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Projects: ETHNIC and RACIAL DIVERSITY: The BE'CHOL LASHON INITIATIVE

For more on this topic, please see: www.BecholLashon.org

Jews have become so integrated into American society that they tend to mirror American culture in many ways. For example, Jews live in small towns, rural areas, and in Alaska, not just in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Some Jews are very wealthy, and some are homeless. Jews are both heterosexual and gay/lesbian. Jews divorce and remarry, they are working-class and professional. Jews are contemporary Americans, not mythical 19th-century shtetl residents from Fiddler on the Roof. After all, Tevye and some of his children did move to America. Jews are part of the fabric of American life, which includes a rich racial and ethnic diversity.

As Jews become more integrated into the overall American society, it should hardly come as a surprise that growing numbers of African Americans, Asians, Latinos and mixed-race individuals are becoming part of the Jewish community. However, this growth augments a diverse Jewish population that has existed in America for hundreds of years. The first American Jews were Sephardic and African, as well as Ashkenazi.

Most Jews are somewhat aware of the great Sephardic cultures that existed in Spain and Portugal, and in the last twenty years have become aware of the Ethiopian population that made aliyah to Israel. However, these can seem, to most Jews, to be historical artifacts or exotic exceptions. The subject of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American or mixed race Jews can create disbelief, surprise or even dismissal from some Jews.

Ironically, Jews, as a group, were considered non-white by the American majority well into the 1950s and early 1960s. Jews were considered by others to be "black" or "Oriental." It is no coincidence that racially-restrictive covenants and housing laws in America, prior to the late 1940s, targeted African Americans, Asians, and Jews, all considered to be foreign, non-white racial groups.

On the timeline of Jewish existence, the white status of Jews is something of a novelty. For some Jews, it is difficult to absorb that Jews were once considered to be non-white. Still others, oddly enough, will never think of themselves as white at all. They still consider themselves to be part of a minority that exists outside the white mainstream of America. They feel that they are strangers in the land, still. Yet, as they relate to people of color, most Jews in the United States are clearly white, even if they can sometimes empathize or identify with people of color.

There are many racially and ethnically diverse Jews who are born Jewish. These individuals are not necessarily of mixed-race. Around the world, including within the United States, there are long-established families and communities of color who have been Jewish for generations. Additionally, significant numbers of Jews marry someone who is not born Jewish. Even when the non-Jewish partner does not convert, their children may grow up with a Jewish identity, with multiple religious identities, or with no religious identity at all. Some people of color become Jews through formal conversion, and still others live as Jews-transforming their identity psychologically and functionally-without undertaking rites of conversion. An increasing number of people of color become Jewish when they are adopted by Jewish parents. Many, but not all, of these adopted children undergo a formal conversion while they are still minors and grow up just like other Jewish kids in America.

The Demography of Diverse Jews

The Demographic Study of Jews is Difficult
Scholars, community leaders, and the public at large often inquire about the size, make-up, and location of the diverse Jewish population. The demographic study of Jews is difficult for a variety of reasons. First, some countries, like the United States, do not ask about religion in their census counts of the population. A number of groups (including many Jewish institutions) are concerned about the separation of church and state, and do not want the government inquiring about religion. Therefore, we rely on a variety of surveys to try to estimate the Jewish population, including the number of diverse Jews.

Second, Jewish communities are highly dispersed. Even in communities with significant Jewish populations, people are more likely to be scattered among the general population than in previous generations. Jews also live in the suburban fringes of many metropolitan areas, far from any Jewish population center, making them difficult to locate. Finding Jewish respondents outside major metropolitan areas is an even more needle-in-a-haystack endeavor.

