Jews of Color Deserve Teshuva

By Yoshi Silverstein

Jewish tradition – upon the recognition that we have made a mistake, that we have “gone astray” – compels us to make teshuva, the process by which we rectify the harm we have caused. My teacher and mentor Yavilah McCoy likens it to an ancient form of restorative justice, and the Rambam gives us a simple three step process by which to do go about the process:

1. Confess – recognize the harm that you have caused.

2. Express regret – own the impact that your actions had, whether it was intentional or not.

3. Vow not to repeat the misdeed – make a commitment to act differently so as not to repeat the harm you have caused.

When sociologists and demographers from Stanford University and University of San Francisco took on a project in partnership with The Jews of Color Field Building Initiative to understand how many Jews of Color live in the United States, they discovered a great harm repeated consistently and systematically over the past half-century of Jewish demographic work.

“… we undertook a meta-analysis of national and community-level Jewish population studies. When we began systematically analyzing the data and the survey strategies deployed to collect it, we found grave inconsistencies that likely resulted in a systematic undercounting of Jews of Color.

“… Researchers introduced inconsistencies in four main ways:

  • Some surveys did not include questions about race and ethnicity.
  • Some study designs sampled respondents in ways that likely undercounted Jews of Color.
  • When asked, questions about race and ethnicity were not comparable across studies and often confused multiple types of identity.
  • Employing nonstandard questions also created mismatches with reference surveys used to weight Jewish population estimates.”1

Understanding how these findings might be of concern to other demographers, the authors also included a methodological appendix as well as recommendations that served as a tacit invitation for ongoing discourse and partnership:

“Based on these issues, we recommend that future Jewish population studies adopt better and more consistent practices for sampling populations, weighting responses, and formulating more comprehensive and sensitively worded questions.”

Leading up to and in the year following the report’s publication in May 2019, staff of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative took on extensive public engagements through the US – presenting the data; leading educational workshops geared towards helping (mostly white) Jewish audiences understand the nuance, implications, and next steps towards better recognizing and uplifting racial diversity in the Jewish community; and working extensively with many communities preparing for their next round of demographic studies to rectify past errors moving forward.

These communal institutions include agencies like UJA Federation of NY, serving the metropolitan area where I lived and worked for five years, and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, serving my family’s new home community – agencies who, alongside many others in this country, have not only recognized the harm caused by the gaps in their prior methodologies but have committed to working in relationship to the JOC Field Building Initiative as well as their own JOC community members to rectify these mistakes and build stronger and more accurate, accountable, and representative tools for understanding and serving their local Jewish communities in their entirety.

All this work of the Initiative is done by a tiny staff led by the phenomenal Ilana Kaufman, who at the same time are building out a young nonprofit organization and supporting Jewish leaders of color both through direct mentorship and through advocating for, vetting, and resourcing new initiatives either led by and/or created to support Jews of Color. In parallel the Initiative has also served to guide and direct funders in emergent processes, procedures, and protocols to push towards greater equity in every stage of the grant-making and organizational program delivery processes.

[full disclosure: the author is both a member of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative’s grant advisory group, and his organization, Mitsui Collective, is a recipient of grant funding from the initiative]

That’s why it was incredibly disappointing to see the “essay” written by Professors Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky and first published in eJewishPhilanthropy entitled How Many Jews of Color Are There? After a cursory referencing of recent articles utilizing the data estimates from Counting Inconsistencies suggesting a minimum JOC population in the US of 12-15% and largely dismissive acknowledgement of the notably high percentages in some major cities, Sheskin and Dashefsky go on to lay out their belief that the number is in fact closer to 6% of American Jewry that are people of color.

I say belief because this essay reads far more like an opinion piece than a scholarly article. No direct sources are cited in their essay, nor do they attempt to directly engage in any way with the methodological critiques raised by Counting Inconsistencies. Presumably they have seen the new data presented in Counting Inconsistencies … they just don’t seem to believe it, despite the highly bonafide credentials of its authors and supporting institutions.

There are numerous ways in which the authors show their lack of empathy and understanding around the nuances of this conversation, awkwardly referencing intermarriage and “non-Jewish persons of color [who] decide to identify as Jewish” (you mean, who go through the rigorous and intensive process of conversion by which someone becomes a full member of the Jewish people?); getting into bizarre, scattered, and tangential threads on the divergent nature of Hispanic racial and ethnic identity vis a vis Jewish community; and positing highly presumptive guesses about why Jews of Color are either more likely than other groups to participate in formal surveys or are less likely to participate (which is it?) without any evidence or data to back these suppositions.

