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Posted under: Opinion

During Passover, Black Jews Are Still Waiting To Get To The Promised Land

We can no longer ignore the fact that our North American Jewish community is continuing to evolve and become more diverse by the day.

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During this year's Passover, the commemoration of the end of the Jews’ long-ago enslavement in Egypt, I thought about how I am only six generations away from my closest relative who was enslaved in America.

Every year, as Jews on the Passover holiday, we gather to tell and relive the Exodus story. And every year I sit thinking about how, as a Black man, I often hear that Black Americans should simply “get over” slavery.

One of my communities commemorates annually (and remembers daily in prayer) the end of its enslavement more than 3,000 years ago in Egypt and the divine intervention that hastened it. But another of my communities is expected to forget about the slavery of fewer than 300 years ago on the very ground that I and other descendants of enslaved people walk to this day. In my case, six generations after the last of my family was enslaved.

This is especially resonant in relationship to the concept that it takes seven generations to effect change. Being part of this sixth-generation means that the work being done now will be for the generations after me. The question then becomes, what does it take to ensure that this next generation is positioned to create the change that is so desperately needed? As a Black Jew, I feel this need urgently and strongly, and never as clearly as this year’s week of Passover. In particular, what does the Jewish community that I am a part of need to do to ensure the success of our up-and-coming young Black Jews and other Jewish leaders of color?

For me, as the manager of Racial Justice Initiatives at Avodah, the answer is simple, if not necessarily easy. We can prepare the next generation to make change and progress when we invest in a multiracial, multiethnic Jewish community to take up the mantle of social justice for all people. This means creating incubator spaces for young Jews of Color where they can engage with the Jewish community and also bring their full selves to the space. Jews of Color (JOC) can include, but are not limited to, those who identify as Jewish and Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, Sephardic, Mizrahi or multi-racial. The Avodah Service Corps JOC Bayit is one such space. Located in New York City, the JOC Bayit is a communal living house specifically for self-identified Jews of Color, between the ages of 21 to 26, participating in a service-learning year while working for a leading non-profit organization in underserved communities.

Alumni of Avodah’s Service Corps often reflect that one of the most transformative aspects of being an Avodah Corps member was living in community with other Corps members. However, for Jews of Color, communal living as a minority poses challenges. One of those challenges being the fact that the Jewish community has reflected and represented itself as a monolith for too long, creating a false narrative of what being Jewish looks and sounds like. As a result, most Americans, and indeed many, many Jews, believe that we’re all of white European descent. This leaves Jews of Color in a situation where we must constantly code switch to fit in, leaving behind other parts of our identity that don’t mirror this false narrative. This is a process that people of color — Jewish or not — know well. And it is downright exhausting.

Giving Jews of Color the space and opportunity to be Jewish in non-white spaces is critical for the development of a pipeline of racially diverse Jewish leaders. I point to the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) model and its success at creating dedicated and tailored space for Black people to learn and thrive. Institutions like Howard, Morehouse, Spelman and Tuskegee have produced more Black doctors, political leaders and scientists than majority-white institutions.

A Reed College study showed that from 2002 to 2011, 24% of all Black PhDs in science and engineering earned their degree from an HBCU. There is something to be said for creating spaces and opportunities that meet the needs of racially diverse young people. How powerful would it be if the Jewish community invested in this under-resourced, under-represented segment of its community? And just like movements for justice nationwide are being led by Black folks and people of color right now, what would that mean for all of us?

To get a glimpse of the potential impact of young Jewish leaders of color, I draw inspiration from the racial justice uprisings of the summer of 2020. Young people, specifically young Black and brown people, were the main drivers activating the entire country to the need for a racial justice reckoning. In the middle of a pandemic, in the face of an ever-growing contingent of violent white supremacists and at the risk of police brutality, not only did our young people show up, they brought folks with them to the fight. It is our responsibility to uplift these new leaders, recognizing that among their ranks are Jewish leaders of color. Young Jews of Color are motivated and looking for the right place, the right space to further engage in social justice work — and where they can be Jewish and Black, or Jewish and Latino, is precisely that type of space.

It is probably not a surprise that I am often asked whether creating a space specifically for Jews of Color will reverse the impacts made by integration. They ask, “Won’t this take us back to where we were before the Civil Rights Movement?” The response is always the same. The questions are rooted in a narrow view of what it means to create a separate space and erases the fact that there is a real need to create support systems that uplift Jews of Color. It also ignores the fact that there are real disparities in economic access and professional development opportunities that persisted even after integration.

We must acknowledge and address both of these facts to ensure that we are reflective of and responsive to the needs of our entire diverse community. For too long Jews of Color have been forced to exist in the margins of the broad Jewish community, and under-supported in cultivating a community of our own.

We can no longer ignore the fact that our North American Jewish community is continuing to evolve and become more diverse by the day. Research suggests that there are between 900,000 and 1.2 million self-identified Jews of Color in the United States. In the Bay Area alone, 25% of all Jewish households are multi-racial. But while naming the numbers is significant, it is more important to focus on the lived experiences of Jews of Color navigating Jewish communal life, regardless of how many we number.

As we commemorate the Exodus story during future Passovers, we must remember how far we have come as a Jewish community from the moment of the splitting of the Red Sea. For some of us, the proverbial Red Sea was only split 200 years ago, and we still haven’t yet made it to the Promised Land. Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, was an unlikely and unconventional leader, and himself an example of intersectionality — a Hebrew raised as Egyptian royalty, a partner in an interfaith marriage and a public speaker who stuttered. As we look to the leaders of this seventh generation, initiatives like the JOC Bayit will be the perfect incubator space to cultivate the future Jewish community we want to see.

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Nate Looney is the Manager of Racial Justice Initiatives at Avodah. For more information or to apply to the JOC Bayit, visit Avodah Jews of Color Bayit NYC.

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