Navigate to Community section

‘We Are Forging Our Own Jewish Path and That Path Is Part of Jewish History’

A roundtable with Black Jews about racism, antisemitism, questions of belonging, and the problem with the term ‘Jews of color’

Abigail Pogrebin
November 16, 2023
The Minyan
Roundtables on the state of the American Jewish community, bringing together people from a shared demographic or background—everyday people with personal opinions, not experts who earn their salaries discussing these issues.
See all in The Minyan →︎

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

On Oct. 12, we gathered a roundtable to talk about what it’s like to be a Black Jew in America today, including experiences of racism in the Jewish community, and antisemitism in the Black community. The conversation had been set up before the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, and the questions we intended to focus on were not about the situation in Israel, so we adhered to that original scope for the purposes of this exploration.

First, however, we had to talk about terminology. For instance, our participants—including three clergy members—had a lot to say about the term “Jews of color,” and how they choose to identify themselves. Some dislike the expression, feeling that it glosses over the specific experiences of Black Jews; others appreciate it, saying that it draws much-needed attention to issues of marginalization and racism in the community.

That marginalization can be overt and direct; some of our participants recall specific incidents where they’ve been made to feel offended in Jewish spaces, or assumed to be outsiders. Other times, it may be less obvious: Several people in this roundtable explained how tiresome it is to be asked, “How are you Jewish?” “I think where the question goes wrong is when there’s a presumption of otherness,” one person noted. “Sometimes it feels, as a Jew of color, I might be the only one who has to make sense of my story for other people.”

We talk about how the Jewish community responds to Black Jews, and whether Jewish philanthropy has given adequately to Black leaders or initiatives. What comes through most indelibly is that these participants have an unshakable Jewish identity—and at the same time, a fairly uniform frustration with how slowly the larger Jewish community has been evolving.

The Participants

Their ages, locations, and the terms they use to describe themselves

Ray: 36, Brooklyn. Black and Jewish.

Sabrina: 71, Riverbank, California. “Black and Jewish, sometimes Jewish and Black.”

Izzy: 35, New York City. “I identify as a Black Jew with white skin.”

Tova: 24, San Francisco Bay Area. “I use the term Black Jew.”

Jared: 40, Philadelphia. Black and Jewish.

Lindsey: 36, San Francisco. Black and Jewish.

David: 39, Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Black and Jewish. Love those words. Love that label.”

Yanna: 40, New York City. Black and Jewish.

Ilana: 38, Brooklyn. “I’m still figuring out what my identity is, but I guess I usually say Jewish and African American.”

Kylie: 29, Hudson, New York. Black and Jewish.

Kylie, you once said that you don’t want to be called a “Jew of color.” Can you say a little bit about that?

Kylie: It is an all-encompassing term that I don’t feel really connects me to other people. “Jew of color” encompasses anybody who is not a white Jew. So somebody who is Filipino and Jewish is considered a Jew of color, somebody who is Asian and Jewish, Chinese and Jewish, Japanese and Jewish—they’re considered a Jew of color. I don’t have anything in common with them, really, just because they have a parent who is not white. So I don’t find it to be something that accurately hits on the nuance of what it is to be Black and Jewish … It’s too much of an umbrella term.

How do you respond in the moment when someone uses it in front of you?

Kylie: It’s been a little while, honestly, since I’ve heard it. It definitely was something that people were saying a lot in 2020. Things have evolved a bit since then. But if somebody assumed that that was how I would identify, oftentimes I would say, “I actually have a problem with that term—it’s not something that’s applicable to us, it mutes what it is that I have and other people have. So that term really doesn’t speak to me.”

Sabrina: There was a time two decades ago when we were using “Jews of color” to identify people in the Jewish community who were like us. It was an organizing, educational tool to talk about racism inside the synagogue specifically. And it’s true that in 2020 it exploded as a large term to the point where now I’m getting application or registration forms where people want to know if I identify as a Jew of color. I don’t. That said, I often mark the box—because I want whatever it is that they are providing.

The term ‘Jew of color’ has created visibility for racism within Jewish life.

