Jews of Color Are a Growing Population in the United States
Diversity characterizes the American Jewish community, some through its historical antecedents and some through contemporary social forces that are at work, as well. The Jewish community is growing and changing via intermarriage, conversion and adoption. Some of the individuals entering the community via these avenues are people of color.
The Institute conducted a national telephone survey in order to estimate the number of Jews of color in the United States. Today, we estimate that there are about 400,000 Jews of color in the United States. This does not include Jews of Sephardic descent. This includes individuals who have converted to Judaism, individuals who have been adopted into Jewish families and raised as Jews, the multiracial children of partnerships between Ashkenazi Jews and people of color, and those who are themselves the generational descendants of Jews of color.
Another 600,000 people are “connected non-Jews.” These are individuals who might be practicing another religion as well as Judaism, people who are living with Jews (and sometimes as Jews), but who have not yet converted. There are yet another 700,000 people of color who are not currently Jewish but have a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent. In other words, about 1.7 million people of color in the United States are currently Jews, have a familial or ethnic connection to Judaism, or an ancestral connection. At least 400,000 of these would be defined as currently Jewish, even by the most conservative sociologists, demographers, or other social scientists.
In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, 15% of the Jewish households have at least one person of color. This, of course, reflects the diverse nature of the Bay Area, where whites are now a minority. The Bay Area is often a predictor of demographic trends in the U.S. as a whole. Serving this population requires serious efforts.
Jews of Color Are a Growing Population Around the World
The emerging Jewish populations around the world, especially in Africa, are even larger than the United States. We estimate millions of people of color who: 1) have converted to Judaism; 2) have Jewish heritage; 3) who identify with Judaism; or 4) are on the path to Judaism. There are tens of millions of individuals in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Rwanda, and elsewhere in Africa, who claim ancestral connections to Judaism. This is especially true among the Ibo of Nigeria, who consider themselves to be some of the lost descendants of Solomon.
Other such communities exist in India, Burma, Brazil, Peru, and around the globe. A community in Uganda, the Abayudaya, has been practicing Judaism for almost a hundred years. They recently went through a formal conversion through a conservative beit din.
Brazil, Spain, and Portugal are home to millions of people of Sephardic Jewish descent, some of who may look to return to their Jewish roots. Hundreds of thousands already live as Jews, while millions more express an affinity for Judaism and desire to be part of the Jewish people—either as a function of ancestral return or the appeal of being Jewish.
The following are the goals to create a more racially and ethnically open and inclusive Jewish community both in the United States and around the world:
Why is diversity important?
Racial diversity in the Jewish community is important for five reasons. They are:
1. Diversity brings new cultures, traditions, and ideologies into the Jewish people.
The community is strengthened by an array of customs, beliefs and practices. The community is enriched by diversity—it is more interesting, fulfilling, and vibrant. Judaism grows and changes as it becomes more diverse. Jews have always borrowed from other cultures, whether they are Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Babylonian, Polish, German, Spanish, or Ethiopian.
2. Younger American Jews embrace diversity as part of the American cultural experience.
Younger Jews consider racial or ethnic insularity to be racist, and the separation of Jews from other minority cultures to be limiting and destructive. Diversity is one of the ways in which younger American Jews identify more positively with their Judaism and their community. Broadening the scope of the composition of the Jewish community makes it infinitely more appealing to many Jews. Instead of fearing “the other,” Judaism encompasses and includes “the other.”
3. Diversity within the Jewish community helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups.
Intergroup relations are important to combat rising anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world. Israel and Jews are being portrayed by some anti-Semites as “White oppressors,” often employing the South African apartheid model or in some cases, the Nazi regime. Those who oppose the existence of Israel are appealing to individuals of color to join together against the “White oppressors.” This is a misrepresentation of Israel, Jews, and Judaism that needs to be addressed. The “us” and “them” construct melts away when the “us” and “them” become more intertwined. Black Jews are the best spokespeople to connect with other Blacks in America, in the same way that Latino Jews can speak to the Latino community, and so on. Diverse Jews are the bridge to the growing diversity of Americans.
