By Jamie Anfenson-Comeau and Asaf Shalev
Joshua Maxey has gotten the awkward stares. But more often when entering an unfamiliar part of the Jewish community, he’s experienced what he calls “The Twelve Questions.”
“If it’s Shabbat, I say, ‘Shabbat Shalom’ to people,” Maxey says. “They’ll ask, ‘Are you a student here?’ I’ll say, ‘No.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh, are you married?’ ‘No, I’m not married.’
“Then it’s, finally, ‘Are you Jewish?’ And I say, ‘Why yes, I am Jewish.’ In my head, I’m thinking, well, why else would I be here for Shabbat services? Then it’s, ‘Did you convert?’
“I’ve had to train myself to have these answers in my head for how I want to respond,” Maxey says.
Maxey, a Jew of color and member of Washington Hebrew Congregation, describes the “Twelve Questions” as an attempt to find out what he is doing in a space where all the other Jews are white.
“That’s something that I think keeps a lot of Jews of color from turning out, whether it’s Jewish sacred spaces or any Jewish space. Those questions, those quizzical looks are off-putting,” Maxey says.
For the first time, there are data to back up Maxey’s experience. A study by the Jews of Color Initiative, titled “Beyond the Count,” corroborates with data the anecdotes of racism in the Jewish community that have been widespread for years.
Responses from more than 1,100 people in the study reveal the deep Jewish identities of Jews of color that often come with experiences of discrimination in communal settings.
In some cases, Jews of color said they are ignored. In others they are casually interrogated about their race and ethnicity. Respondents said white Jews will sometimes presume a need to educate them about Jewish rituals or assume they are present in synagogues or schools as nannies and security guards rather than community members.
Some 80 percent of survey respondents said they have experienced discrimination in Jewish settings.
Maxey says he initially found the number shocking, but on consideration not really surprising.
“It was shocking to see how high that number is, that so many Jews of color are experiencing the same thing,” he says. “But it wasn’t really surprising to me, personally, because of the experiences I’ve had in Jewish spaces, and I know I am not alone in that.”
Yolanda Savage-Narva, director of racial equity, diversity and inclusion at the Union of Reform Judaism, said she has also experienced discrimination in Jewish settings.
“You have implicit and explicit biases, racism, all that goes along with it, and I have experienced all of the above within the Jewish community,” Savage-Narva says.
Jews of color are not a ‘monolith’
The study’s sponsor and research team hope the findings will jolt Jewish institutions into funding initiatives for and by Jews of color and changing the composition of decision-making bodies to reflect Jewish diversity.
“This study validates the experiences of Jews of color, and it also takes away a bit of the illusion that Jewish community organizations are doing enough to respond to racism and racial injustice,” says Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Initiative, which commissioned and funded the study.
Its participants were found through an online survey that started with a series of screening questions to ensure that only those identifying as Jews of color were included. The study was not designed to be a statistical representation of all Jews of color but as an in-depth sampling of the views. Interviews with 61 of the participants provided additional texture and nuance.
Nearly half of the participants identified with one or more racial categories, while two-thirds said they were biracial, mixed or multiracial. One in five were Black or African American, about a 10th were Hispanic or Latino, and a 10th were Asian. Some 7 percent identified as North African or Middle Eastern, and a small percentage identified with other racial or ethnic groups.
Savage-Narva says the survey helped dispel the idea that Jews of color are “a monolith.”
“Jews of color come from so many different backgrounds, from different racial, ethnic, socio-economic, sexual orientation, you name it, and the beauty of it is that the study showed the real sense of humanity that all people bring to the Jewish community, and that is powerful,” says Savage-Narva, a member of Temple Micah in the District.
Two-thirds of the respondents were raised as Jews and a similar percentage have at least one Jewish parent. About 40 percent said they converted to Judaism.
The question of whether one was raised as a Jew or converted is often contentious, Savage-Narva says, adding that the answer can be used to exclude someone from the community.