Can you clarify what you mean when you say you want “whatever they’re providing”?

Sabrina: It could be a conference, a fellowship, any of a number of things.

Jared: I didn’t actually call myself a Jew of color until the end of 2015 when I was applying for the Selah leadership program and needed to identify as a Jew of color in order to get those resources. I still struggle with that.

Izzy: The term “Jew of color” has created visibility for racism within Jewish life. The acronym—JOC—has allowed funders and philanthropists to channel resources to an issue they care about, while in some cases it’s more like guilt or shame dollars, virtue-signaling dollars.

You’re saying that Jewish funders started giving to JOC initiatives to show they weren’t racist?

Izzy: It’s pennies. Less than $2 million is given out a year for racial equity toward Jewish life, while there’s billions of dollars given out a year in Jewish life total. So when it comes to the term “Jews of color,” it’s been helpful but not actually helpful enough. I do agree with Kylie in the sense that when we just make this assumption that anyone who’s non-European or has non-European descent should just all get into a room and talk—yes, the Jewish route will bring us together, but our racial identities are so different. When discussing certain issues, including American democracy, I wouldn’t have the same conversations with a Latin American Jew or an Asian American Jew the same way I would with a Black Jew—or a Black American or African American more broadly. Same when it comes to Zionism and Israel. I wouldn’t have the same conversations. My levels of comfort would shift. I hope that the term “Jew of color” is used less and less, that we get more specific to people’s racial identities.

Lindsey: I personally identify with the term “Jew of color.” I know that it’s an imperfect marker of identity, but for me, “Jew of color” provides a way to name the experience of marginalization that people who experience racism in this country and are Jewish—what we might have in common. It can set the container for creating community together. So for those reasons, I do identify as a Jew of color, and it’s also one of many identities that I hold fast to—to create a full picture of who I am.

The weight of being Black and Jewish in America is very different than being another ethnicity and Jewish in America.

Yanna: I will say I think the one time that I probably used that term “Jew of color” was when I went to Israel. I did grow up in central Pennsylvania—in a very Jewish area, but it was all European or white Jews, and I never really knew any Black Jews or Jews of color. So when I did go to Israel for the first time, it was a moment of, “Wow, look at all these Jews of color!”—whether they be Black or Arab or whatever, that was a moment where the term felt applicable.

Kylie: Being Black and Jewish in America is supremely important because it has a deeper context than being Latino in America and Asian in America. Not to say it’s more or less important, but the weight of being Black and Jewish in America is very different than being another ethnicity and Jewish in America.

Can you say more about what you’re describing as “the deeper context”?

Kylie: There’s a very dense history of being Black in America. To then unite us with all people who are different just completely wipes or washes over the very thing that makes us very unique, which is that we carry an immense amount of pain in our history and our lineage—being an outcast in a way that other people haven’t experienced in the same way.

Jared: It’s a fact that any group of new immigrants who has gained upward mobility in the United States of America has done it on the backs of Black people and indigenous people. And the ways that people have shown anti-Blackness in order to gain the keys to upward mobility in this white supremacist system, that’s what resonates with me, because of that history of pain, the continued legacy of having every new immigrant take their turn to put their boot on the throat of Blackness in this country.

Tova: The foundation of America—as we know it—is rooted in Black people and Native Americans, because they were here, indigenous to this land. There would be no America without what our ancestors built for free. That is a very unique experience. I have a different relationship to this country compared to other groups of people—not trying to discount what they’ve experienced and their connection to this country. But it’s just different.

I’ve heard many Black Jewish people say that being asked about one’s Jewish story or how one came to be Jewish is an affront by itself. Can you help readers understand how that question—“How are you Jewish?”is problematic on its face?

Because I am a Black person, it is assumed that I would be a certain religion, which is not what I am.

Ilana: A lot of times when people are curious about being Black in America, it can feel very uncomfortable—like you’re in an interview when you’re at a Shabbat meal or a birthday party. You’re davening on Yom Kippur and thinking, “I’m just really thirsty, and now I have to explain who I am?” That’s the exhaustion. But when there’s mutual vulnerability and mutual sharing, it can feel very comfortable for me to tell my story in the right setting with the right people. For me, it’s about being generous with the question and what they’re sharing. That’s a relationship. That’s a conversation.

