in the home. Although some feel the majority white Jewish community has not welcomed them (while others told me they have never had a problem), all agree with what Dr. King said in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech — they hope for the day when people will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. “My main concern for my kids,” Rabbi Funnye told me, “is that they carry on the Jewish tradition, and that they marry Jews. I don’t care what color the Jews are — just so long as the Jewish tradition is kept alive.”
Donna Halper is a radio and management consultant. She is on the faculty at Emerson College and is the author of Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting by M.P. Sharp (New York), $39.95.