4. A growing diverse community expands our communal numbers.
While numbers are not important for their own sake, a larger, more expansive Jewish community is healthier than a shrinking, diminishing one. Given the ability of all Americans to choose or reject the religion of their birth, it is important for the Jewish community to attract individuals. People of color, who have shown such an interest in Judaism, could expand the Jewish community by millions if the Jewish community were more open.
5. Supporting diversity is a mitzvah for all the hundreds and thousands and millions of people who want to become Jews.
It is sometimes easy to forget that the statistics encompass so many individual lives with personal needs and longings. So many people of color want to become Jews that the Jewish community has a moral and ethical obligation to help make this happen. In other words, the case for supporting diversity ultimately rests, most of all, in the eyes, faces and hearts of people who want to be part of the Jewish community.
Jews are a racially and ethnically diverse people—and always have been.
The historical home of the Jews lies at the geographic crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Jewish origins included a multitude of languages, tribes, and skin colors. The essence of the Jewish story is based on the Exodus from Egypt, where Jews sojourned for 400 years. The Exodus story is not only a metaphor for the escape from slavery to freedom; it is also a geographic journey that took the Hebrew people across the Sinai and the Red Sea from Asia to Africa and back again. At the same time, ancient Palestine, Judea, Sumeria, Israel and the land of Canaan were conquered by the Greeks, Romans, Turks and others, and interacted fully with other Mediterranean and European cultures. We lived on what are now Arab lands, such as Babylonia, the present day Iraq; and Persia, the current Iran. We settled in North Africa, India, China, Brazil, and a myriad of other places. Jews are an amalgam of so many different types of people. Over time, one Diaspora after another took Jews practically everywhere on earth.
Over the years, Jews blended with the host cultures, absorbing their customs, language, and skin color, while also sharing the same. Our story is also filled with interracial marriage—after all, Israel’s greatest prophet, Moses, married Zipporah, an Ethiopian. Solomon and David each took wives from Africa. Joseph married an Egyptian—an African. So much of Jewish contemporary consciousness comes from Eastern and Central Europe; yet, our roots are deep in Africa.
Yet, even though the story of the Jews is a history of diversity, American Jews most often think of themselves as European and White. Indeed, Jews are so integrated into American society that they tend to mirror American culture in general. Jews live in small towns, rural areas, and in Alaska, not just in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Some Jews are very wealthy, and some are homeless. Jews are both heterosexual and gay/lesbian, they divorce and remarry, they are working-class and professional. Jews are Americans, not a mythical 19th-century shtetl family from The Fiddler on the Roof. Jews are part of everyday American life, which includes a tremendous racial and ethnic diversity.
As Jews become more integrated into the overall American society, it should hardly come as a surprise that growing numbers of Blacks, Asians, Latinos and mixed-race Americans are becoming part of the Jewish community. However, this growth augments the multi-racial Jews that have existed in America for hundreds of years. The first American Jews were Sephardic and African, not Ashkenazi.
Ashkenazi Jews are aware of the great Sephardic cultures that grew in Spain and Portugal, and in the last twenty years have become aware of the Ethiopian population that made aliyah to Israel. However, these seem, to most Ashkenazi Jews, to be exotic exceptions or historical artifacts. The subject of African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American, Sephardic, or mixed race and Jewish or who are White and raising their mixed race or adopted children of color as Jews creates disbelief, surprise or dismissal from many Jews.
Racial and ethnic diversity are the hallmark and soul of the Jewish experience. These include: 1) multicultural Jews by birth and heritage; 2) children of interracial Jewish couples; 3) spouses of Jews who have converted and those who identify as Jews but have not yet converted; 4) people of color who have chosen to convert to Judaism and those who identify as Jews but have not yet converted; and 5) children of color who have been adopted by Jewish families.
