SEEING, ELEVATING, COUNTING, INCLUDING, REPRESENTING Jews of Color (aka “Be an Ally”)

In the winter of 2010, I was hired by an organization called Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) (which later morphed and merged into what is now Bend the Arc) to be a service-learning trip leader.  At the training, we were paired with other staff as co-leaders for the trips that year.  I was paired a woman named Marissa Tiamfook.  My un-nuanced and un-knowing (aka incredibly ignorant) self made some immediate assumptions about Marissa: she “looked” like perhaps she wasn’t from a fully Caucasian family, she was probably adopted, or maybe from an interfaith family where one parent wasn’t American, or maybe her family converted to Judaism at some point.  Of course, I didn’t express any of this to Marissa or to anyone else.

When we all got back to our respective cities, we friended each other on Facebook and over a few months exchanged a few emails related to JFSJ. [Note: sadly due to scheduling issues, Marissa and I never got the chance to run a trip together.]  Through Facebook, I learned that Marissa was involved in an organization called JMN: The Jewish Multiracial Network. Screenshot 2020-05-20 12.41.23 Wow! How could I call myself a Jewish Communal National “Expert” and not even know this existed? So from the sidelines, I stalked this group’s posts, Googled, and tried to gain knowledge from reading articles, looking at photos, and following information about their events. Screenshot 2020-05-20 12.39.34
[And I now follow information disseminated by other organizations including Jews in all Hues, B’chol Lashon, the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative.]

Forward to May 2011, I attended a national conference hosted by the organization then known as Jewish Outreach Institute.  The program was entitled, “Judaism 2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future and the Steps Necessary to Get Us There.”

At lunch, I was sitting next to a lovely woman named Yavilah McCoy (who was soon introduced to sing a song and share some words of wisdom.)  Yavilah and I, as it turned out, had some things in common – most significantly St. Louis where I had grown up and where she and her family had lived for years.  We quickly jumped into a game of Jewish Geography.

What Yavilah and I didn’t have in common – skin color.  At that point in my sheltered Ashkenormative 37.5 years of Jewish life, I had of course seen Jews of Color occasionally at various Jewish communal programs, but I hadn’t fully engaged with someone who was a national Jewish communal field leader who was also a person of color.

Yavilah that day introduced do me to a new magnifying glass through which to understand Jews of Color.  She taught me that not all Jews of Color are converts (she herself is fourth generation and her children fifth generation).  She taught me to NOT ask Jews of Color how they “became” Jewish.  Yavilah taught me that not all Jews of Color are from liberal streams of Judaism – she was raised in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn. Yavilah taught me – don’t make assumptions.  Period.  (Enter my immediate silent, yet heartfelt apology to Marissa for the assumptions I made about her the previous Winter.)

Later in 2011, I started planning a national ThinkTank for the faculty of the organization then known as Shevet: the Jewish Family Education Exchange (previously known as The Whizin Institute).  The ThinkTank was to be held in March 2012 and one of the elements I wanted to bring to the faculty was an education on what we were then calling “diverse,” “niche,” or “marginalized” families.  I started reaching out to colleagues I knew who not only were experts in certain areas by training but also with life experience to join us for the ThinkTank as guests and as teachers.  In the end, we had amazing learnings about families with children and adults living with developmental disabilities, families who had one or more LTBQ+ family members, families who lived in remote small Jewish communities throughout the US, interfaith and multi-faith families, and, families who had one or more Jew of Color.  My first outreach to find someone to speak about JoC was to Marissa to see if she could come represent JMN and her own experience at our ThinkTank.  She wasn’t available but sent an email introducing me to a woman named April Baskin.

April was thrilled to come join us for the ThinkTank and taught our faculty (all-Caucasian) so much about families she represented through personal experience and through national communal leadership. She explained to us that there are families that are multi-racial, but families that are not; families that are adoptive and families that convert together; and, families that are living generations as Jews of Color who never converted and whose family origins aren’t Ashkenazi.  For me, I had started to learn much of this from stalking JMN and from Yavilah, but for some of our faculty, they had never considered it. April challenged us to think about how our programs welcome Jews of Color, how they honor their experiences as a Jewish family.  One of the most important takeaways for me was when April asked us:  Do your promotional materials, the bulletin boards in your buildings and your websites have representation of Jews of Color or is every person depicted white?  Boom.  [PS: our other guests also challenged us to consider image representation of their populations as well, but April went first].