Sheskin and Dashefsky claim to have the best interests of JOC at heart, stating in the comments “We are both strong advocates for this group.” Yet they seem not to have any interest in building authentic professional relationships with JOC leaders or JOC-led organizations and initiatives. They write “it is more than unfortunate if even just one person is made to feel uncomfortable in a Jewish setting” and claim in follow-up comments to have had their article “reviewed by several experts to make certain that our facts are correct and that the tone was correct.” And yet the entire essay is dismissive, patronizing, lacking in the basic respect and acknowledgement owed from one professional to another, and rife with microaggressions towards the Jews of Color community.

Instead, they make incredulous claims and seem instead more interested in relying on Google (I presume) to look up “national Jewish organizations devoted to advancing Jewish diversity,” bumbling around (highly active and ongoing) discourse relating to whether Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are blanketly assumed to be JOC (spoiler alert: they are not, and of course it’s complicated), stepping way outside their lane trying to parse suggestions around what the right terminology should be for Jews of Color (we’ll suss that out on our own, thank you very much), and defending any and all would-be critiques in the comments section of eJewishPhilanthropy.

Sheskin and Dashefsky are not even consistent with their own data or arguments, stating for example that while “we agree that a significant number of American Jews are, indeed, Jews of Color, [and] that this number is likely to increase in the future” … this number has not risen in any significant way since 1990 – even though anyone paying attention to “troubling issues” in the Jewish community knows that intermarriage, which the authors insensitively associate without context to increasing JOC populations, has been a “problem” for at least the same amount of time. One would wonder whether these intermarried (and therefore multiracial, we are seemingly to understand) couples have been having any children at all in the last thirty years.

Or, in another confusing series of exchanges, in one comment Sheskin states that “A generally good rule in survey research is that one asks questions because we do not know whether something is 1% of the population, 10%, or 20%. Not to find out whether it is 1% or 2%.” And yet in another comment, he writes “a survey question in a place where Jews of Color are almost certain to be a REALLY small percentage of the population is not going to yield useful information.”

So which is it? Do we ask the questions because we do not yet have the answers? Or do we ask only the questions that yield the data for the answers we presume to already know?

Sheskin then describes the case of Indianapolis where “we decided not to ask because it was the feeling of everyone that the percentage of either group (race, Hispanic) was almost certainly less than 2% and probably close to 0%. Asking a question of 800 people to find out that 3 are Jews of Color does not make sense … even if we got REALLY surprised and we got 15 JOC, 15, as you know is not enough responses to analyze for just about any reason.”

And he goes on in the same comment to note that “Accuracy is important. It does make a difference if there are 420,000 or over 1 million … We also need some idea of the geography of this population so programs can be run and efforts concentrated. The numbers are what the numbers are. To address the needs, we need the facts.”

So again, I am compelled to ask Prof. Sheskin: Which is it? Do we base our research on facts and data? Or do we base it on feelings and base assumptions about what we think the community looks like? Does the discomfort of just a single person matter? Or does that only matter if they make up a statistically significant percentage of the population? And how would one even know if they did not include the question in the survey?

I am a Chinese and Ashkenazi American Jew who grew up in Spokane, WA, a small to midsize overwhelmingly white city twenty minutes from the Idaho border with one synagogue at the time (now there are two congregations who share space, and a Chabad house). It is not a place where you would expect many Jews of Color to be living. So by Prof. Sheskin’s logic, why bother to take up the extra space on the survey form to ask?

My full legal name is Joshua David Silverstein (Yoshi comes from my Hebrew name Yoshua). If you were to look only at my name on a survey, there would be no indication of my Chinese heritage. Nor likely my sisters or my mothers unless you really knew what you were looking for (their middle names are Chinese). My mom tells me there are roughly 500 Jews in Spokane these days who are more or less an active part of the Jewish community, and something like twenty Jews of Color that she knows of. Statistically speaking, they would make up around 4% of the Jewish population … even in super white, not very diverse, tiny Jewish population Spokane, WA.