Ray: For me, it really is contextual. There are certain circumstances—often in a ritual space or some other kind of Jewish space where a person has chosen to engage me—and it’s anywhere between question No. 1 to question 10 of how am I Jewish? They really haven’t sought to get to know me. Rather, it’s the fact that it’s so peculiar to them that I’m in this space. So they want me to rewind and replay my narrative as a result of that. When I sense that, I am less generous—internally, at least, and I’m immediately trying to figure out, “OK, how do I get away from this person?” But then in cases where I intuit someone’s actually really trying to get to know me—they’re asking a broader set of questions and it at least reads as obvious that they’re not only interested in getting to: “and how does the Jewish make sense?”—then I feel like I’m much more generous with that. That’s come up, for example, within my extended family because no one else in my family is Jewish, and some have never had the explicit conversation with me of how did my Jewishness develop? But there’s a longer history of how we know each other, so in that case, I have a completely different response.

Yanna: It’s always the first thing that people typically ask. If they don’t ask, you can tell that they’re trying to ask other questions to kind of tiptoe around that. There are a lot of assumptions made about identity—Jewishness and Blackness. Because I am a Black person, it is assumed that I would be a certain religion, which is not what I am. I am a Black Jew. There is an assumption that I am Ethiopian or a convert—and I am a convert—but one shouldn’t assume that without actually knowing my story. My family has a history of being African Methodist Episcopal. I also have Southern Baptist family members.

Lindsey: I think where the question goes wrong is when there’s a presumption of otherness, or when it’s asked with the expectation that I have to make sense of how I fit into this equation for somebody else’s satisfaction. Oftentimes whenever someone is coded as “other,” it is assumed that they’re the only one with a story, when it’s actually true that everybody has a story. Why is it that I’m the only one? Sometimes it feels, as a Jew of color, I might be the only one who has to make sense of my story for other people. That being said, I’m very proud of my story. As a Jewish community, we do better when we can better understand one another’s stories.

Izzy: When people say, “What’s your story?” it’s classic Jewish Eurocentrism—this idea that Judaism started in the shtetl and that carried over. Already within the question is a certain limited framework of what and who is Jewish, what Judaism and Jews are. And that is only possible the way it’s been possible for an American Jewish framework because of the Black/white dichotomy around race in America. So when it comes to Judaism and Jewish stories, I think about it through the language of history and historiography, history being the facts and historiography about how you tell the facts. And how we’ve been telling the facts has been a very limited frame where a lot of people have been left out.

Oftentimes whenever someone is coded as ‘other,’ it is assumed that they’re the only one with a story, when it’s actually true that everybody has a story.

How would you say the larger Jewish community is doing when it comes to Black Jews in synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish spaces?

Izzy: Black Jews have participated in rallies where they were suspect because of the color of their skin. Organized Jewish life does have a lot of unlearning, undoing, and biases to try to shift that will take a generation or more. When it comes to racial equity in Jewish life, the first major commitment from foundations and philanthropists is only five or six years old. So even though there have been leaders who have been doing this work for 20, 30, 40 years, racial equity in Jewish life—in terms of organizing around real philanthropy—is only five or six years old.

David, you’re a member of the clergy. Could you talk from that vantage point about how the Jewish community is doing?

David: Oh, boy. Yes. We have to be clear that race is different from color. People who want to say that Jews are a race—that boils my blood. Are you telling me that a Black Jew like Rabbi Sandra Lawson is the same race as any white Jewish person? No. So in Jewish spaces, I have to admit, I’m trying to make sure that I am not saying things like this. Even saying “So-and-so looks Jewish” is a very problematic thing to say. Of course, a Black person is not going to feel welcome and loved—like they belong here. Too often in Jewish spaces things are assumed that are not the Black experience at all. Most Black Jews don’t have a connection to the shtetl. I am a biracial Black person, so I do. But I’m sure that many on this call are not. I want to say to lay people, “Stop acting and speaking as if the white Jewish experience is the entire Jewish experience.” For example, when we were talking to our teens about matzo ball soup, one of my kids said, “Well, every Jew in the world loves matzo ball soup!’’ And I said, “Actually, that’s not the case; the Ethiopian Jews are not familiar with matzo ball soup.” And it blew his mind.

