Talking openly, honestly about Jews of color

Even today, years after becoming a Jew by choice, Tonda Case says she can feel it coming when she enters an unfamiliar synagogue. “I know I’m going to walk in,” says the Oakland resident, “and the question will be, ‘So why are you here?’ ”

Translation: What’s a black woman doing at our synagogue on Shabbat?

Tonda Case

Case davens at an Orthodox shul and can handle prayerbook Hebrew with the best of them. But those Friday night slights, however unintentional, too often come with the territory for Jews of color.

That’s what inspired her to attend a May 20 workshop at the JCC of San Francisco titled “Race and Privilege in the Jewish Community: Reflections, Explorations, Actions.”

The event was presented through a partnership among Be’chol Lashon, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and the JCCSF. Be’chol Lashon is an S.F.-based nonprofit that embraces the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of the Jewish people.

Ilana Kaufman

More than 100 people attended the four-hour event, as every Jewish agency in the area was invited to send two staff members. The goal was to enlighten community leaders, rabbis and others about how race and racism play out within the Jewish community, and how all Jews (not just Jews of color) are impacted.

“We wanted to create a process to move a step closer to being more inclusive,” said Ilana Kaufman a program officer for the S.F.-based Jewish federation, “and in some cases to change behaviors so the experience of racism is lessened.”

Kaufman, profiled last December in the J. article “Black, Jewish and challenging ideas about the face of federation,” helped organize the event. “It was the first time I’d seen a group of leaders roll up their sleeves and engage in reflective work, thinking about how to move their organizations forward,” she said afterward.

The agenda featured black, Latino and Asian American Jews as guest speakers — among them Kaufman and Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in Oakland. There were also several workshops.

Kaufman said attendees talked about “their experience with being included or excluded, times where they felt they were in the core group, or outside, and what it feels like.”

One participant said that every time she walks into a shul someone takes note of her skin color and asks if she was she adopted, why her Hebrew is so good or simply whether she needs help finding something. “It presupposes she is new to the environment,” Kaufman said.

Case, who is a committee member-at-large with the Jewish Community Relations Council, is a native of the St. Louis suburb of Kinloch, Missouri, which is adjacent to Ferguson. Raised Methodist, she found herself drawn to Judaism when she studied religion at the University of San Francisco. Once she met and married her Jewish husband, Sam, she chose to convert.

Since then, the mother of two has kept a kosher home and learned Hebrew, and she is a member of both Beth Jacob Congregation (Modern Orthodox) and Temple Beth Abraham (Conservative).

Case, who estimated that up to 20 percent of the event’s attendees were Jews of color, found the gathering exhilarating. “The energy was incredible,” she said.

One of the community professionals in attendance was David Waksberg, executive director of Jewish LearningWorks, a local Jewish agency that supports and promotes Jewish education. He found the workshop simultaneously valuable and troubling.

“To hear about a Jew of color walking into a synagogue on Shabbat wearing a kippah and tallit, and someone coming over and saying ‘Can I help you?’ is cringe-worthy,” he said. “The fact they went through that is shameful, something we need to work on.  The fact that they’re still here and sharing their stories is fantastic.”

So where does the community go from here?

Kaufman said participants have begun strategizing how to make their agencies, institutions and communities more welcoming and sensitive when it comes to Jews of color.

For example, the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco already has set up a plan to promote appreciation of the diversity of the Jewish community. The plan includes faculty development, parent education, student summer reading lists and a system to connect student Jews of color with counterparts at other area schools.

Kaufman expects more to come in the months ahead. She said she will be reminding participants to stay in touch, share resources and continue pondering the topics of race, racism and Jews of color.

She’s been gratified to see the impact the conference has had.

“One colleague said what we have done has given us permission to have this conversation,” Kaufman said. “When a community makes an effort for change, it’s exciting.”

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.