Black Lives in the Jewish Community: We Matter, Too

Empowered by Black Lives Matter, Jews of color, once ignored or overlooked, are speaking out and reminding their communities that racial justice affects them as well.

Reuters

Evan Traylor grew up attending Jewish summer camp in Texas and was the North American president of NFTY, a Jewish youth group, during his freshman year in college. Now a senior at the University of Kansas, he’s double majoring in political science and Jewish studies, which is apt: For him, the personal has become political.

“In the last year or so, as conversations around race and racism and privilege have come up in society, I’ve been more interested in understanding what is my role in this conversation,” he told Haaretz.

Traylor’s father is African-American and his mother is white. As a self-described Jew of color, he has always been aware of how his heritage affects his experience in the Jewish community. But the nationwide conversation in the United States sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement a year and a half ago has inspired and empowered him and many Jews of color to bring that conversation into their Jewish communities. Having long felt invisible, they are ready to be counted.

“The current conversation on social justice has raised the consciousness of Jews of color,” said Chava Shervington, a New York-based attorney and president of the Jewish Multiracial Network. “You have a generation of Jews of color who are coming into their own as adults who are engaging in advocacy and saying, ‘I’m here and my voice is different and it needs to be recognized.’”

The Jewish Multiracial Network was founded in 1997 as a support network for multiracial Jewish families, a space where, as Shervington put it, “their whole identities were recognized.” It has since grown and become a space where young Jews of color, like Traylor, can connect with one another and share their personal journeys. “It’s been nice to reflect on my experiences and know that other people are living this out right now,” Traylor said of that community.

Evan Traylor, majoring in political science and Jewish studies at the University of Kansas.
Courtesy of Evan Traylor

In the past two decades, several other organizations have also addressed these needs, such as the Jewish MultiCultural Project, which developed school curricula around diversity starting in 1995; Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), founded in 2000, which conducts research about the historical and contemporary racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish people; and Ayecha, founded that same year by Yavilah McCoy, which provided resources for, and brought awareness to, Jews of color in the U.S. until it closed in 2008. McCoy was a pioneer in putting the issue on the agenda of Jewish Federations and community centers, securing funding from foundations and identifying future leaders with the Jewish Leaders of Color Roundtable.

Despite these efforts and an increased interest in diversity over the past several years, Jews of color still find themselves on the periphery of the American Jewish community’s awareness and agenda.

“Jews of color are rarely serviced directly by the outreach and programs offered by Jewish Federations,” said McCoy. “We’re often present but invisible, or included under a broader label of ‘diversity’ without due consideration to the impact of race and racism in Jewish space.”

No longer just allies

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study found that 2 percent of American Jews identify as black, 4 percent as Latino, 2 percent as Asian-American and 2 percent “other non-Hispanic.” That is double the number those who identified as non-white in the 2007 Pew study.

Last year, the American Jewish Population Project, conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, found that 11.1% of Jews identified as something other than “white.”

When considering Jews living in multi-racial households, the number of Jews who experience Judaism in relationship to race grows, and demographic trends suggest it will continue to do so. But most mainstream Jewish institutions rarely address that reality.

Simply entering a Jewish space can remind Jews of color that, upon first glance, they are considered outsiders. “A lot of Jews of color are wary of just walking into a synagogue space that hasn’t been vetted by someone,” said Shervington. “In a lot of instances they’ve had awkward or unwelcoming experiences.” These can include security guards rushing to ask why they’re there, or being mistaken for the janitorial staff, several people told Haaretz.

The sense of isolation can also be felt in the pages of Jewish media – books, newspapers and films – that visually represent a primarily homogenous white community. Said Shervington, “People are really hungry for materials they can have in their family libraries,” that reflect Jews with a spectrum of skin tones.

Being a Jew of color in Jewish spaces can also hold far more serious risks than a mere awkward encounter. “People don’t notice that Jewish gathering spaces are in white suburban communities,” said McCoy, who lives in Boston and is the mother of two teenage sons. To engage in Jewish communal activities, she noted, young black Jewish males must enter neighborhoods where they may be seen as a threat.

Shervington elaborated. “There are Jews of color being harassed by police and being unjustly treated in their communities by law enforcement, being stopped and frisked, questioned disproportionately without cause,” she said.

The agenda of Black Lives Matter and other civil rights organizations as it relates to policing is not separate from the Jewish community because it affects Jews too, she said. “They are our issues as a Jewish community.”

During the Civil Rights era, there was a sense within the Jewish community of a moral imperative to help the African-American community in its fight for equal rights. Though noble and effective, it situated the Jewish community as separate from communities of color – as a white ally. Jews of color today say the Jewish community must begin to see itself differently.

“We’re at the point where Jewish communities are no longer just serving as allies like we did in the Civil Rights movement,” said Traylor. “But by standing up against racism, we’re taking care of people who are part of our community.”

‘Those of us who are are white have a lot to learn’

As part of the Jewish community in St. Louis, KB Frazier has been active in the protests that followed events in Ferguson last fall. As a transgender Jew of color, he hopes the Jewish community begins to see itself as part of the current racial justice movement and looks within for direction. “There are Jews of color in this fight who are able to lead, and a lot of times we get marginalized,” he said. “They need to be reached out to.”

Some progressive Jewish organizations are taking the message to heart and doing just that, realigning organizational structures, reallocating funds to prioritize the voices of Jews of color, and coming together to create space for dialogue specifically around this issue. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Bend the Arc, in partnership with the Jewish Multiracial Network, recently announced a Jews of Color National Convening, on May 1-3 in New York.

“The Black Lives Matter movement over the last two years really informed our thinking about our own internal organization,” said Dove Kent, the executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. The organization decided that over 50 percent of its leadership should be held by Jews of color or working-class Jews. To do so, they have created leadership development opportunities to prepare young Jews of color for eventual positions on the staff and board.

Since 2004, Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization focusing on domestic social justice, has led the Selah Leadership Program, targeting young Jews interested in those issues. In July, it announced that the 2016 cohort will focus on Jews of color. “Those of us who are white have a lot to learn from the members of our own community,” Stosh Cotler, Bend the Arc’s executive director, told Haaretz.

But many other Jewish institutions are still unsure how to respond to, and engage with, the modern racial justice movement embodied by the grassroots Black Lives Matter group. “I think it’s shaken the Jewish community,” said Traylor. The question, now, is “how do we expand our comfort zone to include Black Lives Matter in this conversation?”

From left to right, Bend the Arc’s executive director Stosh Cotler, Ayecha founder Yavilah McCoy and Black Lives Matter founder Opal Tometi speak at a Bend the Arc event.
Courtesy of Bend the Arc

The first step is to listen. At a recent Bend the Arc event in New York called “Why #BlackLivesMatter is a Jewish Issue,” Opal Tometi, one of the founders of the group, was asked what the Jewish community should be doing to respond to and support it. “I would follow the lead of black Jewish people who have some ideas on this,” she said, and then turned to McCoy, who was also on the panel. “I would follow my sister here. Whatever she says, let’s do that.”