Jews of color sometimes feel profiled that hurts us all

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It was early fall and my friend’s daughter, Gabi, had just started a new religious school program. Gabi was excited; friends from her public school and pals from Jewish summer camp were also in her religious school.

Gabi’s mom, a member of the religious school’s synagogue, arrived a few minutes before 6 p.m. to pick up her daughter. Swarms of kids and parents milled about looking for one another. Some of the teachers were also out, trying to meet parents for the first time.

“Are you Gabi’s mom?” sailed a voice from across the courtyard and over the heads of dozens of other parents. My friend looked around. “Who is this lady yelling at?” she wondered. Again, from across the expanse came the question, “Excuse me. Are you Gabi’s mom?” My friend ignored the teacher. Sure, she was Gabi’s mom, but she didn’t know this woman, and was perplexed by the teacher’s approach to meeting her. Yelling across a courtyard seemed a bit rude, and didn’t exactly make Gabi’s mom want to respond. There she was — the only African-American adult in the courtyard, looking for her daughter who also happened to be black. The teacher made a race-based assumption about who belonged to whom. In this case, the teacher was right. But what if the teacher’s assumption had been wrong? What if my friend had been someone else’s mom?

Gabi’s mom knew she was experiencing unintentional racial-profiling right there in her shul’s courtyard. When she shared the incident with a kippah-wearing Jewish friend, also African-American, he seemed resigned and almost bored by the story: “You know how racist they can be,” he said. “The last time I walked into a shul, I got stopped by security. Dude asked me if I knew where I was going. I guess the kippah, stack of books and Torah study friends I was walking with weren’t enough to make me legit? I’m just not interested in dealing with that crap when I’m trying to connect with Hashem, so I avoid shul. It gets in the way of my Judaism.”

As the United States grapples with the fact that young black males are at 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts, not everyone agrees that those lives lost were victims of racist law enforcement systems. Demonstrations like the first night of Hanukkah’s #ChanukahAction suggest some level of organized Jewish community response to racial injustice across our nation. But discussion in Jewish media — with editorials and letters to the editor — shows that mainstream Jewish organizations are perplexed, challenged, even deeply conflicted about what an appropriate response might be.

 Jews were an “inferior race” in the United States between 1880 and 1940. Jews were also civil rights activists in the 1960s. We, as Jews, should be insatiably curious about how racism is manifest in the United States and in mainstream Jewish institutions now. We should also be meaningfully involved working to end it. This is an authentic part of our history and who we are as people of difference, scholars, citizens and agents of social justice.

With people of color expected to be in the majority in the United States by 2042, and many Jews partnering with and marrying non-Jews who may or may not be people of color, more members of the Jewish community will become hued over time. With many of our mainstream Jewish organizations founded and funded by the first waves of European Jewish immigrants to the United States, there is a demographic gap between who is currently in our mainstream organizations, and who is likely coming in the next 30 years. We need to work to understand and welcome Jews of color, increasing the opportunity to bring more Jews, both those of color and those not of color, into deeper relationship with their community. Expanding the tent of engagement for Jews of color will fortify and maybe even grow the Jewish community in the United States.

For many Jews of color, experiences of racism do not stop when they walk through Jewish community doors. Institutional policies and practices often reflect a more limited perspective on Jewish identity, sometimes perpetuating beliefs or behaviors rooted in racial stereotypes. While these subtle expressions of racism in the Jewish community do not make the leaders or their organizations racist, they should make us wonder how Jewish organizations reflect the racism found outside the Jewish community. Being on the receiving end of those expressions of racism, even if subtle and unintentional, is painful — especially when you’re excited to hear about your child’s afternoon at religious school or just trying to study Torah with your havurah.

I have yet to meet a Jew who wants to push Jews away from Judaism. In fact, Jewish federations and foundations across the United States are pouring millions of dollars into research and programs focused on how to engage more Jews in Jewish life. And as the United States and American Jewry become less and less white, hopefully more and more Jews of color will become part of mainstream Jewish organizations.

So let’s make sure we have done all we can to understand not only the experiences of people of color in the United States, but also specifically those of Jews of color. Let’s assume goodwill of all, and set a goal of increasing opportunities for diverse Jews to be meaningfully engaged in mainstream Jewish settings. Let’s use our long history of inquiry to understand the demographics and experiences of Jews of color in the United States so we can be more inclusive. And whether we are studying Torah or leading our mainstream Jewish organizations, let’s look up — and out — and wonder who’s missing, and then do something about it.

Ilana Kaufman lives in Berkeley and is a program officer at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. This piece originally appeared at eJewishPhilanthropy.com.