Third, some Jews do not want to be found. When receiving an unexpected telephone call from a stranger wanting to know if they are Jewish or not, many will simply hang up the phone or even hide their identity or background. The Institute for Jewish & Community Research conducted methodological tests that confirm that there are many Jews that previous studies missed. Some groups of Jews are more reluctant than others to reveal their religious identity to telephone survey researchers, such as Russian Jews and Israelis in the United States. Among those people who may not be inclined to cooperate with survey researchers are those who tend to mistrust governments; who have been victims of persecution; who reject their religious identity; and who think of themselves as ethnic Jews rather than religious Jews. Both locating Jews and inducing them to reveal their religious identity complicate and compromise our ability to estimate the number of diverse Jews.

The number of Jews in the United States
A 2002 national telephone survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research (IJCR) estimates there are over 6 million Jews in the United States, considerably more than the 5.2 million Jews counted by the 2000 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) conducted by the United Jewish Communities (UJC). Our estimate of over 6 million Jews includes the same categories included in other population estimates: those who say Judaism is their religion and those who have a Jewish background (parent or upbringing).

The Institute for Jewish & Community Research survey was able to locate more Jews due to the nature of the questions and the order in which they were asked. For example, the Institute found that it was less threatening to begin the interview with a series of personal questions that inquired about ancestry rather than religious identity.

This is especially important because many American Jews think of themselves more in ethnic or cultural terms than in religious ones, and are more comfortable talking about that aspect of their identity. Other studies conducted by IJCR have shown that many Jews say, "I am not a religious Jew or a practicing Jew, but I feel Jewish. I am a cultural Jew." The discrepancy between the IJCR count of 6 million Jews and the NJPS count of 5.2 million Jews is partially due to IJCR's success in having more ethnic and cultural Jews respond to the survey.

Jews of Color Are a Growing Population in the United States
Diversity characterizes the American Jewish community, partially through historical antecedents and partially through contemporary social forces at work. The Jewish community is growing and changing through intermarriage, conversion, and adoption. Some of the individuals entering the community via these avenues are people of color.

We estimate at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. Calculating this number is challenging and requires examining a number of different sources.

First, according to the 2002 IJCR study and the 2000 NJPS study, a little over 7% of America's 6 million Jews say that they are African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, or Native American or mixed-race, for a total of about 435,000 individuals. This includes 85,000 who say that they are some race other than white but do not classify themselves more specifically. Second, the NJPS 2000 found 120,000 Jewish adults living in the United States who were born in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean (not including Israel). We estimate that over half of this foreign-born population (not including children) is comprised of diverse Jews, adding another 65,000.

Third, the number of Israelis living in the United States is under great dispute, including those of diverse backgrounds. For example, the NJPS found only 70,000-93,000 Israelis living in the United States, while the most recent New York demographic study showed about 50,000 Israelis in New York alone. The U.S. Census reports almost 200,000 people who speak Hebrew at home. A 2003 study by the Israeli Foreign Ministry showed almost a half million (500,000) Israelis living in the U.S.

Therefore, based on the U.S. Census, we are conservatively estimating the total number of Israelis in the United States at 200,000. Because approximately half of the population in Israel is of Mizrahi, Sephardic, and African heritage, it stands to reason that 50% of Israelis in the United States could be Mizrahi, Sephardic, or African Jews (who are not included in the other categories listed). Therefore, we conservatively estimate that 100,000 Israelis living in the United States are of diverse backgrounds, or 1.7% of American Jews. This brings the total to 600,000 diverse Jews, or about 10% of the population.

Fourth, a question regarding Sephardic heritage was not asked in the 2000 NJPS, although the 1990 National Jewish Population Study showed that 8% of American Jews said they were Sephardic. Is the real percentage 10%? More? We do not know, other than to surmise it is considerably higher than is reported.

The number of Jews with some Sephardic heritage is likely to be grossly underestimated in many Jewish surveys, including the NJPS. Sephardic heritage is especially apt to be lost in individuals' self-reporting. Many people do not know about their Sephardic background, especially given the propensity of different groups of Jews to intermarry over generations throughout the Diaspora. Taking into consideration all these factors, we are conservatively estimating 10% of the United States population has some Sephardic heritage, in addition to those who say their race is Latino/Hispanic. We have taken into account potential overlap in this reporting and adjusted our estimate accordingly.

