‘There’s no race in Judaism’: Jews Reflect on Diversity within Community Jewish Community Relations Committee hosts annual Passover seder March 30 with theme of social justice
Social justice may be the theme for the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville’s annual Passover Seder on March 30, but it permeates everyday life for these members of the United States’ Jewish community who are of color.
Nate Looney, a Black Jew living in Los Angeles, said he does not feel a strong sense of belonging in Jewish spaces due to the color of his skin.
“When I walk into mainstream Jewish spaces, it’s not uncommon to be othered,” Looney said in a Zoom interview. “It happens less to me now, …but if I were to walk into a random synagogue where people don’t know me, there’s often that sort of, ‘Oh, so how are you Jewish? What are you doing here?’ Or I just get ignored altogether.”
He said these experiences of feeling like an outsider in his own community were hurtful.
“There were a few times when I left [a] Jewish communal environment and went home and cried,” Looney said.
Looney is the director of community safety and belonging at the Jewish Federation of North America, where he works to create inclusive spaces within Jewish communities. A demographic study by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that the LA Jewish community has risen by 25 percent over the past 25 years, now the second largest Jewish community in the United States.
“I think from there, there’s a lot of intentional work that’s being done to create more communities of belonging,” Looney said. “There’s an initiative out of the LA Federation called NuRoots, and NuRoots is intended to attract Jews that aren’t necessarily engaged in Jewish community. One of the things they’re doing is putting a special emphasis on Jews of color.”
While the majority of Jews identify as white, 17 percent of U.S. Jewish adults live with at least one person who is non-white. Data show that the U.S. Jewish population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, according to studies by the Pew Research Center.
There are reportedly about 50 Jewish people of color living in Nashville today, but this data is purely anecdotal and based on self-identification, according to Deborah Oleshansky, director of the Jewish community relations committee for the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville.
Michael Twitty, an African American Jewish chef, and author scheduled to speak at the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville’s Passover event, told The Jewish Observer that there are likely around 100,000 Jews of African descent in North America.
“This number probably represents one of the largest components of so-called interracial marriage, … and we’ve conveniently forgotten that this is a phenomenon that’s gone on since the 1960s,” Twitty said. “People might be surprised to learn that there are Black Jews who have been Black Jews for centuries.”
Rabbi Isaiah Joseph Rothstein, a multiracial Orthodox Jew, said his childhood in Monsey, New York was the “classic suburban experience” except for the fact that his maternal side of the family is African American or of other faith backgrounds.
“I sort of grew up holding multiple worlds, cultures, and there are multiple worlds — there are so many worlds around us, within us,” Rothstein said in a Zoom interview. “From a young age, I was already considering what identity meant.”
Like Looney, he said his biggest challenge is dealing with the insider/outsider phenomenon, in which one is a member of a group but may experience some social distance from other members of that group.
“There’s this teaching from the Torah about Moshe where Moshe — Moses — says … ‘because I was a stranger in a strange land’ [in Egypt],” Rothstein said. “So I think it’s wild being marginalized by a marginalized community or feeling like an outsider within a community of outsiders like that.”
He added that both the Jewish and African populations have faced persecution and oppression throughout the centuries.
“Holding both of those histories in my DNA and in my blood is somewhat complex, but then when those two communities aren’t seeing eye to eye with one another or where there could sometimes be racism in the Jewish community or antisemitism in the Black and African American communities, that really hurts,” Rothstein said.
He said Jewish texts teach that humans should embrace unity based on the story of creation.
“There’s no race in Judaism, so we’re using our modern sensibilities to read into race,” Rothstein said. “What it’s trying to say is that we’re everything; there isn’t a race. We’re created in an image of God and we’re created of everything. We’re created from all soil from all places; we’re not sliced into categories of melanin, skin tone.”
Rothstein, rabbinic scholar and the public affairs advisor at the JFNA, said he works to promote an inclusive community for all Jews and loved ones through the Jewish equity, diversity & inclusion (JEDI) initiative.
“When we say all Jews and our loved ones, we have 10 different identity groups that we’re advancing justice and equity for,” Rothstein said. “One identity group is race and ethnicity, another is LGBTQ+, another is around gender, another religious affiliation, disabilities, non-native English-speaking, economic precarity, mental and physical health.”
The JEDI initiative consists of three areas of work, which include education, engagement and empowerment. The engagement area focuses on who has a seat at the proverbial table and who built the table, as well as increasing representation of underserved groups in leadership positions.
Empowerment, which Rothstein said contains public policy and federal civic engagement, centers the four Rs: recruitment, relevance, relationships and retainment.
“Recruiting people is great, but that’s not going to actually create inclusive spaces or welcome experiences,” Rothstein said. “So the second part that we measure is around relevance; when the person is in the room, do they feel like what’s being provided is relevant to them? Again, we do this by each identity.”
Rothstein said relationships should be genuine connections. PJ Pettis, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, said that leadership in Jewish spaces may begin to reflect the changing demographics within the Jewish community.
“Diverse doesn’t mean equality, right?” Pettis said in a Zoom interview. “I don’t know that leadership can necessarily change, but I think it’s going to become more diverse, just because the population is changing. I think you’re going to see more visibility because people are not going to sit at the back of the table anymore.”