By Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Chris Harrison
On May 6, ReformJudaism.org published an article called “How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Impacting Jews of Color,” which was written to highlight the experiences and amplify the voices of Jews of Color who have been disproportionately affected by this global crisis.
The piece includes the voices and experiences of Reform Jews of Color and quotes statistics from “Counting Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies, with a Focus on Jews of Color (2019),” a demographic study by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, led by Executive Director Ilana Kaufman. Analyzing data from 25 different population studies, “Counting Inconsistencies” determined that an estimated 12-15 percent of American Jews are Jews of Color.
On May 17, eJewish Philanthropy published an article by Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky called “How Many Jews of Color Are There?” In quoting the Initiative’s findings, the authors assert that their data is false and that the actual percentage of Jews of Color is closer to 6 percent.
It is appalling that the authors chose to publish their article at all, but especially during such an uncertain, devastating period such as the one we’re enduring now. Sadly, their words reflect the stark reality that racism does indeed exist here, in our Jewish community.
At the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2019 Biennial gathering (which itself, sadly, was not free of racist behavior), held in December, attendees and presenters alike discussed at length this reality: Racism isn’t only “out there somewhere;” it also lives within our own Jewish communities – and inside us individually. Our commitment to embracing our Jewish diversity and combatting hate is one of the most urgent moral imperatives of our time, and we can’t dismantle racism if we haven’t done the work of checking our own.
In a time when our only certainty is uncertainty, when death and loss surround us, and when our spiritual leaders are calling for unity, we have the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the most vulnerable among us. And yet, during this time when unity is more important than ever, the authors instead used their voices to further alienate Jews of Color and undo the work that has, frankly, only just begun to better support this underrepresented segment of our community.
So many times, Jews of Color have chosen to speak about times when they were met with aggression, asked to prove their authenticity as Jews, or made invisible in majority-white Jewish spaces, only to then be ignored or met with skepticism, defensiveness, and/or denial. Articles like this, fueled by a similar lack of empathy, neither alleviate the hurt that Jews of Color have endured nor suggest ways to make our spaces environments where Jews of Color would want to be. Instead, such reactions purport that they barely exist at all – sentiments that inevitably leave many Jews of Color feeling less welcome in Jewish spaces on the whole.
Further, such arguments seek to separate scholarship from the lived experiences and accompanying emotions of Jews of Color. By focusing solely on statistics, detractors neither examine nor even consider why, exactly, Jews of Color are not visible in our communities in a way that reflects Kaufman’s data. As writer and speaker Ally Henny explains:
“Intellectualizing about racially oppressed folks without incorporating their feelings and experiences into the intellectual process is an act of white supremacist violence. Whiteness has a lot of people convinced that black, brown, and indigenous folks are incapable of being reliable narrators of our own stories … and places our stories … into the hands of people who stand to benefit from our marginalization.”
Further, we ask: Even without the numbers, even without the studies, are the voices and shared experiences of Jews of Color not enough? Is our anti-oppression work only “worth it” if the number of Jews of Color in our ranks reaches a certain percentage? The answer, we hope, is a resounding “of course not.” As Jews, we are driven by our pursuit of justice and of treating equitably all who are marginalized, for we know that our liberation is interdependent upon one another.
Articles like Sheskin and Dashefsky’s are indicative of the fear that resides in many white-dominated spaces and are reactionary to the work that organizations like ours seek to do: the work of disrupting oppression within our communities, addressing unearned power and privilege, and acknowledging our actual Jewish diversity.
We want to make a few things absolutely clear.
The Jews of Color Field Building Initiative is led by incredible researchers who have done tremendous, valuable work to determine their statistics – despite faulty Jewish demographic studies of the past, which led to the need for “Counting Inconsistencies” in the first place. The Initiative is made up of consummate professionals who have gone above and beyond to right the wrongs of the past and to bring all Jews together, and we commend them for it.
Just as the Reform Jewish Movement stands with the Initiative’s statistical findings, so too do we stand with Jews of Color.
In a time when resources are shrinking, when the economy is suffering, and when companies and organizations must reduce workforces in order to survive, it is often the most vulnerable who become even more vulnerable. The URJ will continue to shine light on the voices of the most marginalized among us, including Jews of Color, and to reiterate both their existence and their essential value in our sacred communities. We will not forget the needs nor will we ignore the voices of Jews of Color during this pandemic, chaotic as it is, and we will guarantee their necessary role in our future Jewish communities.
It is clear that considerable work still remains to be done. To make up for faulty research of the past, new studies, like ”Counting Inconsistencies,” must be conducted in order to more fully understand how many Jews of Color exist in America, where they live, how they engage Jewishly, and other important questions. But we will not tolerate white intellectualism intended to diminish research conducted by and about Jews of Color.
The times in which we live are far from certain – which is why we pledge our continued commitment to honoring, valuing, and recognizing the essential value of Jews of Color in all areas of Jewish life.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest movement in North American Jewish life. Chris Harrison is a writer and editor for the URJ, focusing on the work of Audacious Hospitality.