This the first of a two part feature on the changing face of the Jewish Community. Read part two here.
Hair has a lot to do with it, according to Sophia Weinstock.
Weinstock, 21, the daughter of an Ashkenazi father and African-American and Puerto Rican mother, first noticed her hair was different as a young girl growing up in the Orthodox community of Staten Island. Her dark, tightly bound curls, tinged with blond at the ends, resisted all efforts to be tamed, though she tried desperately to pull them back.
“People have always looked at my hair, even touched my hair, and said, ‘Wow, you look so ethnic!’” said the law school-bound Columbia University senior. “I hate that word. It’s like this encapsulating term for everything that is ‘other.’”
Weinstock, who describes herself as “one-fourth Puerto Rican, one-fourth black, half white, and 100 percent Jewish,” has grown accustomed to feeling like the ‘other.’ From being rejected by an Orthodox all-girls high school’s honors program, to being asked: “What are you?” at her college Hillel orientation, to being questioned about the shape of her lips on the Jewish dating app J-Swipe, she is used to having her Jewish identity questioned because of the way she looks.
She, her mother and her younger sister converted to Orthodox Judaism shortly after moving to Staten Island in the early 2000s. “A lot of people, even to this day, will look at me and my mom and be like, ‘So … are you new to the neighborhood?’”
Only recently did Weinstock begin to embrace the experience, viewing it as a rare opportunity to straddle two distinct worlds.
“I’ve come to appreciate that I am uniquely positioned to be a voice within the Jewish community on race issues,” said Weinstock. “Our community often wants to help, but doesn’t know how. I can see both sides — I live on both sides. I can help them meet in the middle.”
According to Chava Shervington, president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, a nonprofit that works to advance and empower Jews of color and multiracial families, the past few years mark a sea change in the conversation about race in the Jewish community. She discussed the issue with The Jewish Week in May, during the largest-ever Jews of Color conference in Manhattan.
“JMN members used to have to light themselves on fire to gain entry to mainstream Jewish organizations,” she said, referring to the difficulty Jews of color have had getting recognition in such forms as funding and leadership roles at communal organizations. “Now that the Jewish community is interested in people’s personal stories, we’re asking them to take that next step. The inclusion and empowerment of Jews of color is essential to the community we are, and to the community we are increasingly becoming.”
Interest in the broader Jewish community about the experience of Jews of color has been bolstered by a number of recent studies indicating that Jews of color make up a larger percentage of the American Jewish community than previously thought.
Be’chol Lashon (in every tongue), a nonprofit that strengthens ethnic and racial inclusiveness in the Jewish community, found that 20 percent of American Jews (about 1.2 million people) identify as Latino, Asian, African-American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and/or mixed race. (The inclusion of Sephardic and Mizrahi in the Jews of Color category continues to be a matter of debate, said a conference organizer.) The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study found that 10 percent of American Jews identify as black, Asian, Latino or mixed-race, and a UJA-Federation of New York Jewish community study in 2011 found that 12 percent of all Jewish households in New York City, Long Island and Westchester are biracial or nonwhite.
The burgeoning national conversation about race, as police shootings across the country continue to spark outrage and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum, also fuels the conversation in the Jewish community. In August, a controversial Movement for Black Lives Matter policy platform that charged Israel with “genocide” forced left-leaning Jewish social justice groups, including T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, to strike a delicate balance between supporting the movement’s goals and defending Israel.
“While we agree with many of the policy recommendations, we are extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide,” T’ruah’s statement read. “One can vigorously oppose occupation without resorting to terms such as ‘genocide,’ and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.”
Other more centrist groups were quicker to decry the movement’s rhetoric. “Whatever one’s position on the relationship between Israel, its Palestinian citizens, and the residents in the West Bank and Gaza, it’s repellent and completely inaccurate to label Israel’s policy as ‘genocide,’” wrote Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League in a statement.
The alignment between the Black Lives Matter movement and strong criticism of Israel leaves many Jewish college students caught in the crosshairs, as they attempt to navigate a campus scene increasingly tempered by “intersectionality,” the new buzzword for collaboration between diverse student groups to aid a common goal. Close alliances between black student groups and Palestinian student groups are common.
But despite the heightened political import of the conversation, the diverse experiences of Jews of color move beyond the issue du jour. The topic, though attracting more attention now than ever before, is far from new; it is a conversation about visibility and invisibility, acceptance and rejection, strangeness and belonging. It is a story about the perpetual feeling of “otherness” that strings together narratives as diverse as the backgrounds from which they spring.
The following profiles trace the stories of six self-identified Jews of color. The tellers range in age, geographic location, religious denomination, and ethnic and cultural background. But all share a vision of a more accepting Jewish community, where their authenticity is not questioned because of their skin color, almond-shaped eyes, or kinky curls.
