Judaism’s Rainbow Jews of Color Often Must Shuttle Between Religious, Ethnic Worlds

Kathy Kobayashi sends her 8-year-old daughter to Hebrew school. Juan Carlos Nagel speaks Yiddish with his father. And Courtenay Edelhart, an African-American, attends Torah study regularly at her Mid-Wilshire temple.

Though they come from vastly different backgrounds, the three share one thing in common: They are Jews of color.

Now, one day before Rosh Hashanah-the beginning of the Jewish new year and a time of reflection-others like them in Central Los Angeles hope to dispel a myth that they say equates being Jewish with being white.

“I am living, walking proof that we are really one people,” said Edelhart, 25, a Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregant who was born to Jewish and Methodist parents. “My great-grandfather was a rabbi. It just shows you, there truly is so much diversity.”

No one is certain about the numbers of African-American, Asian-American and Latino Jews in Los Angeles, but experts believe there are 500 to 1,000. While some are converts, or “Jews by choice,” others are descendants of Eastern European, Russian or Ethiopian families.

By most accounts, theirs is not an easy lot.

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple-one of the few in Central Los Angeles-includes only a few African-American and Latino congregants. The one remaining Eastside synagogue in Boyle Heights, once a thriving Jewish community, is boarded up and opened only occasionally for services.

Earlier this year, a support group with about a dozen members, Kehillat Keshet, or Congregation of the Rainbow, began meeting in the Park Mile area south of Hancock Park and at UCLA.

The monthly meetings give members a chance to share their experiences and discuss ways to reach out to the mainstream Jewish community. Speakers from the group talk to congregations and youth groups across Los Angeles about Jewish diversity and the reaction of African-Americans and other groups to the April-May riots, among other topics.

“Some people are shocked to find out we exist,” said Keshet member Kobayashi, 42, who converted to Judaism about three years ago. “There’s nothing in Judaism that says people of different races can’t be Jewish.”

Still, some say they are forced to shuttle between two worlds-one religious and another ethnic-often facing criticism from non-Jews for exploring their Jewish identities.

“They ask: `Isn’t your life complicated enough? Why would you want to heap more discrimination on yourself?”‘ said Marcellus McRae, 27, a Ladera Park resident who is preparing to convert to Judaism. “There is nothing I would do to compromise my African-American identity, but it is wrong to believe that black people or Jewish people are monolithic.”

Others speak of anti-Semitism among their Latino and African-American acquaintances. Edelhart, a journalist who once worked for a small weekly newspaper in South-Central Los Angeles, said she was occasionally belittled because of Israel’s ties with South Africa.

Gideon B. Embry, an Ethiopian Jew who lives in Ladera Heights, said fears of racial discrimination and anti-Semitism have caused some Jews from his homeland to conceal their religious identity. At least 20 people in Los Angeles County identify themselves as Ethiopian Jews, according to experts who work with the community.

“They don’t want to be the target for any kind of harassment,” said Embry, 31, speaking of Ethiopians who choose not to pursue Jewish life. “They still keep Judaism in their heart. That is the Ethiopian way.”

Nagel, an entertainment writer for the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion in Downtown Los Angeles, said anti-Semitism among some Latinos in Los Angeles mirrors that of his home country, Argentina. Nagel said anti-Jewish sentiment in both countries has helped strengthen his resolve.

“The stereotype . . . is that Jews are cheap,” said Nagel, 38, a gay activist whose family left Poland before World War II. “Although I was born a Latino, the blood that is in my veins is Jewish.”

Jews of color also speak of “unintended, but condescending” insults from Anglo members of the Jewish community. Park Mile resident Jan Perry-Galanter, an African-American who helped form the Kehillat Keshet group, said she encounters “not-so-subtle” stares from fellow congregants in synagogue, and some have questioned whether she is a visitor.

“When I tell them that I converted, sometimes they’ll breathe a sigh of relief, because it reinforces their idea that Jewish equals only white,” said Perry-Galanter, 37.

The tepid welcome has driven some minority Jews away from synagogue life. Jimmie Moore refuses to enter a synagogue today because of “the stares.” Instead, the South-Central resident observes his faith alone.

“How do you know you’re a Jew? Because your father tells you so,” said Moore, 55, whose ancestors were from Ethiopia and Zaire. “I was born this way. I will die this way.” Moore said the adversity he has experienced-as an African-American and as a Jew-drove him to his solitary Jewish life. But it has also taught him to appreciate the need for tolerance and diversity, he said.

Indeed, some Jewish community leaders believe that Jews of color will play an increasingly vital role in helping to bridge racial divisions in Los Angeles.

“Ultimately, we share humanity with everybody,” said Rabbi Richard N. Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council and adviser to the Keshet group.

“These people show us that Jews come in all colors, just as human beings come in all colors.”

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