Understanding Racism as a Jewish Engagement Issue

By Ilana Kaufman

It was early fall and my friend’s daughter Gabi had just started a new religious school program. Gabi was excited; bunches of friends from her public school, and piles of pals from Jewish summer camp were also in her religious school classes. Gabi’s mom, a member of the religious school’s Shul arrived a few minutes before 6:00 pm to pick up her daughter. Swarms of kids and parents milled about looking for one another. Some of the teachers were also out and strolling, trying to meet parents for the first time.

“Are you Gabi’s Mom?” sailed a voice from across the courtyard and over the heads of dozens and dozens of other parents in between the teacher and the destination of the teacher’s question. My friend looked around. “Who is this lady yelling at?” she wondered. Again, from across the expanse came the question, “Excuse me. Are you Gabi’s Mom?” My friend ignored the teacher. Sure, she was Gabi’s mom, but she didn’t know this woman, and was perplexed by the teacher’s approach to meeting her for the first time. Yelling across a courtyard seemed a bit rude to Gabi’s mom, and didn’t exactly make her want to respond to the teacher. There was Gabi’s mom – the only African American adult in the courtyard, looking for her daughter who also happened to be Black. And the teacher, using visual cues made an assumption about who belonged to whom. In this case, the teacher happened to be right. But what if the teacher’s race-based assumption had been wrong? What if my friend had been someone else’s mom?

From the moment Gabi’s mom heard the teacher’s question she knew she was experiencing an unintentional expression of racial profiling right there in her Shul’s courtyard. When Gabi’s mom shared the incident with a Kippah-rocking Jewish Brother friend, he seemed unimpressed almost bored by the story. “You know how racist they can be,” he said, in a voice that suggested resignation rather than boredom. “The last time I walked into a Shul I got stopped by security. Dude asked me if I knew where I was going. I guess the Kippah, stack of books, and Torah study friends I was walking with weren’t enough to make me legit? I’m just not interested in dealing with that crap when I’m trying to connect with Hashem, so I avoid Shul. It gets in the way of my Judaism.”

As the United States grapples with the fact that young black males are at 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts, not everyone agrees that those lives lost were victims of racist law enforcement systems. And while demonstrations like the first night of Chanukah’s #ChanukahAction suggest some level of organized Jewish community response to the seemingly pervasive racial injustice across our Nation, as discussed in Jewish media editorials and letters to the editor, mainstream Jewish organizations are perplexed, challenged, even deeply conflicted about what an appropriate response might be to the very real issue of people of color being disproportionately and systematically mistreated because of their race. Jews were an “inferior race” in the United States between 1880-1940[3], and Civil Rights activists in the 1960’s[4]. Jews rigorously considering how contemporary expressions of racism are manifest in the United States and in mainstream Jewish institutions is something we should not only be insatiably curious about, but also meaningfully involved in as it is authentic to our history and who we are as people of difference, scholars, citizens and agents of social justice.

With the United States becoming a majority people of color in 2042[2], and many Jews partnering with and marrying non-Jews who may or may not be people of color[5], we can imagine that more and more members of the Jewish community will become hued over time. And with so many of our mainstream Jewish organizations founded and funded by the first waves of European Jewish immigrants to the United States, it makes sense that there is a demographic gap between who is currently in our mainstream organizations, and who is likely coming in the next 30 years. And as understanding about Jews of Color and by extension internal Jewish community relations are strengthened, we increase the opportunities to bring more Jews into deeper relationship with their community, and expand the tent of engagement for Jews of Color thereby fortifying, enhancing and maybe even growing the Jewish community in the United States.

For many Jews of Color, experiences of racism are not exclusive to the secular world, and do not stop happening when one walks through Jewish community doors. Institutional policies and practices are often reflections of more monocular perspectives on Jewish identity, sometimes resulting in the accidental omission of diverse voices, or perpetuating a belief or behavior rooted in assumptions based on racial stereotypes. While these subtle expressions of racism in the Jewish community do not automatically make leaders nor their organizations racist, they should propel us to wonder in what ways Jewish organizations reflect the racism found outside Jewish community doors. Because being on the receiving end of those expressions of racism, even if subtle and unintentional, is painful – especially when you’re excited to hear about your child’s afternoon at religious school or just trying to study Torah with your Chavurah.

I have yet to meet a Jew who wants to intentionally push away Jews from Judaism. In fact, Jewish federations and foundations across the United States are pouring millions of dollars into research and programs focused specifically on how to engage more Jews in Jewish life. And as the United States and American Jewry become less and less white, hopefully more and more Jews of Color will become part of mainstream Jewish organizations. And before they come, let’s make sure we have done all we can to understand not only the experiences of people of color in the United States, but of Jews of Color in specific. Let’s assume good will of all, and set a goal of increasing opportunities for diverse Jews to be meaningfully engaged in mainstream Jewish settings. Let’s use our long history of inquiry to understand the demographics and experiences of Jews of Color in the United States so we can plan strategically to be more inclusive. And when we are engaging or working in studying Torah in or leading our mainstream Jewish organizations, let’s look up – and out – and wonder who’s missing, and then do something about it.

[1] http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/washington/14census.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0


[3] https://www.brandeis.edu/now/2012/august/jewsrace.pdf

[4] http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fromswastikatojimcrow/relations.html

[5] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-2-intermarriage-and-other-demographics/

Ilana Kaufman, a San Francisco native, lives in Berkeley.