“I am a Black Jew. Every Friday my girls and I light the Shabbos candles and recite our prayers with joy. My husband benches kiddush and we all sing hamotzi for our toddler who chimes in and out as she impatiently waits for challah. I love being Jewish, in my home, with family, and friends. I love the idea of Jewish solidarity as we get ready for events hosted by the JCC, local synagogue, or local Chabad. I love it all until I’m out amongst my fellow Jews, the majority of whom have fair skin, and I’m treated like an “other.”
“Did you convert?”
“Do you speak Hebrew?”
“Are you Ethiopian?”
It goes on. I’m inundated with questions that, quite frankly, are none of their business. These are not the questions they would ask a white Jew in passing or upon meeting.
As we all finally start to have the uncomfortable conversations that are needed in order to acknowledge, and ultimately abolish systemic racism and racial prejudice, my Jewish circles are asking, “What can I do as a white Jew?” The answer is quite simple. Accept me and treat me no differently. Don’t question the Star of David pendant hanging from my necklace. Don’t question my ethnic background outside of an appropriate, already established conversation on the topic. Don’t ask if I’m a convert, or “Jew by choice.” Don’t make assumptions about my Jew-ness because my skin is a shade of brown. If you get to know me — in the same fashion that you get to know your white Jewish neighbors and fellow congregants — naturally, organically, I promise you will learn my story, as I hope to learn yours.”
First, ask yourself, are you truly an ally of Black people, Jews of Color? I mean are you really?
I have heard responses to this question that sound like, “Yes, I am a supporter, I am not racist.” “I don’t see color, we are all humans.” “We follow Torah so that’s all that matters.”
That’s good lip service — the kind of thing nice Jews say. But sometimes, actions paint a different picture. When you see a Jew of Color in synagogue, does your mind automatically wonder “Why are they here? Did they convert? How are they Jewish?” These thoughts and whatever assumptions come from them, are the beginning of the problem within the Jewish community. They hinder allyship, change, inclusion and acceptance within the Jewish community.
When you “don’t see color” you are really putting on blinders to the subconscious micro-aggressions that Jews of Color are met with when attending synagogue or participating in the Jewish Community at large. We constantly have to validate ourselves for acceptance in a space where acceptance should be inherent and unbiased. The initial conversation with a Jew of Color that you meet in synagogue shouldn’t be a family history lesson or a curiosity driven conversation about conversion. The first step is merely welcoming and including a Jew of Color the same way you would anyone else.
In this tumultuous time in our country, Jews of Color desire a safe space, and the synagogue should be that haven. We should be able to practice our beautiful faith together without the scrutiny that many don’t realize they are doing, in the guise of “nice” conversation.
Allyship in the synagogue begins with caring enough to educate yourselves on Jewish History that isn’t all Askenazi-European-Normative. Gain understanding that Jews of Color are nothing new. We are here, and we’ve been here from the beginning. It begins with standing, truly standing, on the principles of Torah. After you’ve taken responsibility for yourself, you will be able to welcome and engage Jews of Color in the synagogue and community with authenticity, and genuine compassion. Once you care for real, you will see that our story, our trials and triumphs and not that different yours. Compassion begins with understanding.”
Dr. Tarece Johnson
Creating a welcoming space for Black and Brown Jews is important because so many of us in North America, Europe, South Africa, and Israel endure micro-aggressions, prejudices, and implicit biases at synagogues, Jewish day schools, and community events. Many Black/Brown Jews decide to no longer engage in public Jewish spaces because of the constant racism we experience. Many practice their Judaism in the privacy and comfort of their own home.
Black/Brown Jews experience racism inside and outside our Jewish community. We also endure antisemitism. Black Jews are also targets of anti-Blackness. We are victims of a society that is inherently racist and unfortunately the impact is deadly. Our lives are at risk because of structural racism, systemic injustices, and economic oppressions.
Black Jewish lives matter, too! The genocide and modern day slavery of Black people are impacting our health and livelihoods. We are struggling to breathe, to have equitable opportunities to survive and thrive. Black Jews are hurting, we are struggling, we are sad, and we are angry!
We are grieving and have been for centuries. White people, including White Jews who are complicit, comfortable, and silent, perpetuate the generational trauma we experience. From our journey for freedom in Egypt to our fight for liberation in the Americas, we are on a passage for justice, restoration, reparations, and liberty.
White people created this system of hate against Black people and they must dismantle the structures that keep us in bondage. If they don’t, we will, as we always have. We will use the power of Hashem to free ourselves! As we free ourselves, there will be modern day plagues that will undoubtedly affect everyone.
So how do we put the blood on our door posts to avoid these plagues? We don’t have much time. Here’s what we need to do, expeditiously!
- Engage Black Jewish leadership in synagogues, schools, camps, and organizations. Recruit and vote in Black members within 30 – 60 days. We don’t need one or two years for this to happen. If Black lives really mattered to these organizations, as recent statements describe, these organizations would have Black leadership now.
- The Jewish Federation must lead by example. All of the organizations funded by the Federation should follow its lead by engaging Black leadership and participating in reparations (scholarships, funding Black-led Jewish organizations, contracting with Black Jews, supporting Black businesses & schools and buying Black Jewish music, books, etc.).
- Invest in the education of Black Jews sincerely interested in becoming Rabbis. The need for more Black/Brown Rabbis is critical. and we must provide scholarships for those seriously interested in rabbinical school. We must provide funding for biblical and modern Hebrew language studies and Rabbinical school (all expenses paid – housing, food, etc).
- Black Jews should be leaders in synagogues, during the celebration of our religious holidays, and leading social & racial justice activities in our community. Anything about and for Black/Brown people should be led by Black/Brown Jews in our community. All too often we have White people leading efforts that directly impact the very communities we live in. The white supremacy in the Jewish community must end.
- Jewish day schools must hire Black educators and administrative leaders. They must have conscious Black people on their Board of Trustees to help drive the change needed to abolish structural racism. Black teachers should be equitably compensated and have the freedom to teach real historical facts. We must all stop perpetuating the whitewashed history and engage in Black/Brown historical and current day perspectives.
- As we live our Jewish values, we must understand that being an anti-racist is core to being/doing Jewish. We must all do the self-study to unlearn and relearn. We must do the work to be anti-Racists by reading, taking courses, participating in workshops, and engaging in personal coaching. We must end the anti-Blackness, texturism, misogyny, and colorism that impact deeply melanated Jews.
- Living Torah requires us to seek justice and treat other people with respect. Living Torah is accepting the convert as a full member of the Jewish community without prejudice. Living Torah is not defining who the parent is to determine Jewish authenticity, it is loving and accepting our brothers and sisters who are Jews (regardless of how or why).
- History is repeating itself. We must take responsibility for allowing this to happen and now we must take revolutionary actions to correct our mistakes. We must redirect the course, redefine history, and ensure it is never repeated. We must educate our Jewish children now with the hard historical truths about who we are as a Jewish people, in Jewish history and in Africa. We are a multicultural and multiracial community of individuals living our own Jewish ways. We should all be respected, valued, and celebrated. Our Jewish youth must learn that living our Jewish values requires us to be empathetic, kind, and loving. We must be people of integrity, morality, and we must always seek justice. We must love, care for, and fight more for one another regardless of our differences.
Tarece Johnson, EdD was recently elected to Gwinnett County’s Board of Education. Dr. Tarece is the mother is two teens and an entrepreneur. She is a published author, poet, artist, advocate/activist, and educational leader.