Is someone comfortable giving a specific example of when you’ve experienced racism in the Jewish community?

Ilana: Most recently, I was recovering at home after having my most recent child a few weeks ago. In my community, they bring meals to new mothers, and someone was delivering the meal to my house. I am Haredi and my last name is Moroccan, so they’re expecting I guess, a certain look, or a certain person. And when I opened the door—and this actually was not the first time it had happened that week—the woman who met me at the door assumed that I wasn’t who I said I was, although she had a list with my name on it and I was in my own home. She was hesitant to even leave the breakfast with me. I was on a conference call and really worked up, and I just told her if she didn’t want to give it to me, fine. I didn’t say it in such a nice way. I slammed the door in her face. And then I went back to my Zoom meeting, and I had a text message from her that said, “I left the breakfast with your helper—or your help.” To which I responded, “I’m the help. You gave it to me.” That’s one example, but it’s happened to me thousands of times. And it bothers me time after time. It’s one thing to be a part of a community that doesn’t allow people to join it; Judaism’s not like that. We allow people to come in. So even if you can’t imagine how I could be born this way, or how I could be associated or affiliated, your mind must assume I could have converted! It really is baffling to me that in today’s day and age, people are so shocked that I’m Jewish, who assume my children are someone else’s children, that my house is someone else’s house.

I want to say to lay people, ‘Stop acting and speaking as if the white Jewish experience is the entire Jewish experience.’

Jared: I’ve often had the police called on me when approaching a synagogue, with squad car lights and everything, very traumatizing. And I still get those same questions—“Oh, so you’re Jewish. What happened?” Or in college, when a Jewish professor asked me, “I heard that you’re Jewish. How did that happen?” I have a long list of crass responses: “My parents had really great sex. How about yours?”

Sabrina: In the last few years, I have been invited to come into synagogues as a scholar-in-residence or artist-in-residence for Shabbat services. There was a time when I was in Philly—we had a conversation, dinner, and I went back to the closet to get something out of my coat. And as I was coming out, somebody handed me their coats and said, “Oh, great, can you take care of these for me?” And I stepped back and said, “No,” and walked away. Later, of course when they saw that I was the speaker who they were coming to hear, they were quite embarrassed. But that’s pretty typical.

Tova: I have definitely experienced discrimination and racism in the Jewish community. I’m very light-skinned, and I’ve had people ask me, “How are you Jewish?” They make assumptions about my identity. I’ve experienced that. But I don’t necessarily always get the questions that other Black Jews get walking into Jewish spaces. I want that to be acknowledged. I’m Black and Ashkenazi, so that’s part of my heritage. One of my parents is Black and not Jewish, and the other one is Black and Jewish. So while I have had people question my identity and make me feel othered, I haven’t probably experienced it to the same degree as other Black Jews. When people see that I’m [in synagogue] they think, “Oh, she’s probably half-Jewish.” Some of us are welcomed in—or accepted—a little bit more in certain Jewish spaces because of the way we actually present outwardly.

Kylie: It becomes this game of—how much darker am I than you? Like the Shade Game a little bit—“My skin’s a little bit darker, so maybe I experience a little bit more [racism].” As a very young child, I picked up on very subtle things and figured out how to be accepted and acceptable in the community. I also have the added advantage of growing up in Israel, I speak fluent Hebrew, I studied American Jewish history in college, and I’m getting my Ph.D. in Jewish thought. So I can talk about anything that anybody wants to about Judaism, I’ve been very in[side] the Jewish world. But a lot of what I chose to do, I have come to realize, was motivated by my feeling of, “If I do this, then nobody will question me.” I was an Orthodox Jew—that was the community that I [chose] because it was the one where that was the most Jewish and you couldn’t argue with my Judaism if I was keeping Shabbat and kosher. It’s also a byproduct of the family that I grew up in. My mom put me in an Orthodox school when I was in middle school. It’s how I figured out how I could fit in.

