Navigate to News section

We’re Here. You’re Just Not Paying Attention.

It’s time for mainstream Jewish organizations to engage Jews of color

March 06, 2015

Each day this week, the Scroll featured a post from a writer at JN Magazine—short for “Jewnited Nations”—a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.” Each post was commissioned and edited by MaNishtana, the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Tablet contributor and editor-at-large at JN Magazine. This post was written by MaNishtana.

In the wake of Ferguson, many questioned the problematic absence of mainstream Jewish organizations from the national dialogue. Marjorie Dove Kent took a different approach this week, taking Jewish activism to task in a Forward article last week titled, “It’s Time for Black Jews To Lead”. In it, she addresses the very real issue of the lack of diversity in the leadership of mainstream Jewish organizations.

I had mixed feelings about the piece, whose title alone suggests that there isn’t any leadership among African/Caribbean-descended Jewry. While Kent does cursorily acknowledge the existence of Jew of Color, or JOC-led organizations, she calls those groups “small, understaffed and grossly underfunded.”

The question isn’t where are all the JOC-led organizations. It’s why aren’t they being utilized.

Underfunded though they are, these groups are nonetheless valuable resources. For example, Jews In ALL Hues provides training, workshops, and consultations for Jewish professionals. Jewish Multiracial Network hosts a series of parlor meetings and JCC-sponsored events centering around Jewish diversity, “mainstream” Jewish allyship, and other topics important to the tapestry of American Judaism. The purpose of these organizations is to support and produce diverse Jewish leadership and leadership sensitive to Jewish diversity.

If mainstream Jewish organizations aren’t reaching out to JOC leaders, who seek to participate in Jewish communal life, then how can the question of where the JOC leadership is be asked? Engaging with JOC leaders will produce JOC leadership in mainstream organizations. Which leads me to the second question:

Why is there so little engagement of JOCs by mainstream Jewish organizations?

In 2011, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles released a video titled, “What Will The Jewish Future Look Like?” It was a cutesy and endearing video—which, except for one child of possible partial Asian descent, featured all white Jewish children.

That’s right.

Apparently, according to the Jewish Federations, there’s no racial diversity in the Judaism Of The Future.

Understandably, JOCs who want to join Jewish activism efforts are faced with the very definite impression that before they can begin to fight as part of an organization, they first need to fight the organization itself. Such an environment doesn’t lend itself to a JOC presence in organizational ranks, period, let alone the likelihood of candidates rising into leadership positions.

Another impediment to Jews of color getting involved with mainstream organizations is a tendency for groups to regard Hebrew Israelites—a discrete religious community not considered Jewish by most of mainstream Jewry—as equally relevant Jews of color.

When such ideological and religious differences are pointed out, they are largely ignored in the name of a fabricated form of “diversity” which allows organizations to focus their gaze “over there” instead of examining how the mainstream Jewish community treats its diversity of very real Jews sitting in its own pews.

If an organization or community purporting to support Jewish diversity is unwilling to actually listen to its members regarding who and what they are, why would one want to associate?

Ultimately, much of the lack of JOC engagement stems from the absence of mainstream Jewish interest in issues that do not affect white, Ashkenazi Jews. This enables a self-propagating cycle in which there are no JOCs to direct mainstream Jewish organizational attention to JOC-affecting issues, the subsequent lack of attention discourages JOCs from joining the organization, and there remain no JOC voices to help direct the organization’s attention.

Don’t say it’s time for black Jews (and other JOCs) to lead. We are. It’s time for white Jews to listen.

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.