The Changing Nature of Jewish Identity
The majority of Jews are ethnic and cultural, not religious. Some communal leaders want to focus on who they define as “core” Jews. This terminology is tainted with a sub-text that some Jews are “good,” “real” or “authentic,” thereby de-legitimizing others. Many Jews of color would not fall in the “core.”
Americans are increasingly characterized by denominational switching, mixed religious marriages, and “recombined” religions. The Jewish community, including Jews of color, are part of these national phenomena. The Jewish community is often too quick to reject Jews who are on these paths and journeys, looking to who is “in” and “out,” rather than where individuals are on a continuum.
Like many others in all religious groups across the American spectrum, many Jews of color are on their own spiritual and religious paths, sometimes resulting in conversion after one is living as a Jew for many years. Some may bring with them religious practices from their former religion until identity transformation to being Jewish is complete. Furthermore, conventional wisdom about race and religion do not necessarily apply (i.e., “Asians are Buddhist” or “Blacks are Christian”). The images of Jews are similarly inaccurate.
In the same way that Jews of color are a microcosm of the ways that Jewish organizations and institutions alienate many Jews, so is this population a microcosm for the “who is a Jew” issue. The constant questioning of the legitimacy of others now characterizes much of the rhetoric and behavior of the Jewish community. Has someone converted properly? When a child is adopted, are all the rituals followed? What is the nature of someone’s lineage? Is the mother “really” Jewish? All of these issues are pressed even harder upon the population of Jews who are not White.
Are Jews White?
Of course, the biggest irony of all is that, for most of American history, Ashkenazi Jews themselves were considered non-White by the American majority, well into the 1960s. Most older American Jews have forgotten—and younger Jews do not know—the stereotypes of Jews, including “kinky hair,” “thick lips,” and other characteristics associated with the stereotypes of Africans and Black people in America. Jews were considered by others to be “Black” or “Oriental.” It is no coincidence that racially-restrictive covenants and housing laws in America, prior to the 1940s, targeted Blacks, Asians, and Jews, all considered to be foreign, non-White racial groups.
On the timeline of Jewish existence, the White status of Jews is something of a novelty. For some Jews, it is difficult to absorb that Jews were once considered to be non-White. Still others, oddly enough, will never think of themselves as White at all. They still consider themselves to be part of a minority that exists outside the White mainstream of America. They feel that they are strangers in the land, still. Yet, as they relate to people of color, most Jews are clearly White, even if they can sometimes empathize or identify with people of color. In the context of rising anti-Semitism, Jews see themselves as “other” and essentially as non-White. But in the politics of race in America, Jews know that they are White intellectually, even if they sometimes feel otherwise emotionally. And certainly for most people of color, Jews are the quintessential Whites.
Race in America
The relationship between White Ashkenazi Jews and the various populations of Jews of color is cemented in the politics of race in America. Assertions of superiority and inferiority, who is legitimate and who is not, the anger, hostility, separateness, segregation, conflict, distrust and all the rest that divides the races in America, especially Black Americans, replays itself over and over again in the relationships between different color Jews. It is impossible, at this juncture, for Jews to escape the racial paradigm of the American society as a whole.
Race categories have changed through intermarriage. Conventional categories are muddled and have been for a long time. The definitions of racial categories are changing for sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers, as well as the public itself. We have outgrown the definitions we have created for ourselves. The language does not exist to talk about the complex combinations of race, religion, ethnicity and nationality.
The racial climate has vastly improved in the past two generations. Still, anger and distance, suspicion and disrespect, tarnish the relationship between the majority White population and other races, especially African-Americans. The racial divide is America’s original sin, conceived in slavery and perpetuated through Jim Crow in the South, legalized anti-Asian sentiment in the West, and through systematic discrimination against Blacks throughout the rest of the United States. Most Black, Asian, and Latino families know, either directly or indirectly through a friend or family member, prejudice and discrimination, often most darkly in the inequalities throughout the justice system. To say that race relations in this country have not improved would be a distortion, and perpetuate the notion that all Blacks are poor, uneducated, and victims, and that all Whites are bigots. The real-life experiences of Blacks, Asian Americans and Latinos demonstrate that the notions of Asian Americans as laundrymen and restaurant workers, or of Latinos as migrant agricultural workers, are false. These communities are more and more part of the mainstream, and more diverse themselves. But prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes have not been eliminated.
