Local think tank celebrates, explores worldwide Jewish diversity

“These Jews that are not at the center of our consciousness — that’s the true story,” said participant Steven F. Windmueller of Be’chol Lashon’s international think tank, which took place over President’s Day weekend in Berkeley.

The director of the School of Jewish Communal Service of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles was grabbing a quiet moment between busy sessions at the annual event, held at the Claremont Resort.

The think tank, which drew people from under-represented Jewish communities from all over the globe, was sponsored by the S.F.-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research. Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”) is its initiative to support a racially, ethnically and culturally diverse Jewish community.

And who are “these Jews” Windmuller refers to?

They hail from places like Africa and Asia, and have skin colors reflecting the diversity of humankind. Many trace their lineage to Jews who traveled off the beaten path, and yet still maintained a link to their heritage.

Among them are the Lembas, black South African Jews who trace their ancestry to a group of Jews who fled Jerusalem after the Second Temple’s destruction, through Yemen and down the eastern coast of Africa.

Rudo Mathiva, a 48-year-old doctor and single mother grew up in apartheid South Africa as a member of the Lemba Jewish community.

“Every single child in our community got the history drummed into our heads,” she said. “I had this oral history passed down. I grew up knowing I was Jewish.”

But while Mathiva and others in her community never had any doubt about their identity, members of the mainstream Jewish community do.

Once apartheid ended and members of the Lemba community had the opportunity to connect with the white Jewish community in South Africa, many found themselves rebuffed.

Others were welcomed with a caveat: convert.

With her hair in cornrows and both a Jewish star and a mezuzah charm dangling from elegant gold chains around her neck, Mathiva said she found a spiritual home in a Conservative synagogue in Johannesburg.

Yet she struggles with the issue of conversion. “Sometimes I think that I may as well do a conversion. The conversion process would bring me up to date with ‘mainstream’ Judaism,” she said. “But the next minute I think, why do I have to convert? I am a Jew.”

Also represented at the think tank were Bnei Anusim, Spanish Jews who recently rediscovered their Jewish heritage upon learning of ancestors — usually a parent or grandparent — who practiced Judaism in secret, as was the way of Jews in Spain who remained after the Jewish expulsion of 1492.

Such is the story of Aharon Franco Giminez. Born in Cartagena, Spain, in the region of Murcia, Giminez grew up not knowing he was Jewish but finding himself drawn to its literature and culture.

As an adolescent, this resonance began to make more sense when he discovered that his maternal grandfather practiced Judaism in secret as a descendant of the Anusim.

Giminez’s journey resulted in an Orthodox conversion that he viewed as an affirmation of his connection to Judaism and its people.

“As a religious Jew, I have a spiritual explanation,” he said. “The soul knows where it comes from and wants to return to its origins. The soul knows if it is Jewish.”

Windmueller believes that globalism is triggering all kinds of changes in Jewish life, including a heightened awareness of its diversity.

“In the past, institutions, halachah [Jewish law] and authority decided who was a Jew and what constituted accepted Jewish behavior and identity,” said Windmueller. “As we move away from all that, it is more about an individual personal search and their decision to identify themselves as Jewish. [Postmodern Jewish identity] is very much about the self and the individual asserting his or her place in the world.”

Mathiva’s personal narrative echoes Windmueller’s scholarly analysis. “I realize we are all citizens of the world now,” she said. “But I want to celebrate my Jewish heritage.”