A conversion candidate asked me recently what to expect as a Black Jew in New York City. What, he implied, is the current state of the racism and exoticizing of African American Jews in Jewish America?
The first story that came to mind is a hard one. Yehudah Webster, an African American Jewish activist and leader, was returning a Torah scroll he had rented for a Bar Mitzvah that he led. He was attacked in Crown Heights by a group of Chassidic Jews who assumed he was stealing it. They surrounded his car and was saved when the police protected him and enabled him to escape.
The second story was less toxic, but still disturbing. It involved a Black woman who came for several months to an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn. Each time she’d come she’d receive smiles and questions. People were curious how she learned about the synagogue, where she learned Hebrew. Some would comment that they were impressed with her proficiency in prayer. No one ever did anything especially offensive, but the line between curiosity and suspicion was always present. The questions never stopped, so she moved on to another community.
“I can’t think of one Jew of color I know who has not had a racist experience in the Jewish community.” Rabbi Sandra Lawson, a Jew of Color, was quoted in Haaretz saying. “Some are horrible, like being denied entry or being kicked out by law enforcement officers or security that act as gatekeepers. Or some are questioning why you’re here: ‘How come you’re Jewish?’”
The percentage of Jews of color in the overall Jewish American community is growing. Researchers have estimated that close to 1 in 7 American Jews are Jews of Color. That’s double what the estimates were ten years ago. If we’re going to provide a warm, loving spiritual home to Black Jews, we need to work quickly for change within the Jewish community.
As we come upon Juneteenth, we would do well to turn our attention to the challenges that American Jews of Color face even in progressive Jewish spaces, and what we can do to ease those challenges.
We should remember that there are around one million Jews of Color in this country, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone when one shows up at a synagogue, when he speaks Hebrew, when she knows the prayers, when they know more bible than many of us. We should remember…