I’ve often had the police called on me when approaching a synagogue, with squad car lights and everything, very traumatizing.

You’ve told me that one of the hurdles for understanding the Black Jewish experience is the wider ignorance of how many kinds of Jews there are.

Kylie: Communities are so insular—especially in the Northeast, that they literally don’t even know about Reform Jews. And then you’ve got Jews of different races? We’re doing well just to know what Conservative Jews believe, Chabadniks or modern Orthodox Jews—people don’t know. We’re not telling other people’s stories and they’re not very visible.

Could you help leaders understand better how it feels to have fellow Jews not assume that a Black person in a Jewish space is Jewish?

Lindsey: Belonging is one of the most basic facets of humanity and humanness. So what we’re talking about is a very pervasive disconnection that people are visiting on one another. To have someone deny what you know is true of yourself and who you belong to—so much so that eventually you might be experiencing self-doubt, which is some of what Kylie described—which can be named as internalized oppression or internalized racism, that is a very powerful force that one has to work very hard and proactively to overcome.

People, come on. If something lands as racist, I’ll let you know.

Ray: I’m a convert and then got ordained by one of the major seminaries. I think that a bit earlier in my journey toward becoming Jewish, it did hurt a little bit more. Now, because, number one, I’m clergy who doesn’t work in a synagogue and two, I’m really intent on creating whatever Jewish experience and world that I want, if someone doesn’t assume it of me, so be it. lt used to sting much more and now just kind of rolls off because it feels like I’ve gained enough social, cultural, and friendship capital along the way, that the people who are for me—I know they have my back. For those who don’t, it doesn’t sting as much. But it took a long time to get there.

What was your experience as a Black Jewish rabbinical student in seminary?

Ray: Largely positive. I’m a Black Southerner. Whatever racism I did experience in my rabbinical school training was “weak” relative to what I’ve experienced elsewhere in my life. So rabbinical school was largely a good experience for me. The only thing that would get to me is moments where I could tell everyone else was so uncomfortable with how to respond when something racial came up … People, come on. If something lands as racist, I’ll let you know.

Can I see a show of hands if you have had any difficulty being Jewish in your Black community? I see seven out of 10: Ilana, Yanna, Kylie, Ray, Sabrina, Izzy, and David.

David: I come from a very religious family and going to church on Sunday and being a Christian—Blackness is equated to Christianity. It really has felt like my family doesn’t feel like they can relate to me being a Jewish faith leader. I distinctly feel that a lot of them don’t even feel that I’m Black because I am Jewish. They equate Jesus with Blackness. And that can be very hurtful.

I experience less antisemitism in the Black community as compared to the racism I’ve experienced inside the Jewish community.

Sabrina: One thing that I think it’s really important to contextualize is that centuries ago there was a very deliberate attempt by machers to make a distinction between “European Jews”—specifically Ashkenazi Jews—and everybody else. There were all sorts of slurs against Sephardic Judaism—even in The Forward in its early press. So all of those things are part of the racism. It’s not just the idea that the shtetl isn’t every Jew’s history. It was a very deliberate attempt to get closer to whiteness with the false belief that it would protect Ashkenazi Jews in this country.

Yanna: It just goes to the fact that being Black is just so synonymous with Christianity. I think there’s just a lot of ignorance, naiveness. I wish people could have seen life through the lens that I have been exposed to—so many different types of people. But that’s just not the case in some Black communities, especially in the South, where a lot of my family is. Unfortunately there has been a long learning curve in terms of Judaism and what that is. There is also a component of the historical belief that the Jews killed Jesus. That is very much a theme that has stuck with a lot of people and they live by. I just wanted to put that out there.

Jared: I’m in Philly and grew up in this area. I have gotten everything from Nation of Islam guys asking me why I wear that Jewish jawn on my head to when I was a kid and my Christian classmates tried to stone me to death. But I also get the other thing where white Jews tell me, “You haven’t experienced antisemitism.” I would say that I experience less antisemitism in the Black community as compared to the racism I’ve experienced inside the Jewish community. One greatly outweighs the other.