If you were to ask Sophia Weinstock, it is a vision in which hair simply doesn’t have a lot to do with it.
JASON DANIEL FAIR – Mixed Heritage, A Blessing with Obligation
Jason Daniel Fair, 31, likes to say his parents met in prison.
Or rather, at a prison mixer. His mother, who sued the State of New York in the 1970s because they wouldn’t let her become a police officer, ended up working at a corrections facility in Baltimore. There, she met Jason’s father, who also worked at the facility. His mother is Jewish; his father, who passed away last year, was African-American and raised Catholic.
“My parents were from two very different worlds,” said Fair, who lives in New York and describes himself religiously as traditional. “To me, it was the most unremarkable thing. Both sides of the family chose to be inclusive and happy, even though it [the inter-racial marriage] was very new to both for many reasons.”
The first time he realized his parents were of different races was at age 5. “As a child you just see mom and see dad. You have to look extra hard to notice anything non-standard about it. I had to keep reminding myself that this is different for other people.”
Though he grew up predominantly in an African-American neighborhood in Baltimore, his parents would shuttle him to Hebrew school several evenings a week. His father, who had agreed to raise Fair and his two brothers Jewish, committed wholeheartedly to the undertaking.
“I remember my bar mitzvah, getting to the top of the bima and looking out … one side was predominantly white Ashkenazi, and a very large contingent on the other side was African-American. At the time, it was one of the few days of the year when the synagogue had a large number of black folks,” Fair recalled. “I remember thinking that everyone probably learned a lot about each other.”
Although keeping a foot in both worlds is second nature to Fair, to others it’s not as simple. He has grown accustomed to being questioned about his heritage; in Jewish circles, he is frequently asked if he’s a convert.
“I stopped giving into the feeling of frustration about whether or not people see me for who I am a long time ago,” he said. “It can’t be a burden to explain about myself — I see it as an opportunity to educate. My combined heritages are a blessing. There’s an obligation that comes with certain blessings.”
For Fair, Israel, a difficult touchstone for many vocal Jews of color, is a strong source of “Afrocentric pride.” Fair first “fell in love” with Israel on a Taglit-Birthright trip during his freshman year at Cornell. He has since led three Birthright trips and worked in Israel for a year at the Ministry of Tourism after college.
“I find my Zionist energy to be very close to the Afrocentric drive,” said Fair. “That pride of self-determination resonates very strongly with me.”
The diversity of Israel’s population also enforced his own sense of Jewish authenticity. “For all of its contentions, if you spend enough time there, you meet so many different types of people who identity as Jews,” he said. “I became close friends with Jews from India, China, Latin America, South Africa, Ethiopia, [and] France.”
While he met few African-American Jews, finding so many Jews who “did not fit into a singular picture of what the word Jew meant” was refreshing. “That gave me strength and optimism for what we can do in the United States,” he said.
Fair, who is openly gay and a strong advocate for the LGBT community (professionally, he works for The Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline for LGBT youth) said that Israel was actually the first place he felt “seen as an LGBT person and a person of color without any reservations attached.”
“I had one of my first boyfriends in Israel, and the acceptance was so essentially different,” he said. “It was like I was able to take a breath.”
The strong anti-Israel sentiment that resonates in many left-leaning circles is difficult for Fair. This is especially so in the LGBT community, where Israel is often accused of “pinkwashing,” — of touting its LGBT-friendly policies as a way to deflect attention from what they see as human rights violations against Palestinians.
“I don’t like the phrases ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestinian’ — I don’t think they do us any favors,” he said. “I see Israel as a force for good in the world and for racial plurality.”
The heated debates on college campuses, which he witnessed first-hand during his time at Cornell, are “largely misdirected,” he said. (He later clarified that he believes these debates are well intended.)
“We’re not getting a good understanding of each other in any way,” he said. “Walking in the shoes that I have in the younger black community, there is sometimes a disappointing knee-jerk anti-Israel sentiment, and I see it as well in the LGBT community. It is important for Jews of color to always push the envelope and champion oppressed people where we see them. … I can’t stand by as a black gay Jew and talk about freedoms that I would want to see in the West Bank without at the same time saying that their leaders should be more accepting and have calls for LBGT equality. If we’re choosing to see only one side of the picture, then, really, what are we about?”
HELEN KIM – Filling in the Blanks
Helen Kim, a 43-year-old sociology professor living in Walla Walla, Wash., said her secular Korean upbringing largely motivated her decision to convert to Judaism.
“I was raised as an atheist, and my family was actually an outsider in the small immigrant community because we were not Christian,” said Kim, whose parents emigrated from Korea to the West Coast in the 1960s. “As a second-generation individual, you always have this in-between status where you don’t fully fit into either world — there’s a multiple outsider perspective. Aspects of Judaism kind of filled in the blanks for me.”