Diversity in Jewish families is also part of the changing racial boundaries in the American landscape. Increasing proportions of Americans are African-American, Caribbean, African, Asian, Latino, and a myriad of different combinations of racial ethnic groups. Whites are a minority in some cities, such as San Francisco, and soon will be a minority in some number of states. Jews of color are part of this changing reality.
History and Sociology of Jews of Color
Sephardic Jews are included in the study of ethnic and racial diversity as they are an historically marginalized subculture within the Jewish community. It consists of those who blend in with the dominant culture and prefer to do so, as well as those who are proud of their heritage and are determined to preserve a distinct identity. Both of these groups can be very emotional about their identities at opposite ends of the spectrum: those who see themselves as White and part of the dominant culture and those who see themselves as people of color and want to be recognized as such.
There are a number of active networking and cultural organizations devoted to the recognition of Sephardic culture. The primary way the Sephardi celebrate their heritage is through history and culture — literature, music, food, etc.
This population also includes individuals of Jewish heritage — “Marranos,” Anousim, or Crypto-Jews — in search of a Jewish identity that may have been lost generations ago through forced conversion. In Spanish, the converted Jews were known as Conversos, or “those who converted.” The secret Jews were known as Marranos, or “accursed.” Although there is some debate about whether the label Marranos should be considered derogatory, some today prefer Anousim, the Hebrew term for “forced converts.”
Jews of color are not an homogeneous group
Although they may share some issues in common, Jews of color have different
backgrounds, life experiences and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. Diverse Jews are….diverse. This includes geography, class, ideology, culture, skin color, language and a host of other factors. Understanding Jews of color cannot be achieved through bifurcating Ashkenazi Jews and Jews of color as two distinct monolithic groups. Ashkenazi Jews themselves are a mix of Sephardic, Mizrachi and a host of other cultural and ethnic mixtures that they have achieved over the centuries in their Diaspora wanderings.
The Relationship of Jews of Color to the Majority White Jewish Population
White Ashkenazi Jews have a lack of knowledge of Jews of color
The relationship between Ashkenazi Jews and Jews of color is problematic. There is a lack of knowledge and awareness about diverse Jews. For the most part, Jews of color are not on the radar screen of the majority White Jewish community. Because most Jews in the United States are White they operate under the misconception that all Jews are White. Jews of color believe that this misconception makes it more difficult to gain acceptance in the majority Jewish society. For the most part, the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews do not know about the parallel African-American Jewish community in the United States, or the nascent Jewish communities all over the world.
Because most Ashkenazi Jews know practically nothing of Jews of color, except perhaps those from Ethiopia, there is little opportunity for interaction. Indeed, the recognition of Ethiopian Jews itself was a long and difficult process. It took nearly 150 years for Ethiopian Jews to be recognized as “real and legitimate.” Although Ashkenazi Jews now accept the legitimacy of most Ethiopian Jews, they are less willing to recognize Jews of color in their own midst in American society.
The Jewish community is often not welcoming
Many Jews of color believe that the Jewish community is not especially welcoming to newcomers. In general, the Jewish community is closed to converts, outsiders, and strangers. Although these attitudes may seem justified given the past injustices suffered by Jews, these feelings may engender behaviors that cause many Jews of color to be excluded. This lack of awareness is pervasive even among liberal White Jews, sometimes unconsciously. The lack of openness and welcoming of the Jewish community, especially as expressed through its institutions and organizations, is a huge barrier to the increasing diversity of the Jewish community. This includes not only racial diversity, but diversity by origin of one’s Judaism as well. If significant numbers of Jews of color become Jews through adoption or conversion, they face the dual barrier of being a person of color and not a person of Jewish bloodline. The obsession with bloodline is, in itself, another form of racism; the belief in “Jewish genes” or “Jewish blood.”
