Diversity rules at one-of-a-kind Shavuot festival

There wasn’t a bagel in sight.

Instead, the hundreds of moms, dads and kids attending the multicultural Shavuot festival at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center had other fish to fry.

It made sense to forgo the customary Askenazic fare. Though just about everyone at the Sunday, May 23, event was Jewish, most of the people were of African, Asian and Latino descent. Most of the music rocked with a Ugandan beat. And the cherished ideal of am Yisrael, the people of Israel, on this day came in rainbow colors.

Sponsored by Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”) of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the free festival was geared toward Jews who don’t fit the profile of white Yiddishkeit European. The day featured workshops, children’s activities, food and drink, a book fair and the pleasure of truly diverse Jewish company.

“There are hundreds of racially and ethnically diverse Jews in the Bay Area,” said Be’chol Lashon co-founder Gary Tobin. “Converts, adoptees, religious seekers. Today one out of seven Jewish households here is interracial, with a 70 percent intermarriage rate.”

Tobin should know. He’s a respected San Francisco-based demographer. Moreover, he’s the parent of an adopted African American boy, age 9, and raised Jewish.

As folks arrived at the festival, most helped themselves to lunch, which consisted of plantains, fish kabobs and other Senegalese treats. Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of Chicago’s 70-family-strong Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, got things going with a rousing keynote speech.

“Take a good look at who’s sitting in this room,” he told the throng. “These children represent the diversity possible in Jewish life. You are the future of the Jewish community.”

He then led everyone in a sing-along version of “Hine Ma Tov,” with a decidedly West African beat.

From there, kids scampered to the face painting and art stations, while the adults attended a variety of workshops.

In the transracial adoption workshop, mostly white parents of black, Latino and Asian children discussed the joys and challenges of raising their kids Jewish.

Said one dad of the multicultural attendees, “I wish this was a congregation I could come to, so my kids could say, ‘Hey, my family looks just like that family.'”

Added another mom, referring to the tolerant attitudes she finds here, “We can’t leave the Bay Area, ever.”

Beth Sauerhaft of Berkeley came with her 5-year-old Chinese-born daughter, Danya. “My daughter is not perceived as Jewish,” she lamented. “We’re not taught to see diversity in Judaism.”

She decided to form a group of families like hers — Jews adopting Chinese children. When she and other such families get together, she says, “I feel like I’ve come home with my daughter. We can see that Jews don’t all look one way or practice one way.”

Also in attendance was Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leaders of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, an isolated group now gaining worldwide attention. Sizomu currently lives in Los Angeles, finishing up his rabbinical studies at the University of Judaism. He flew up for the festival with his wife, Tzipporah, and their two children.

“This is what it’s supposed to be,” said the upbeat Sizomu of the gathering. “God is one.”

As an ad hoc African drum circle took the stage, Joe and Danita Behnke, an interracial Jewish couple from San Jose, looked on with satisfaction. “This is about coming to a place and meeting people like us,” said Joe Behnke, clutching his 2-year-old son, Isaiah. “Seeing this kind of cultural diversity in Judaism is amazing.”

Added Denise Davis, an African American Jew-by-choice and member of the Be’chol Lashon advisory council, “I’m happy my daughter will grow up in a world where she’s not the only brown face in Judaism.”

As the event wound down, organizer Tobin felt satisfied. “This is a lesson for the Jewish community,” he said. “Open the gates, lower the barriers and people will participate.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.