Ilana: My experience has been the opposite. Although it’s very painful to be thought of as not a Jew on a daily basis by the Jewish community, it is—to me—even more painful to be told antisemitic things by some Black people knowing I’m Jewish and some people not knowing I’m Jewish. The Black people who know I’m Jewish just assume that because I’m Black, it must be more important to me than the fact that I’m Jewish. So they just tell me their antisemitic slurs or how much they think the Jew-man should go back to Israel, even though whoever they’re talking about may or may not be from Israel. I have been screamed at in the street by Black people. My husband and I have been threatened. Our lives have been threatened. It’s real. And, you know, on the other side—[racism from Jews]—I have experienced real things, but not to that level.

Be curious, but don’t expect that we’re going to bare our souls or that our trauma is the summation of who we are.

Izzy, anything you can share about the experience of Black Jews in the Black community?

Izzy: My non-Jewish Black family members still assume that all Jews are white and that we are the one Black Jewish family. I’ve shown them data that says otherwise, but there is a strong American bias that all American Jews are of European descent and all Jews globally are of European descent. This binary thinking and lack of appreciation for the beautifully rich racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish people is also part of our own doing—through how Hollywood has depicted the stereotypical Jew—but this is slowly changing. Our family is like the U.N. We are Muslim, Jewish, Methodist, and come from four continents. So my family parties have always been multiracial, multifaith and integrated community settings. With that said, our religious identities, our differing theologies, our ideological frameworks for identity, belonging and peoplehood, at times create a thick curtain between us where we hear murmurs instead of full-throated dialogue.

If there is one thing you would want the larger American Jewish community to know about Black Jewish Americans, what would it be?

Sabrina: We are not the first Jews and we will not be the last. There was a time when the Jews were mostly dark-skinned, and that history has been forgotten deliberately and replaced.

Ilana: I want people to know that we’re not all the same. All Ashkenazi Jews aren’t all the same. All Sephardic Jews aren’t the same. All Black Jews aren’t the same. So really take the time to get to know a person, get to know their soul, get to know who they are.

At the end of the day, we’re all Jews and we should all love and respect each other.

Jared: There are Jews of color or Black Jews who have experienced trauma, and there are some who have not experienced the same trauma. I would say: Be curious, but don’t expect that we’re going to bare our souls or that our trauma is the summation of who we are.

Tova: We as a Jewish community should be prioritizing Ahavat Yisrael—loving your fellow Jew. And when we are in community with one another, we need to be open and willing to accept the beautiful diversity of our people. At the end of the day, we’re all Jews and we should all love and respect each other.

Izzy: I think that there’s a crisis of belonging in Jewish life that’s costing us not only billions of dollars, but is also hurting the legacy of our ancestors and impacting the trajectory for our descendants. If we don’t make the work of racial equity in Jewish life a we issue, not an us/them issue, we’re compromising our integrity and preventing ourselves from moving forward.

Yanna: One thing that was said to me on my conversion journey by my rabbi was that I should be able to walk into any Jewish space and feel like I belong. But it’s impossible to do that without reciprocity.

Kylie: If there is anything that I would share, it would just be my truth, which is that it’s immensely difficult to be a mixed Jew. It is really hard to have two different peoples, and it is a journey of reconciliation that I think will take a lifetime to complete.

Ray: For all of the similarities of experience that we might have touched on here, there are so many other things that make us uniquely who we are. And if you are lucky enough and also kind enough, you’ll get the blessing of experiencing that.

David: Black Jews are a sacred people. We are forging our own Jewish path and that path is part of Jewish history. We are part of the story of the Jewish people.

Lindsey: I’m just struck by the awe that’s induced by the capacity of Judaism to expand, to hold all of these different realities and definitions of not only what it is to be Jewish, but the specificity of experience of each one of us who have a Black Jewish identity in common, but which means something unique and beautiful to each one of us.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.