Jews of color often face discrimination by the White Jewish majority in the United States
The politics of race and the suspicion and closed nature of the Jewish community combine to make many Jews of color invisible in the Ashkenazi world. Often, they feel unaccepted by other Jews. They recount experiences of being questioned by other Jews, sometimes innocent inquisitiveness, and sometimes hostility. In both circumstances, Jews of color feel that other Jews are scrutinizing them solely because of their color. Jews of color are regularly subjected to the test of proving that they are “real.” Do they have “papers?” Did they convert? If so, how did they convert? Can they read Hebrew? Are they some sect of Christian Hebrews “masquerading” as Jews? While many of these same issues characterize Jewish views of converts, strangers and different kinds of Jews in general, this testing is particularly administered to Jews of color, if only because they appear so obviously different from the Ashkenazi community.
Jews of color Are a microcosm of the Jewish community’s closed nature
The diverse population of Jews of color serves as a microcosm for examining issues of alienation, disconnection, and disaffiliation from the organized Jewish community that many White Ashkenazi Jews experience as well. Feelings that synagogues are not warm and welcoming enough, that Jewish institutions throw class barriers up at every turn, that they are not generally welcoming to newcomers and strangers is felt by significant numbers of Jews of all colors. Sometimes the alienation that Jews of color feel are due to race, and other times due to the institutional character of the Jewish community as it affects everyone.
The Racial and Religious Identities of Jews of Color
Jews of color may feel conflicted about their identities
Jews of color have multiple identities which are often conflicting, complicated and difficult to resolve. They feel that they are not supported by the Jewish community. The result is that it is easier for a Jew of color to identify with his or her race than to feel part of the Jewish community. At the same time, they may face discrimination from their racial group for their identification with Judaism. Jews of color may be bifurcated; culturally relating to their respective racial communities and religiously to Judaism.
Jews of color feel isolated
There is no “community of color” — Jews of color include a multitude of peoples, many of whom do not interact with either the White majority or with each other. Our study shows that many Jews of color exist outside the White majority communal structure. Of course, many Ashkenazi Jews themselves are removed from Jewish communal life. They do not belong to synagogues; they do not contribute to Jewish philanthropies, and so on. Many Jews of color are even more alienated — put simply, they do not fit into what White Jews call the “mainstream.” It is true that many synagogues have one family or so of color, and sometimes more. Some are well integrated into their synagogues or other communal institutions; some Jews of color have assimilated into the larger Jewish community. But, more often, they feel alone, isolated and unwelcome. At the same time, they may face discrimination from their racial group for their identification with Judaism.
Visible role models
A Jew of color may have never seen another Jew of color. They tend to feel isolated, not knowing others like themselves. Visual reinforcement is crucial for the identity of Jews of color, “seeing” other Jews who look like themselves. Visible role models for this group are critical, particularly leadership roles, such as rabbis. It is more difficult to identify as a Jew when there may be no other Jews who look like them.
Paths to Judaism
Conversion to Judaism is attractive to many people
Judaism has a large appeal to many non-Jews of all colors because of its communal structure, its theological tenets, its celebration of holidays, and the beauty of Torah. As people search for religious roots and grounding, Judaism is a religion and a people that many non-Jews currently practice, are considering, or long for. Our interviews with Blacks who converted to Judaism indicate that the numbers could be significantly larger, given the African-American affinity for the Old Testament and the identification with Hebrews. Many African-Americans connect with the Old Testament rather than the New Testament, and have a strong affinity for the Exodus story and the transition from slavery to freedom. Some even consider Christianity to be the religion of slavery.
