Making space for teen Jews of color to explore their identities
The 16 students — black, Asian and Latino, and all Jewish — stood in a circle at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
When asked whether they’ve ever been told they don’t look Jewish, most of the kids stepped forward, into the circle. Asked whether they come from a family encompassing different religions, most stepped forward. And asked whether they consider themselves of mixed racial background, all stepped forward into the center.
Some of these high school and middle school students, who gathered Nov. 4 for the first meeting of a Bay Area group focused on teenage Jews of color, consider themselves observant. Others think of themselves as secular. Some speak Spanish or French or Japanese at home. Two were born overseas.
But they all share a sense that it’s hard growing up with dual, and sometimes dueling, identities. “I wanted to see what it was like for other Jewish teens of color in the Bay Area,” one of the kids wrote anonymously on a Post-It note that was shared with the group.
A 2013 survey found that 11.2 percent of the U.S. Jewish community is non-white. Locally, that percentage is even higher. The 2018 “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities” commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation found that nearly 25 percent of local Jewish households include one non-white adult (Jewish or not) — Hispanic, Asian American, black, or of a mixed or ethnic or racial background.
The San Francisco gathering was organized by Roni Ben-David, the director of social justice and inclusion at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, where she also teaches Jewish studies.
Ben-David takes JCHS kids each year to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, the student track of the People of Color Conference. JCHS was the first Jewish school in the country to participate in the national conference in 2015.
Ben-David came home from the conferences wondering if there were any programs for teen Jews of color in the Bay Area. San Francisco-based Be’chol Lashon, which advocates “for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people,” runs a multicultural Jewish overnight camp each summer at Walker Creek Ranch in West Marin, where campers ages 8-18 have a chance to share their experiences. But Ben-David couldn’t identify any year-round, ongoing programs designed specifically for teens.
“There are a lot of questions about identity through young adulthood, so that’s why this felt important,” she said. “The goals of the event go beyond creating space for students to share and affirm one another’s experiences, build community and cultivate leadership — we also hoped to amplify these students’ voices within the Jewish community.”
The participants at the CJM, ages 12-16, came from the Peninsula, the East Bay, Marin and San Francisco and included four JCHS students. They read stories about Jews from multicultural backgrounds and discussed Jews of color, such as the Canadian rapper Drake.
Before and after a sushi lunch, the group heard from older Jews of color who talked about their experiences and struggles growing up.
Lindsey Newman, programs manager at Be’chol Lashon, told the students she grew up in a Jewish family in New York City. She said people were surprised when they first met her and found out she was Jewish.
“They had assumptions about what a Jew looks like, what it means to be Jewish,” said Newman, who lived in Israel after college. “I happen to be mixed race, I happen to be adopted. Sometimes that can be difficult for people to connect my story with the stories they’ve heard about the Jewish community.
“Especially for Jews of color, we come up against the challenge of, we’re both highly visible and we’re also invisible at the same time,” she added. “We stand out in a crowd, but our stories are sometimes invisible because they’re not in the main arena.”
Maya Katz-Ali, a program coordinator at Be’chol Lashon, told the students her non-Jewish father is from India and her mother is a Jew of European descent.
“I feel when I go into spaces I can share one identity or another; it’s hard to always hold myself as a full person no matter where I go,” she said. “Our stories aren’t getting told in the mainstream narrative of Judaism in the U.S.”
Another session leader, Danielle Nathelson, told the students to close their eyes and think about the life events that had brought them to the museum classroom that day. Nathelson went to Jewish day school in Orange County, attended Jewish summer camp, was in Hillel while attending UC Berkeley and then worked at UCLA’s Hillel for six years.
Though she said her life was enriched by Judaism, she knew little about the black or Native American communities to which she also belongs and felt her life was incomplete, “because I was only nurturing one part of who I was.” She was sad, angry and defensive during her freshman year at Berkeley, she said.
“I am here to be someone I didn’t have when I was your age,” she told the teens.
When they opened their eyes after Nathelson’s exercise, the students could see themselves reflected in the words on Rebekkah Scharf’s shirt. Scharf teaches outdoor education at a San Francisco elementary school and was a session leader at the event.
“This is what Jewish looks like,” Scharf’s shirt proclaimed.