Organization for black Jews claims 200,000 in U.S.

BOSTON — Descriptions of Robin Washington's ethnicity are often incomplete. Some people look at his skin and assume that he is black. Others look and think that he is white.

Few people, however, think he is Jewish.

Washington's father was black and his mother was white and Jewish, making him Jewish, according to halachah, or Jewish law.

He says he's "100 percent of both" heritages.

That pride led Washington to help organize the Alliance of Black Jews in 1995.

He was elected the first chairman of the organization, which seeks to "unite people of African American descent who believe in the Torah or the practice of Judaism."

Washington estimates that there are 200,000 black Jews in the United States. He is not sure of his organization's current membership because it is growing constantly.

"To be black and to be Jewish are not mutually exclusive," says Washington, also the managing editor of The Bay State Banner, a Boston-based weekly newspaper that covers the local black community.

About five years ago, Washington, then working for Black Entertainment Television (BET) News, reported on an annual seder involving local blacks and Jews.

From Washington's perspective the event was not unique "because every seder I ever went to was a black-Jewish seder."

Yet the general public saw it as a means for blacks and Jews to interact and experience each others' traditions.

Washington used the opportunity to show the BET audience that "black Jew" was not an oxymoron.

"A black-Jewish seder assumes automatically in its title that blacks are not Jews and Jews could not possibly be black," Washington says. "We're just Jews having a seder. So what?"

The piece was so popular that BET later devoted one installment of its "Our Voices" program to black Jews, Washington says. Washington was a panelist on that show and helped produce it.

Joining Washington were Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., a black Jew who leads an Ethiopian congregation in Chicago, and Reuben Greenberg, a black Jewish police chief in Charleston, S.C. The men were also founders of the alliance.

In 1993, Washington was contacted by Michelle Stein-Evers, a black Jew from Los Angeles, who told him a black-Jewish organization had formed there.

That December, Washington went to Los Angeles for a forum on black-Jewish Americans.

When the forum participants exchanged their population estimates, they concluded that there are close to 200,000 black Jews.

Washington says the 200,000 estimate is based on a 1990 Council of Jewish Federations survey that used both the narrow and broad definitions of "Who is a Jew?"

Based on the strict halachic definition — that Jews must be the children of Jewish mothers and practice their faith, or undergo a halachically recognized conversion — there are about 135,000 black Jews in this country.

But based on the broad definition, which says anyone who calls himself or herself a Jew is one, there are 260,000.

Among the most well-known black Jews are actor Yaphet Kotto of NBC's "Homicide" television series; Walter Mosley, author of "Devil in a Blue Dress"; actress Lisa Bonet; the late actor Sammy Davis Jr.; rock singer Lenny Kravitz and academic Julius Lester.

Washington is not sure of the national black-Jewish community's demographics, but he says many alliance members are biracial.

Washington was raised as a Reform Jew in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s. Today, he considers himself Conservative.

His mother was an officer of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and she often took Washington and his brother "on field trips" to sit-ins and freedom marches.

At the first grammar school he attended, where black students were the majority, he was considered white, which helped the school meet its white student quota.

That changed when Washington transferred to a predominantly white school. There, he was called black.

Washington maintained his Jewish identity in both places. For example, he asked teachers to excuse him from singing Christmas carols.

"For us," Washington says, "religion was a civil rights movement more than anything."

Today, Washington says he "can't read Hebrew, but I know all of my prayers by heart." He says being a black Jew has prompted questions and stares from members of synagogues he has attended.

The most welcoming congregations have been in the rural areas, where "anyone who walks into a synagogue is going to be accepted, because you're not going to go there if you're not a part of" Judaism, he says.

"It's something I do wear on my sleeve," Washington says of his Judaism, "because it makes it easier for everybody involved."

Washington isn't sure how the alliance's mission to unite black Jews will translate into actions.

"What we want from each side," Washington says, "is respect."