Mixed-race Jewish children locate their communal comfort zone

Groups that cater to young Asian and black Jews in the US are growing and getting more non-white leaders


By Sue Fishkoff, November 12, 2009
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Children at the first camp run this summer by Be’chol Lashon, a group for Jewish mixed-race youngsters

Children at the first camp run this summer by Be’chol Lashon, a group for Jewish mixed-race youngsters

Dafna Wu, a 48-year-old San Francisco nurse, was born to a Jewish mother and Chinese father. She was raised Jewish but looks Asian, as does her daughter, nine-year-old Amalia, whose father was also Chinese.

The Hebrew School Amalia attends is filled with mixed-race children, but the parents in the congregation are all white, as is the majority of American Jewry. That concerns her mother.

“All my life I’ve had to defend being Jewish,” says Ms Wu. “When I go to a new synagogue, people ask who I’m with. I don’t want her to have to explain her Judaism, or be exoticised for it. I just want her to be a kid, not ‘that special, multi-racial kid’.”

That’s why Ms Wu brings Amalia to Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a San Francisco-based organisation for ethnically and racially diverse Jews. At the group’s most recent retreat last month, at a camp north of San Francisco, Amalia played with other Jewish children who are black, Hispanic and Asian. They sang Hebrew songs, built a succah, and learned about tzedakah, but they also talked openly with their counsellors about what it means to be Jews of colour, to have an identity people do not see due to the colour of their skin.

About 5.4 per cent of America’s Jews are either non-white or Hispanic, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. A 2004 study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, Be’chol Lashon’s parent organisation, puts that number at about 10 per cent. Nevertheless, say activists in the field, the prevailing assumption is that Jews are white, and that Jews of other racial or ethnic backgrounds are adoptees or converts. Sometimes they are, but increasingly they are not, as the children of mixed-race couples grow to adulthood and begin raising their own Jewish children.

And as their numbers grow, mixed-race Jewish families face the same question put to interfaith families: Is there a need for separate programming? The answer, judging by the growth in the field, seems to be yes.

After 12 years of programming in San Francisco, and six years of annual retreats, Be’chol Lashon opened its first summer camp this June in California.An East Coast organisation with similar goals, the Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN), founded by white Ashkenazi parents of adopted African-American children, this summer formally passed leadership onto the next generation and is now run by and for Jews of

colour.

Both groups have greatly expanded. Be’chol Lashon now works in LA, NY and Oklahoma City. And the Jewish Multiracial Network, which sponsors an annual retreat, has held gatherings and town hall meetings in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and the Midwest, and is planning one for LA.

Be’chol Lashon founder and director Diane Tobin says she notices a “marked increase of interest” in reaching out to non-white Jews within the greater

Jewish community. “Diversity has become a very popular issue, especially with the election of President Obama.”

Diane Tobin created Be’chol Lashon with her late husband 12 years ago, when they adopted Jonah, who is African-American. The Tobins’ daughter, Sarah Spencer, was in on the decision.

“We thought it was important to have a community where Jonah and kids like him would not have to choose between their identities, where they didn’t have to be black sometimes and Jewish sometimes,” she says.

At both JMN and Be’chol Lashon, mixed-race or non-white children who grew up in the groups are taking over from their parents’ generation. In June, 36-year-old Tanya Bowers of Washington, DC was elected JMN’s first African-American president.

For the past several years there has been “some tension”, Ms Bowers says, between the “well-intentioned” white Jews who founded the group, and the younger Jews of colour. This summer the founders were ready to let go.

Within Be’chol Lashon as well, young non-white faces are more prevalent in the group’s leadership. Kenny Kahn, 27, son of a white Jewish mother and black non-Jewish father, is a veteran of Hebrew school, Jewish summer camps and an Israel programme, and has been coming to Be’chol Lashon for 12 years. He is now a head counsellor.

Mr Kahn relishes the space Be’chol Lashon gives him to explore his Judaism at leisure, with others who share his concerns. “In California we’re blessed with tolerance,” he says. “But tolerance is just the first step to acceptance, and that’s what we need more of in the Jewish community.”

Last updated: 5:29pm, November 12 2009