I lay out all of this personal history, personal ignorance, and personal growth to acknowledge that we all learn, we all come from some place of bias or sheltered viewpoints.  The challenge to ourselves is to acknowledge it and be open to the learning.  And, I lay this all out so that as I embark on commenting on recent events in the Jewish communal world that unfolded the last few days, I do so with readers knowing my own history with this topic.

On May, 19, 2020 I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post by colleague Shawn Landres.  It starts, “I’m truly dismayed at the decision by two veteran sociologists of contemporary Jewry and EJewish Philanthropy [updated: and The Forward] to write and publish an ill-timed, tone-deaf, and ultimately damaging piece on the contested demography of Jews of color.”  Full stop …. what did I miss?  I finished reading Shawn’s statement and started skimming the comments for more information and found a reference to a response that sociologist Dr. Ari Y. Kelman wrote.  So off I went to find Ari’s article in eJP and the original piece which sparked Shawn’s and Ari’s responses.  What I found is an article written by Ira Sheskin and Arnie Dashefsky on May 17th article entitled “How Many Jews of Color Are There?”  [NOTE:  Dan Brown, who is the founder and editor of eJP, wrote this heartfelt piece in response to the challenge to his running the original article.]

The ikar (essence/gist) of the original piece is a discrepancy between sociologist camps on the percentage of American Jews who are Jews of Color and why it’s important to get it right. For me, the debate about how the data was captured in each instance and the survey questions asked to gather that data (which was Ari’s main response), wasn’t as immediately jolting or important as this quote:

Nevertheless, as intermarriage continues among American Jews at high levels, as Jews adopt children who may be “of Color,” and as non-Jewish persons of color decide to identify as Jewish, the share of Jews of Color in the American Jewish population is likely to increase. (5th paragraph).

WHOA!  These “expert” sociologists and researchers don’t even acknowledge that there are Jews of Color who have been Jewish for generations and that there are Jews of Color living in the United States who’s family origins aren’t “traditional Ashkenazic or Sephardic?”  What does it take for ALL Jews of Color to be SEEN?  to be COUNTED?  to be INCLUDED?

Many (many) response articles have been written and published in a variety of outlets and petitions circulated.  I encourage readers to find at least a few of them to read.

But more importantly, I encourage readers (lay leaders, communal members, and Jewish professional leaders) to really take an honest internal reflection of your own intentional and unintentional biases.  Do you make assumptions when you see a person of color at a Jewish program or in a Jewish organization building [not okay to assume it’s a paid worker!]?  Do you make assumptions that the person sitting next to you in worship whose skin color is different from yours is “new” to Judaism? or a guest of someone else?  Do you assume that the Jews of Color in your community don’t know as much about Judaism because it wasn’t passed down through generations of their family?  Are Jews of Color represented in the photos and the narratives that tell the story of your organization?  Are they included and sought out to lead (board members, committee chairpeople, policy-makers)? and to teach (in youth programs, in adult learning, at Shavuot, on Yom Kippur during break)  [and NOT to just teach about being a Jew of Color – just to teach!]?

Being an ally is hard work.  It’s about seeing our own short-comings and working to overcome them.  And it’s about helping others (individuals and organizations) see their’s.  I hope that my colleagues and friends who are Jews of Color see me as an ally.  I hope they continue to teach me how to be a better ally (especially if there is something in this piece they want to give me feedback on!).

 


[Oh, and by the way, I have challenged Ari and his colleagues in the questions they often don’t ask when studying Jewish populations and identity, so … we are all guilty of sometimes not seeing (and surveying) what needs to be seen! See that blog here.]

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Ben Bag-Bag and #BlackLivesMatter | JewishGPS

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