“We want people, whether they grew up Jewish or not, to be seen as part of the community, without these divisions about whether someone chose Judaism or did they grow up Jewish, so I push people away from that question a little bit,” Savage-Narva says.
The researchers behind the study note the diversity of both backgrounds and views among the participants.
“Jews of color are anything but monolithic, but there are common, prevalent trends about the places and moments when they are not fully embraced by the community or made to only bring a part of themselves to a program or congregation,” says Dalya Perez, a member of the research team.
One set of findings that researchers said should galvanize Jewish leaders to specific actions has to do with Jews of color seeking community with one another. Nearly 40 percent of participants said they had no close friends who are also Jews of color and half said talking to other Jews of color about their experiences was very important. Jews of color can have a sense of belonging among white Jews, the survey said, but only about half said they have felt they belong.
Jews of color need their own spaces
Savage-Narva says that it is important to have “affinity spaces” for Jews of color and other marginalized groups within the Jewish community where they can be themselves and have conversations with those who share similar experiences.
“There is a healing and empowerment component to that as well,” Savage-Narva says. “You can have real, authentic conversations and understanding with one another that you can’t necessarily have in other spaces. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have integrated spaces, or spaces where everyone is together, that doesn’t take away from that.”
At Washington Hebrew Congregation, Maxey helped lead an effort to create a Jews of color adult community. The group launched earlier this month with a Shabbat dinner.
“Sometimes we need those spaces. We need people who look like us, that share similar experiences,” Maxey says. “It not only gives the wider congregation a chance to see the diversity within itself, but it also gives those who identify with those affinity spaces a chance to come together in support of one another. It can be intimidating to walk in as the only Jew of color, but to know there are others, or that there is a group for Jews of color at my synagogue, that is important.”
Maxey says it is important to see more Jews of color in leadership positions in synagogues.
“I am a huge proponent of you can’t be what you can’t see,” Maxey says. “We all have to recognize that being Jewish is not one look. Especially here in America, because of media portrayals, that’s just what the cultural norm is. If you’re Jewish, that translates to being white, Ashkenazi, and that’s just not the case. The Jewish people are a diverse people; we are a beautiful mosaic, and that needs to be reflected.”
Defining what “Jew of color” means is a challenge that the researchers and the wider Jewish racial justice movement have grappled with for years.
Calling it an “imperfect, but useful umbrella term,” the study said those who identified as Jews of color did so for a variety of reasons. Some were referring to belonging to a racial group as is common in the United States. Others use the term to capture their national, geographic or ethnic heritage, as in the case of certain Iranian, Ethiopian or Sephardic Jews.
The ambiguity of the term arose previously in debates over the total number of Jews of color in the United States. Estimates range from 6 percent to 15 percent depending on the study and definition. A 2019 report from the Jews of Color Initiative argued that the community has been chronically undercounted because of poor study designs.
The recent Jewish population study from the Pew Research Center did not attempt to answer the question, but it did conclude that 92 percent of Jews identify as white.
As the title “Beyond the Count” suggests, the new study’s authors want to turn the focus away from past debates and move toward a deeper understanding of Jewish diversity.
Asked how they express their Jewishness, the participants offered five main responses. Three out of four said that working for justice and equality was very important to their Jewish identity. About two-thirds selected passing on their Judaism, honoring ancestors, remembering the Holocaust and celebrating holidays as very important expressions of Jewishness.
Franz Afraim Katzir, director of Sephardic Heritage International in DC (SHIN-DC), a Washington organization that advocates for underrepresented Jewish communities, welcomed the findings of the study.
“To us, the key takeaway is that Jewish diversity does not fit into a simple ‘Other’ category,” he said in an email. “Jews come from many different backgrounds. This is a reality that should expose the often false biases that some might have about Jews. The multifaceted nature of the Jewish world also means that any issues of ignorance and discrimination that might arise within our communities need to be addressed urgently.”
Jamie Anfenson-Comeau is WJW staff writer.
Asaf Shalev is a writer for JTA, which published an earlier version of this story.