The likelihood of continued population growth through conversion by Jews of color was revealed in this research. Asians, particularly Chinese, are attracted to the emphasis on tradition within the religion. This is coupled with the phenomenon of Jews adopting Asian girls, particularly from China. There are significant populations of individuals of Latino Jewish heritage — “Marranos”, Anousim, or Crypto-Jews — who are interesting in reclaiming Judaism. This is also true for African-Americans and significant numbers of people throughout Africa, as well. Some Black Jews do not call themselves “converts” but “reverts,” coming back to their original roots and religion. All together, there is the potential for welcoming millions of more individuals to be part of the Jew people. This has been one of the more fascinating findings in the work.
Converts are often discouraged
Jews by choice tend to become Jewish through their own persistence. Making a life choice of this nature is difficult. Potential converts are often discouraged from pursuing conversion by the organized Jewish community, rabbis in particular. As one potential convert who has struggled to find a welcoming congregation for ten years expressed, “It seems like they just hoped I would go away.” Many individuals will live Jewish lives on their own for years before having the confidence to be persistent enough to break through the barriers that exist to keep out strangers and particularly stranger who look different than the majority. Therefore, by the time they are ready to convert, they often continue to search until they find a community that is welcoming and supportive.
Significant numbers of Jewish families are adopting children
The growth of diversity in America through adoption is also an important origin for Jews of color. Increasing numbers of Jewish families adopt internationally, children from Asia, South America and Africa. Some families also adopt domestically, African-American and mixed-race children. The choice to adopt is sometimes the result of high infertility rates among Jewish women; this phenomenon itself a result of high education levels and high socioeconomic status. Children of color are adopted in proportionally greater numbers by “marginalized” Jewish populations, including gay and lesbian families, as well as single or older parents. Some portion of these adoptions are from Jewish families who see adoption as a social good.
The adoption community is the best networked and has the best support systems, primarily because they are dealing with multiple issues. The majority of adoptive parents with young children who are active in a synagogue indicate that they feel welcome in their community. However, they almost unanimously voice a concern about long-term acceptance revolving around two related issues: Will other Jews “see” my child as a Jew? Will my child be a desirable marriage partner? This is both a visual issue: What do Jews look like? (particularly in the United States) and an issue of acceptance of converts into the community, in other words: Will my child be considered a “real” Jew?
Even though there is an awareness of racism in the general community, there is less tolerance for racism in the Jewish community — there is an expectation that the Jewish community, as a “religious” community, should be welcoming and supportive. When the community falls short of this expectation — it is particularly painful and demoralizing.
Jewish intermarriage includes interracial marriage
Like many other ethnic groups in the United States, Jews are intermarrying at an increasing rate and some of those unions are interracial. One of the great social taboos of American society—interracial marriage—has been gradually breaking down for some time. Of course, looking at the skin tones of Americans, both Black and White, interracial relationships have always been the norm, even if they have always carried with them either social or legal condemnation. These social restraints against intermarriage are beginning to wane, and have been doing so since the 1960s. Part of the increase in the population of Jews of color comes through interracial unions. Increasing numbers of Jews are multiracial by virtue of their parents’ crossing racial lines. This phenomenon will probably continue to grow with each successive decade.
There is a significant population of young Jews who are coming of age who are the children of interracial marriages. These biracial individuals face the difficult task of sorting out multiple identities and figuring out where they “fit in.” For example, one such individual felt that this struggle was a painful yet valuable experience. She felt that since she could not just take her identity for granted, that act of searching and choosing made for a more complex and ultimately stronger sense of one’s self, as well as a deeper understanding of others.
The Black Jewish Community in the U.S.
There is an entire sub-culture of African-American Jews that has existed for generations that is totally outside the Ashkenazi community. They have separate synagogues, an exclusively African-American board of rabbis, their own conferences, train their rabbis separately and so on. What could be more discouraging than the tiny community of Jews located in a huge population of Gentiles, unable to see one another, communicate with one another, and learn from each other because one group is labeled White and the other Black? It is unfortunate that the American Jewish community has replicated so thoroughly the politics of the racial divide in America.
