The Color Of Inclusion

West Coast conference brings together Jews of color from across the globe to celebrate diversity.

San Francisco – Before a packed house of some 400 people at the Fairmont Hotel here, 45 voices from Temple Beth El’s choir soared in songs melding Hebrew lyrics with the passionate energy and rhythmic lilt of gospel music, all backed by a rocking band. It had almost everyone in the room — including the fervently Orthodox Yemenite Jews who had come in from Brooklyn — on their feet, waving their hands in the air and shouting out encouragement.

But don’t call it Jewish gospel in front of chorus director Debra Bowen, who is known as ima, or mother, to her suburban Philadelphia congregation. “It’s not gospel, which is Christian. It’s soul-full,” said Bowen, as she cooled down after her chorus’ performance, still elegant in a sparkling silver-and-black dress and ornate black-and-white hat. And while the chorus’ sound may have its roots in the black church, it is a genuinely Jewish form of praise worship for the members of Ima Bowen’s congregation.

The Sunday night event – which included Ugandan Jewish songs by members of the Abuyadaya clan, and a rhythm-and-blues-influenced rendition of the traditional Jewish song Adon Olam by Rabbi Baruch Yehuda, leader of an Israelite temple in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn – was billed by its organizer as the first-ever performance of African and African-American Jewish music. Open to the public, the sold-out event was part of a conference called Be’chol Lashon, or “In Every Tongue.”

The Be’chol Lashon conference participants were a handpicked group of present and emerging leadership among Jews of color from all over the world. With about 100 people, it was the third and largest conference to date. The conference, which took place over three days from last Friday to Monday, was organized by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, led by demographer Gary Tobin and his wife, Diane Tobin. Seven years ago, the couple adopted a newborn named Jonah. Not knowing any other non-white Jews, and wanting their new son not to feel isolated as an African-American Jew, they started reaching out to others, and Be’chol Lashon was born. In addition to its annual conference, the initiative runs Chanukah and Shavuot parties and other social and educational events.

“The Jewish people speak in many tongues and is more diverse than most Jews know, and certainly more than the rest of the world does,” said Gary Tobin during the conference. There are about 400,000 Jews of color in the United States, or about 7 percent of the total population of over 6 million, according to a study done by the Institute, whose findings are to be published next month in a book on ethnic and racial diversity in the Jewish community. That figure does not include people of Sephardic ancestry, who comprise another 8 percent of America’s Jews, the book says, as well as Mizrachi Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America.

“All together, we estimate that at least 20 percent of American Jewry is diverse, and an even higher proportion has a diverse background,” the book says. “The phenomena of interracial marriage, adoption, conversion and immigration are changing the demographic face of the American Jewish community.” The compelling question for the mainstream Jewish community today, Tobin said, is “How do we respond to those who look different? How do we, as a world people, move beyond our definitions of who’s in and who’s out?”

This year’s conference participants included 13 members of Brooklyn’s religiously stringently Yemenite Orthodox community. In the trope and cadence of their Shabbat prayers – which, they say, are the same as they were in First Temple times – listeners could almost hear the desert. Toward the conclusion, an African-American Israelite stepped in to lead the mourners’ Kaddish — with a different sound, although in the same Aramaic chanted by Jews everywhere. And, as in Jewish worship everywhere, the congregation responded. Conference participants also included a leader of India’s Jewish community, two Chinese Jews — one from China and the other American — a Mexican rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement, a modern Orthodox Latino rabbi from the Bronx, a fervently Orthodox rabbi from Portugal, along with Israelites and black Jews from Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa, among other places.

Also involved were many American Jews of color — some born into Jewish families, others who have converted. Among them was Itiya Taylor, an African-American woman from a Baptist family who converted to Judaism under Conservative movement auspices. She has since become more observant and is now preparing for an Orthodox conversion. “It’s not new to me that there are African-American Jews, but it’s nice to see a lot of us under the same roof,” said Taylor, who works in marketing and event planning in Los Angeles. “The work of the organization is amazing, even if I don’t always agree with some of what it does. It’s very inclusive for people who don’t always have the opportunity to be heard,” she added.

As a religious Jew, she takes issue with some of what she heard at the conference, in particular that many of those who call themselves black Israelites identify as Jewish, but have not converted, and with what she described as “proselytizing,” the assertively pro-outreach stance advocating that people in Africa who may have Jewish roots be encouraged to discover them. The African Jews present — from Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Ethiopia — decided to follow up on an idea floated at last year’s gathering and create a Pan African Jewish Association with the goal of organizing and empowering Jewish leadership around the continent. As they discussed how to begin, it became clear that the challenges are complex.

Identifying publicly as Jewish remains politically sensitive and potentially dangerous for many Africans, some said, because in countries where Islam and Christianity dominate, they might be suspected of being Zionist spies. “In Africa, Jew is not a word to use easily,” said Rabson Wuriga, who was raised in Zimbabwe and is now a post-doctoral fellow in philosophy at North-West University in South Africa. He is also a leader of the Lemba communities in both countries. There is also the challenge of coordinating potential leaders from different cultures, and with different nationalities and expectations, from among a few Jews spread throughout the continent’s 53 different countries.

While the Lemba in Southern Africa and the Abuyadaya of Uganda are organized as Jewish communities, “most of Africa is just waking up,” said Jane Dele Osawe, a former Nigerian state legislator who currently lives in Chicago. Currently a senior executive at Chicago’s Community Mental Health Council, she is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and attends the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. According to Wuriga, in Africa “people know they are Jews but they must be educated and redirected” toward understanding what that means. As many of those from Africa did, Osawe had experiences growing up that led her to realize that her family was not the same as others.

A member of Nigeria’s Ibo people, Osawe’s family followed unusual practices: They carefully drained the blood of cows and chickens they slaughtered, which Christian neighbors called pagan, and circumcised their sons on the eighth day, among other things. But like most Africans, they were also publicly Christian. Christianity was the official religion of the African countries colonized by Western Europe. All schools, for instance, were Christian and required pupils to profess that faith. But as she grew up and read scripture, Osawe realized that Christian practices did not conform to what the Bible said was correct and to what her father did. But she didn’t know that there was such a thing as a contemporary Jewish people, she said. It was only when she came to the United States to attend college that she realized how the pieces of her identity could all fit together.

“Ibos have always been called the Jews of Africa,” she said. “I thought it was because we are traders, and business-oriented.” But now, she said, “there seems to be a reawakening. Synagogues are springing up,” with 11 in Nigeria’s eastern region alone. A congregation started in 2002 in Lagos now has 70 families as members, she said. While there are relatively few Nigerians presently connected to the Jewish people, she believes that there are, potentially, at least 20,000. A Pan-African Jewish Association will help bring them back to their original identity, she said. “If we have a focus, we can work as a team. If as Jews we come as one voice, it will strengthen us.”

The goal should not be emigration to Israel, as it has been for Ethiopia’s Falash Mura, she said. Instead, they will be Jews in the land of their birth and visit Israel. Being at the conference was another awakening, she said. “I had never seen the prayers of people from different parts of the world. Hearing the Yemenites’ prayers, and seeing Indians and Chinese who are Jews — that is really amazing. “It lifted my spirit to see that we are one people speaking in one tongue.”


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