Adding 600,000 Sephardic Jews or 10% of the Jewish population together with 600,000 or 10% of Black, Asian, Latino and mixed-race Jews means 1.2 million or 20% of the Jewish population in the United States is diverse. This includes individuals who have converted to Judaism, individuals who have been adopted into Jewish families and raised as Jews, the multiracial children of partnerships between Ashkenazi Jews and people of color, and those who are themselves the generational descendants of Jews of color and those of Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage. (See Table 1)

Table 1

Ethnically and Racially Diverse Jews in the United States Percentage Individuals Source
African American, Black, Asian, Latino/Hispanic,* Native American , mixed-race or some race other than white (non-specific)** 7.3% 435,000 NJPS 2000/IJCR 2002
Africa, South America, Middle East, Asia, and Caribbean foreign-born 1.0% 65,000 NJPS 2000
Israelis with Sephardic or Mizrahi heritage 1.7% 100,000 U.S. Census 2000
Subtotal 10.0% 600,000  
Sephardic heritage*** 10.0% 600,000 NJPS 1990
TOTAL (of 6 million U.S. Jews) 20.0% 1,200,000  
* Half of Latinos/Hispanics listed their race as white, and half did not. We accounted for any overlap in our estimate.

** These numbers have been aggragated due to the small sample size, but the approximate breakdown is African American 1%, Asian 2%, Latino 3% and the remaining 1.3% is Native American, mixed-race and some race other than white (non-specific)

*** Estimate of those who are not African American, Black, Asian, Native American or mixed-race, or foreign-born and do not identify as Latino or Hispanic

The Potential to Grow the Jewish People
In addition to over 6 million Jews, IJCR also found some 4.2 million adults in the United States with Jewish heritage: those with a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent, or more distant Jewish ancestor. Of these 4.2 million, there are 700,000 people with diverse backgrounds who are not currently Jewish, but are aware of a Jewish ancestor. When asked, they claim their Jewish heritage as part of their ethnic or religious identity, even if they do not answer Jewish when asked about their current primary identity. Of course, these numbers would be much larger if more people knew more about their Jewish ancestry. Many who are not currently Jewish have historical ties to Judaism but do not know about their ethnic origins. Ethnic histories over the centuries are quite complex and are lost to many. Millions of people have Jewish ancestors, especially those of Portuguese, Spanish, and African descent, but are unaware of it.

We also found an even larger population of some 6.7 million adults who are not Jewish, but who have a connection to Judaism or the Jewish community. This includes some who are married to Jews and feel identified with the community and others who have an affinity with Judaism or Jews based on intellectual or emotional identification. They are entwined in the Jewish community but are not self-defined as Jews. This group includes some 600,000 individuals - "connected non-Jews" - of diverse backgrounds who are connected to the Jewish people through marriage, friendship, extended family, community, or personal interest.

Some of these individuals are on the path to conversion; they may even be living as Jews in terms of synagogue attendance or ritual observance but have not yet formally become Jews through a conversion or affirmation process. Some may practice Judaism and another religion but have not yet decided to practice only Judaism. Some are so entwined within the Jewish community that they feel Jewish, according to their own self-assessment. They participate in Jewish life and may be raising their children as Jews. (See Table 2)

Table 2

Institute for Jewish & Community
Research Survey 2002
Total Individuals
Diverse Individuals
Percent Diverse Individuals
Currently Jewish 6,000,000 1,200,000 22%
Jewish Heritage 4,200,000 700,000 16%
Connected non-Jews 6,700,000 600,000 9%

Jews of Color Are a Growing Population Around the World
Finding Jews in the United States is a simple task when compared to finding individuals and groups with Jewish ancestry around the world. The sophisticated methods of survey research do not apply, and written records sometimes do not exist. Oral traditions or ritual practice are the indicators of Jewish roots and help find some people. Others do not know about their religious origins, especially those descended from ancient, but now assimilated Jewish communities in Africa. Many descendents of Spanish and Portuguese Jews have no idea about their Jewish ancestry.

