Profile of a Jewish Woman of Color: An Interview with Michal Respes Clune
Hello, Ms. Clune. Would you mind introducing yourself? Tell us and our readers more about your background.
I am a Jewish woman of color and was raised as a Sephardic Jew by my parents the late Rabbi Abel Respes and my mother Viola Respes. Rabbi Respes started his first synagogue in his home in North Philadelphia. In 1962, my father led his family and members of his Sephardic congregation to New Jersey and established Adat Beyt Mosheh, a community which consisted of a synagogue and five houses in Elwood,
located in southern New Jersey.
Why did your father start this congregation? Weren’t there viable religious options in the dominant Jewish community?
His object was to create an environment which would allow individuals to regain their Jewish identity as colored Jews, and to assist them in developing their mind, body and character to its highest potential. Being one of his children, I participated in daily Hebrew school and my heritage was enriched with Jewish song and dance.
Can you say more about the Jewish songs and dances you learned as a child?
I grew up in a family with an enormous amount of exposure to music. I joined the community choir around the age of nine and was a member for 20+ years. Annually, the choir would present a Cantata for Purim and Passover and sang specific songs for a range of holidays including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shavuot. We also had a performing group and I sang, danced, played the piano and saxophone as a group member. We entertained many Jewish communities in the United States throughout the 70’s and early 80’s. In addition, I was a Youth Program Director, Educator and Mentor for our Beyt Knesset from the 80’s through the mid 90’s.
What do you think about the many requests that you and other blacks such as yourself undergo conversion in order to be accepted as Jewish?
What do you mean? Why is it that the Chief Rabbinate says in order to be received as a Jew and to make aliyah to our homeland, Israel, we need to follow the procedure of conversion?
Well, yes. We can start there.
In the Torah, there is no reference to people immersing in a mikvah or going through a formal educational process in order to prove one’s Jewishness. Exodus, Chapter 23, verse 9, reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” So even if you may not be aware of or know Jews of color, based on the passage above there is no excuse for treating them as though they are inferior. How are the rules of the Chief Rabbinate any different from the laws set forth during the Spanish Inquisition in not allowing Jews to practice their own religion? Let us not be fooled by the fact that it is the Chief Rabbinate or the Israeli Ministry of the Interior. Denial of our religious practices and beliefs is just that. We certainly have enough non-Jewish folks trying to convince us not to embrace our
Jewish heritage. Let us open our hearts to fellow Jews / Israelites as we should and not become enemies of our own.
But is it not the case that different Jews practice Judaism differently? And if so, shouldn’t there be some sort of orthodox religious practice which all Jews acknowledge?
How is it we feel that we can re-write or re-define “G’s” laws? One might question the validity of the Torah and the various passages. My answer to that would be, “Perhaps.” However, unless very clear signs are revealed to us, it certainly is in our best interest to strive and live our lives based on the laws and commandments we possess. Having said that, to my knowledge, there is no mention in the Torah of individuals living as Jews / Israelites and not being acknowledged as such. Leviticus, Chapter 19, reads, “You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules: I am the “L”. If an individual is observing “G’s” commandments based on the laws of the Torah, that should be enough. The Torah, in Numbers, Chapter 10, states that “There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.” These examples are what we should base our practices on.
Why did you decide to sit for this interview?
The purpose of this article is not to convince anyone of my Jewishness or to be accepted by “mainstream” Jews, but rather to share a bit about myself and my heritage, and perhaps my story will help others in finding their way back. Most individuals, whether you are considered black or white by society, are aware of Jews; but the Jews they know are white or Caucasian. However, if you have not heard, that is not always the case. There are many Jews of color who are located in many parts of the world. Some of these areas include India, Ethiopia, Morocco, and the United States.