Of course, numbers can be cut and analyzed in lots of ways. So if we were to consider not just the overall Jewish population but the sub-percentage who are moderately to highly engaged Jews, which is closer to around 200, then does the JOC percentage also decline at the same rate and remain around that rough 4% mark? Or are 15 of 20 JOC highly engaged and therefore make up 7.5% of the actively engaged Jewish population? Or perhaps it’s the opposite and only 5 JOC are actively engaged. And of course perhaps it turns out that there are another 20 JOC living in the north part of town, completely removed from any formal Jewish institutional resources and off the communal radar. How might we reasonably go about identifying such members of our community?

In all cases, important questions, opportunities, and gaps arise from this data. But one would only know any of this if they asked the right questions.

[My mom, by the way, is a Chinese-American Jew by Choice who has been President of the synagogue not just once but twice. Where does that fit into numbers significant enough to include in the data? Or is that simply an outlier that should be tossed in the scrap of insignificant data?]

Another comment from Sheskin:

“We, as social scientists, have a professional obligation when we see data that we believe are wrong to correct. All we did was follow that obligation.”

I am a Jewish professional running a new nonprofit start-up organization focused on building resilient community through embodied Jewish practice and multiracial justice. Most of my career to date has been in the field of JOFEE – Jewish Outdoor, Food / Farming & Environmental Education. I am not a demographer, or sociologist, or professional researcher of any kind. And yet I am quite certain that for almost any survey one might take, whether for demographic studies, or for program evaluation, and even for many program registration forms, basic demographic questions are automatically included. Questions like age, gender, Jewish affiliation … and race.

Professors Sheskin and Dashefsky: race is not a question to be included or excluded based on presumptive suppositions about whether it will be of significance in the data. It is a baseline that should automatically be included in any research attempting to better understand the Jewish population, in this country and around the world. Race may be a social construct, but it’s also one of the primary determining factors that shape a person’s lived experience, the way they are viewed by others and themselves, and their access to resources ranging from economic to medical care to a spot at the table in Jewish communal and institutional life.

Perhaps there are in fact important methodological differences and approaches to be debated and discussed when it comes to fully and accurately understanding who is Jewish in America. But that discussion can only happen in relationship to other practitioners. It can only happen when professional respect and courtesy are given, methodological critiques are fully addressed – not in one-off dismissive comments written only after scores of criticism but in an authentic working dialogue – and action is taken to rectify past mistakes and avoid future ones.

Professors Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefky may not have intended to cause harm to the JOC population, either in the decades of past demographic work or in their publishing of this piece. Impact, however, matters as much or more so than intent.

I would hope that in the spirit of teshuva, Sheskin and Dashefsky would recognize the harm their work has caused, particularly during a time in which Jews of Color and people of color in general are being disproportionately affected by the impacts of covid-19 and Jews of Color are fighting to remind Jewish communal institutions not to forget about them or pull away much needed resources.

I would hope that Prof. Sheskin and Dashefsky would own the impact of their actions and commit to approaching their future work with renewed academic rigor born from learning and sharing best practices with others in the field; that they would model their response after the teshuva so thoughtfully articulated by Professor Marc Dollinger in his recent response piece published here in Jewish Telegraphic Agency and put into action through his work alongside Ilana Kaufman and Professor Ari Kelman.

Teshuva translates literally to “return.” At its essence is the idea of returning to our best selves, pulling ourselves back from the ways in which we veered of course, back onto a righteous path. The final stage of teshuva is to find oneself in a similar situation to the one in which prior harm was caused, and to then choose a different path.

Now is that time. I sincerely hope that Professors Sheskin and Dashefky will step off the path of defensive, reactionary, and combative bluster and onto the path of relationship, courtesy, and respect.

Yoshi Silverstein is Founder & Executive Director of Mitsui Collective, a new nonprofit startup building resilient community through embodied Jewish practice and multiracial justice; and is the Cleveland Community Organizer for Edot HaMidwest: The Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative, a member of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative’s Grant Advisory Group, an alumnus of and current Advisory Council member for the Selah Leadership Program, was a founding member of Repair the World NYC’s first advisory board, and is Director Emeritus of the JOFEE Fellowship at Hazon. He lives in the Cleveland, OH area.

[1] Kelman et al 2019. Counting Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies, with a Focus on Jews of Color.