Black and Jewish: New Reform Leader Works to Bring Marginalized Groups Into the Tribe

Once shunned by fellow Jews, daughter of Jewish mother and African-American father rises to leadership of Reform movement, charged with bringing in the marginalized and unaffiliated.

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April Baskin speaks at the Boston Black Lives Matter Hanukkah Action in 2014.
April Baskin speaks at the Boston Black Lives Matter Hanukkah Action in 2014.Credit: Jordyn Rozensky

To meet April Baskin is to see the change in American Jewry personified. A tall, confident, 32-year-old with an impressive mane of curly hair and a wide smile, the self-described “multiracial Jewish woman of color” is the newest executive in the Reform Jewry movement.

Her offbeat job title - vice president for audacious hospitality - incorporates the catchphrase that the Union for Reform Judaism has embraced as its central mission. It is meant both to include aggressively welcoming newcomers into its institutions, along with widening its tent by inviting groups that have traditionally felt marginalized from mainstream Jewish institutional life - this includes interfaith couples and families, as well as adults who grew up in interfaith homes, LGBT Jews, Jews with disabilities, unaffiliated Jews and multiracial Jews like herself. “The Jewish community has been by and large marginalizing these groups and put them on the back burner if they have even been on the stove at all,” she says.

Her job is to put these groups front and center. Baskin sums up the philosophy with which she is approaching her admittedly “enormous portfolio”: “It is the belief that we will be a stronger Jewish community when we welcome and incorporate the diversity that is the reality and future of Jewish life.” Since unaffiliated Generation X and millennials are another important target for her outreach work, her young age is an advantage, rather than an obstacle.

“Many people do this work because they are worried about Jews dying off. That’s not where my attention is,” Baskin stresses. Instead, she says, she is “inspired and energized by my Jewish identity, which brought me to this point. Jews have so much to bring to this world and it is a tradition that people can engage in - in ways that are relevant to them. That is what I want to communicate.”

On the job for four months, Baskin has already made peace with the eyerolls or confused looks that come with the name of her position. She has decided to look on the bright side. “It’s an icebreaker and a conversation starter. Everyone asks about what it is, and I really like that. I also like that about the title because it works around language that people have gotten tired of and been turned off to like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity.’ “

April Baskin's bat-mitzvah at Temple Or Rishon, Orangevale, CA. From left to right: Rabbi Marvin Schwab, Ken Baskin, April's father, and her mother Lynn Berkley-BaskinCredit: Courtesy April Baskin

It is language, however, that Baskin’s family hasn’t really been able to avoid. She was raised in a Jewish home by her Ashkenazi mother and African-American father. Early on, they regularly received questions about “what” she was, and thus sought out the expertise of a psychology professor, who recommended they tell Baskin she was “multiracial and Jewish.” The couple raised April and her brother in Sacramento, California “enmeshed in Jewish life” complete with a close-knit Reform congregation and Reform Jewish summer camp. Indeed, she seemed fully at home as she moved confidently through the shmooze fest and sang and danced through the guitar-led prayer sessions that characterized the Reform movement’s big Biennial event earlier this month, rubbing shoulders at the opening plenary session with Hollywood actor Michael Douglas and restaurateur Danny Meyer on a panel in front of 5,000 Reform leaders, clergy and congregants.

But Baskin is an insider who also knows well what it feels like to be unwelcome. The synagogue in which she grew up was, in fact, the third synagogue her parents tried to join - they were turned away by the first two, who were uninterested in welcoming a multiracial interfaith family.

At a session called, “I’m Not a Custodian, I’m a Congregant: Embracing Racial Diversity in Our Synagogues,” she told how she felt “deeply hurt” once when her six-foot three father was asked to move flowers from one room to another in a synagogue and was then accused of stealing them. She notes that, while 11 percent of Jews now identify as “non-white” - a result of interfaith marriage, adoption and conversion - institutional Jewish life has often been slow to catch up.

When Baskin went through a period of exploring more observant Judaism, she recalls icy stares and silence when attending a Chabad dinner. She had just moved to the East Coast, was lonely and seeking Jewish community, and had heard about Chabad’s friendly legendary open-door policy. “I walked in, and it was just bizarre. People looked at me and it was like I wasn’t there, like I was a ghost or a homeless person,” she says.

She couldn’t have predicted that these experiences would set her on the road to a career. But the interplay between her multiple identities interested her enough for her to write her thesis on Jews of color at Tufts University, serve as the president of the Jewish Multiracial Network and as national director of resources and training at InterfaithFamily.

April Baskin (center), Vice President for Audacious Hospitality of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks with actor Michael Douglas, URJ President Rick Jacobs, and restaurateur Danny Meyer.Credit: Courtesy URJ

Baskin’s appointment puts a different and sharper lens on the “Audacious Hospitality” crusade in the Reform Movement introduced by URJ President Rick Jacobs shortly after he took the helm of the movement in 2011 and which he has been pushing hard since. The buzzword dominated the five-day Biennial event so much that some participants jokingly proposed a drinking game in which they would down a shot every time “audacious hospitality” was uttered.

On the Biennial dais next to Baskin, restaurateur Danny Meyer, founder of the exceedingly successful fast food chain “Shake Shack,” said that religious establishments often behave as if they take their congregants for granted. Talking about how baseball hotdogs or food in museum cafes is rarely delicious, he said “religion has taken that captive audience approach. We got you and it doesn't really matter how it makes you feel.”

Bringing in Baskin represents a recognition that it will take more than warm and friendly greetings to engage the huge percentage of American Jews who never join a synagogue in their lives or those who grew up in Reform or Conservative congregational life and were turned off by their experiences.

In addition to specific minorities, Baskin says, she wants to zero in on categories of unaffiliated Jews whom she calls “seekers” and “roamers.” The former, she says, are Jews who are not currently engaged in Jewish life, are at a point where they are seeking one, but haven't found an entry point.” The latter may not be looking for anything Jewish “but if they were to be approached with something meaningful and relevant in their lives” they might join the community.

Once upon a time, Israel was a path to appeal to less religious, less affiliated Jews. But today, isn’t Israel, whose racial problems and religious establishment are so antithetical to the work she does, hard to integrate into the identity of a “social justice-oriented” American Jewish identity?

“I was raised a Zionist, my summer camp had a kibbutz theme, we woke up every morning and sang Hatikvah” she responds. “I’ve been to Israel twice and I loved it. And I’m also a person of a color in America and I’m aware there is a story a nation tells and there is an underbelly of what happens to people of color and other marginalized groups and yes, Israel is not immune to that and needs to be accountable ... I am aware of these realities and I am glad the country exists and I do have a love of the country and I know it is tenuous. But for me in some ways, it is no different than, or maybe better than - America. I mean, Israel didn’t enslave people for 400 years, tear their families apart and rape them and then segregate them and imprison them, right?”

Her personal encounters in Israel during her visits, she notes, were all positive: “everyone thought I was like them. Ethiopian Jews would start talking to me in Amharic. Palestinians thought I was one of them, Jews thought I was one of them. It was great.”



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