Addressing Racial Bias is a Form of Jewish Engagement

General engagement efforts do nothing to address the explicit and implicit racial bias in our institutions.

Star 3[As part of an ongoing series, eJewish Philanthropy will be sharing thought-provoking articles written by Schusterman Fellows in an effort to offer a glimpse of leaders in our midst who are approaching work in the Jewish sector with inspiring levels of care, strategy and heart. You can read the framing piece here.]

By Suzanne Feinspan

The American Jewish community invests millions of dollars annually in Jewish engagement activities. From networking events to trips to Israel, these efforts are specifically designed to ensure Jewish continuity by engaging the unaffiliated and sustaining the engagement of those seen to be at risk of disconnecting from Jewish life.

Yet, one of the groups most in need of engagement is not being reached. Research shows that approximately 20% of American Jews are people of color. Jews of color identify in many ways: as African-American, Asian-American, Latino/a, Indian-American, Ethiopian, Sephardi, Mizrachi and more. And yet, looking at the demographics of mainstream Jewish institutions, you would hardly guess that over a million Jews of color are part of our community.

As Ilana Kaufman asks in her ELI Talk, “How is it that we have come to accept as standard the absence of 20% of our community?”

What’s worse is that the lack of outreach only confounds the problem. The less time, attention and money we spend on engaging Jews of color, the farther away they slip and the more convinced they become that there is no spot for them among the global Jewish people. Indeed, the longer we ignore this problem, the more entrenched it becomes.

The question remains, don’t our general engagement efforts also serve Jews of color? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

In order to draw in a group that has historically been excluded from Jewish life – be it women, LGBTQ individuals or Jews of color – we must design outreach that speaks to their particular needs and experiences. For example, consider our work to engage interfaith families. After investing in dedicated programs and events over the last decade, we have seen significantly more interfaith families become active members in the Jewish community.

Moreover, general engagement efforts do nothing to address the explicit and implicit racial bias in our institutions. For Jews of color this bias is obvious, ever-present and a hindrance to their involvement. For instance, it is all too common for them to be asked, “how are you Jewish?” or to be singled out and followed by security as they enter a synagogue for services, even when wearing a kippah. White Jews will often mistake Jews of color for “the help” or assume that they’re lost when looking for their seat in shul. From what I’ve seen, Hebrew school curricula often make no mention of the existence of the diversity of Jews in the United States or Jews who have lived for generations in countries like India, Uganda or China. And, frequently, I hear Jewish leaders speaking about issues related to race with an implicit assumption that these are important issues but not ones that directly affect “us.”

Until those of us who identify as white Jews proactively and explicitly work to address our community’s racial bias, any other efforts to engage Jews of color, however well-designed and well-intentioned, will not be able to fully succeed.

So, what would it take to fully engage Jews of color?

First, we need to do the hard work of addressing racial bias in our institutions. This starts with education. We need to provide clergy, Jewish professionals and all members of our communities with opportunities to learn about implicit and explicit bias and the concrete steps we can take to change the status quo on this issue.

Once we have a higher level of awareness, we can then take stock of the ways in which our institutions welcome Jews of color (or don’t): Do our curricula represent their existence, history and experience? Do our recruitment and outreach efforts explicitly seek out Jews of color? If we find ourselves lacking – which many of our institutions likely will – then we must map out steps towards change.

Third, we must invest in explicit outreach to Jews of color. One institution that is leading the way is the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). In 2014, the URJ announced a new “Audacious Hospitality” initiative that aims to not just extend a “temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded” but “an ongoing invitation to be part of community” in a way that “spiritually transforms” that community.

Finally, we must invest in individual Jews of color. Within the American Jewish community, we have many opportunities for individuals to take on leadership roles or participate in leadership development programs. Yet when you look at who is invited to step into these roles and which Jews are cultivated as leaders, very few Jews of color are among them. We should take note of the example set by Bend the Arc, an organization going out of its way to seek out high-potential leaders. Bend the Arc recently devoted all of the spots in its fourteenth Selah Leadership cohort to Jews of color as a step in addressing this challenge.

Each member of the Jewish community has the potential to contribute so much to the richness and vitality of our community. Why wouldn’t we invest in making sure that all Jews, not regardless of but because of their racial identity, feel like they are truly valued and welcomed? We have to ask ourselves, who are we missing out on today? Imagine what our community would be without the amazing women and LGBTQ individuals (both groups we must continue to engage) who have led, inspired and challenged our community to grow and transform.

Building authentic relationships with Jews of color, learning about their history and experiences, and receiving the benefits of the wisdom and skills they have to contribute would strengthen our community immensely. It is time to match our resources to our values. This work must be done on a scale that will actually change our communal culture. We need funders, community leaders, volunteers and clergy to take concrete steps to support that change.

Based on the current estimated number of Jews of color, the high rates of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews and the reality that the United States will in the next few decades become majority people of color, the future of the American Jewish community is a multiracial one. Let’s embrace this future, let’s reach out to 100% of our community.

Suzanne Feinspan is a Schusterman Fellow and an independent consultant specializing in facilitation, organizational development, program design and trainings on race, gender and sexual identity, especially within the Jewish community.