Black Jews sometimes have different ways/names for being Jewish. Some Blacks call themselves Jews, but others take on names such as Israelites and Hebrews. This is sometimes to distinguish themselves from the White majority Jewish community that has rejected them. They are summarily dismissed by the White majority population without ever looking very carefully at who they are. Some may not be Jews, but many others are.
Black rabbis and synagogues
Synagogues, largely for Orthodox Black Jews, exist in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Virginia and throughout North America. Rabbis certified by the Israelite Board of Rabbis serve these congregations. Some Black rabbis have studied at Yeshivot outside the “mainstream” institutions such as Hebrew Union College, Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, or the Reconstructionist College. Therefore, questions are raised about whether or not these rabbis are “really rabbis.” Many rabbis are ordained at The Israelite Rabbinical Academy, founded to ordain Black Jews not accepted by the mainstream seminaries. Neither the synagogues nor the rabbis are known nor accepted by the majority Jewish community.
Institutional and Programming Needs
Different programming needs
The population of Jews of color splits along many lines: by race, region, practices and many others. Some of these divisions are typical of the Jewish community as a whole. Although they may share some issues in common, Jews of color have different backgrounds, life experiences and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. Therefore, they often have different programming needs, specific to their own culture. Jews of color are interested in networks with other Jews of color through Havurot, support groups, websites, list serves, retreats, and a host of other programs and venues. They are interested in participating in several types of programming: 1) with those like themselves only; 2) with all kinds of diverse Jews; and 3) programs with the general Jewish community.
Many organizations are grassroot
A number of grassroots organizations have emerged to serve the population of non-White Jews. They are almost all, however, volunteer-run with extremely limited financial resources. Some are unable to successfully carry out their mission due to lack of appropriate experience, structure and staff. Some choose to remain all-volunteer organizations. Thus far, they are serving a limited community building function. Further evaluation is necessary, but anecdotally, they seem to be minimally effective. Additionally, they are sometimes inadvertently destructive because they are unable to deliver that which they promise and erode what ever tenuous trust that may exist.
The landscape is mixed and growing. There are organizations to serve the transracial adoption community, camping weekends for all Jews of color, newsletters, and list serves for example. However, without structural change, adequate funding, professional staff, and organizational training, these organizations are likely to be minimally effective in the future.
Barriers to Overcome
Building communities of diverse Jews has a number of barriers to overcome. They are:
1. There is a lack of knowledge and awareness about diverse Jews.
For the most part, they are not on the radar screen of the majority White Jewish community. A great deal of education has to be undertaken so that the issue of diverse Jews is placed squarely in the Jewish communal agenda. For the most part, the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews do not know about the parallel African-American Jewish community that has existed for generations in the United States, or the nascent Jewish communities all over the world.
2. The racism of both White Jews and Black Jews must be approached.
Ashkenazi Jews in America are part of the construct of the politics of race. Most White Jews do not interact much with Blacks, Asians and Latinos. Most Jews consider themselves to be open, liberal, and accepting; yet they cannot escape the racism that pervades American society.
3. The history of rejection of Black Jews in America has now produced a mutual rejection on the part of Black Jews.
Black Jews have been questioned so often, treated so poorly by the White Jewish community, and had all efforts to be part of the community rebuffed, that they themselves have developed an ideology of rejection. The mutual history of rejection, which is now at least two generations old, is a barrier that must be overcome.
4. The Conundrum of Class
The differences between Black and White class status, even though the economic gap is closing, are still real. These gaps are most extreme with the majority White Jewish population, which is largely middle- and upper-middle class. Furthermore, the stereotypes of class are almost impossible to escape. Even though the majority of Blacks are now in the middle class, most White Americans still see them as working class or underclass.
5. This general racism is tied to the ideology of insularity, selectiveness, and chosen-ness that many Jews embrace.
In general, the Jewish community is closed to converts, outsiders, and strangers. The lack of openness and welcoming