She met her husband, a “nice Jewish boy from New York,” while in graduate school. When the relationship got serious and the question of raising children came up, she was on board to raise them as Jews. “I didn’t see any issues or potential conflicts.”
Though her perspective as a “perpetual outsider” helped her navigate the communal expectations for years without feeling the need to convert, her then 4-year-old son’s persistent questioning caused her to reconsider.
“He started to see that dad is Jewish because dad has Jewish parents and a Jewish family, and mom — even though she does Jewish things and has Jewish ethics and bakes challah every Friday — is not. There’s a racial-difference element here that’s difficult for him to articulate, because he doesn’t see a lot of different kinds of Jews racially.”
The increased visibility of Jews of color, and particularly Asian Jews, helped her make the decision to convert in December 2015. (Kim and her husband, Noah Leavitt, recently co-authored the book “JewAsian,” a qualitative examination of the intersection of race, religion, and ethnicity in the increasing number of Jewish-American, Asian-American households.)
“Today, the conversation and the racial landscape is totally different,” she said, adding that the rapidly diversifying Jewish community has allowed her to finally see herself as “part of the Jewish people.” “It’s been such a drastic change in such a short period of time in terms of recognizing and really wanting to understand the stories of lots of different kinds of Jews.”
Still, the transition into the community, though made easier by the Reform movement’s unequivocal acceptance of intermarried and multiracial Jews, has not been without challenges.
“I always expect that I’m going to get questioned in a way that my husband never will,” said Kim, who belongs to a small Reform congregation in Walla Walla. “I assume that because of how I look, somebody is going to ask a question that will immediately label me as an outsider.”
The conversation about intermarriage, which has, until now, focused predominantly on the acceptance of interfaith marriage, needs to expand into interracial acceptance, she said.
“Being met instantly among Jews with ‘how are you Jewish?’ is something that needs to change,” she said. “Communal organizations need to recognize that it’s happening, so we can try to make it happen less.” The “danger” of increasingly diverse communities is the tendency to overlook the problem, she said. “Individuals and communities might say, ‘How could this possibly happen in our space because we have such a diverse congregation?’ But painful things are still happening.”
The question of “access” — opening up the doors of synagogues and other communal institutions to Jews of color — has become her focus.
“It’s something as simple as synagogue membership,” she said, pointing to innovative membership models that make it easier for individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to pay membership dues.
“It’s one thing to say that Jews have always been a diverse people. It’s another to say we’re a diverse people, but we live in the United States, where there is a racial hierarchy in place. We are not immune from that discourse and ideology,” she concluded. “Even if American Jews like to think of themselves as more liberal minded, that doesn’t give us a pass to avoid talking about these difficult subjects.”
RACHEL WILLIAMS – Checking Both Boxes
The intermingling smells of Asian and Ashkenazi cuisine waft through Rachel Williams earliest childhood memories.
“My mom’s cooking is one of most significant ways I felt my Asian influence,” said the 26-year-old psychology grad student, recalling stir-fries doused in black bean sauce and the comfort of soft white rice. The daughter of a Chinese mother and Ashkenazi father, matzah ball soup and brisket were also culinary mainstays, never missing from the High Holiday and Passover menus.
Williams, who lives in San Francisco, considers herself a multiracial, cultural Jew.
“I don’t identify with being Ashkenazi or Asian more than the other — I check both boxes,” she said.
But her journey towards a dual identity was fraught with questioning and, at times, resistance. Williams recalled refusing to have a bat mitzvah at age 13 at the family’s local Reform synagogue, despite her parents’ chidings. She later independently chose to become at bat mitzvah at age 15.
“For me, at the time, it felt like Judaism was being forced upon me,” she said. “I wanted to be allowed to be Jewish in my own way.”
Frequent questions about her appearance, as well as an unwelcoming attitude towards her mother, who never formally converted, left her wary of the Jewish community. “I didn’t fit others’ perception of what it means to look Jewish,” she said, recalling being one of only two Asian campers at her Reform Jewish summer camp. “Even now, it still surprises people that you can be of color and Jewish — it catches them off guard. It will be nice when we don’t box religion into one specific race.”
Confronting the experience of otherness as an adult has allowed her to embrace the Jewish identity she once held at arm’s length.
“Today, I feel like this is something I chose,” she said. “I want my future kids to be able to choose an identity that resonates within them.”
Despite the intermittent discomfort of being questioned in Jewish spaces, Williams is glad that her presence is helping to challenge “traditional perceptions, boundaries, and ideas of what it means to be Jewish.”
“People in general have a very racialized perception of what a Jew looks like,” she said. “When you challenge that, it forces people to understand that we live in a society that doesn’t look like that anymore. We’re different ethnicities, races and religions. Our community needs to be open to people’s own ideas of how they identify, and take them at their word.”
This story was made possible by a grant from The Jewish Week Investigative Journalism Fund. Read part two here.