The potential for Jewish population growth around the world, especially in Latin America and Africa, is as significant as it is in the United States. We estimate millions of people of color who 1) have converted to Judaism; 2) have Jewish heritage; 3) who identify with Judaism; or 4) are on the path to Judaism in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Burundi, and elsewhere in Africa. A community in Uganda, the Abayudaya, has been practicing Judaism for almost a hundred years. They recently went through a formal conversion with a Conservative Beit Din. Other such communities exist in India, Burma, Brazil, Peru, and around the globe.

Describing the Tapestry

Just as Ashkenazi Jews are a mix of many peoples encountered during centuries of wandering throughout the Diaspora, Jews of color have different backgrounds, different life experiences, and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. These differences include geography, socioeconomic class, ideology, culture, skin tone, language, paths to Judaism, and so on. What language, then, shall we use to describe multiracial and multi-ethnic Jews? What about those who are adopted from Asia by Ashkenazi parents? How would one categorize Indian Jews? Some African Americans whose families have been Jewish for over 100 years prefer to be known as "Hebrew Israelites," feeling that "Jew" refers to whites. Still other African American Jews have joined mainstream (read: Ashkenazi) synagogues. What about the Anusim (known also as Conversos or Crypto-Jews), who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal over 500 years ago?

How do we talk about ourselves when the language we have is too narrow and confining, like outdated racial categories on a census form? How do we describe a group for which there is no group label?

We must use what is admittedly inadequate language: "Jews of color," "diverse Jews," "racially and ethnically diverse Jews." All of these terms refer to those who are in currently distinct subcultures from the majority Jewish community in the United States. Many people who fall into this category may not define themselves as "people of color," yet many in the mainstream view them as being "other." It is these people, whatever their origins and culture, whatever their skin tone, whatever their path to Judaism, that we discuss.

Why Ethnic & Racial Diversity is Important

Racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community is important for five reasons:

1. Whatever percentage of the American Jewish population diverse Jews may represent, their numbers are increasing.
Diverse Jews help grow the Jewish population. The potential for increasing that number-thereby increasing our communal numbers overall-is significant and intriguing. Numbers are important for their own sake. Despite the outcries so common in Jewish institutional circles that quality not quantity matters, both are important. A larger, more expansive Jewish community is healthier than a shrinking one. Considering the number of "connected non-Jews" already in existence, as well as those Americans, including people of color, who feel free to choose or reject the religion of their birth, the Jewish community could greatly expand, perhaps by millions, if it were more open and could attract new individuals, including individuals of color. Jews should consider those individuals, who may not be "officially" Jewish, as friends, and should treat them as such, as they would graciously treat guests in their homes. In addition to the fact that being unwelcoming violates Jewish values, Jews should cherish those people in the world that they can count on for support in the face of rising anti-Semitism.

2. Diverse Jews are deeply identified as Jews
Although population growth is critical, numbers alone will not sustain the Jewish community. The depth of involvement and participation of individual Jews is also essential. The wider Jewish community should care about diversity because most diverse Jews, regardless of their path to Judaism and regardless of their degree of institutional or religious affiliation, are deeply identified as Jews and want to build a stronger Jewish community.

3. Diversity within the Jewish community helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups.
For the last several years, anti-Semitism (sometimes hidden in the form of anti-Israelism) has been rising in the United States, in Europe, and especially in the Muslim world. Encouraging diversity within the Jewish community is one way to address that threat. Increasing the numbers and visibility of racially and ethnically diverse Jews helps to bridge the gaps with other racial and ethnic groups. Anti-Semites portray Israel and Jews as "white colonialists," sometimes likening Israeli actions to the former South African policy of apartheid or even to Nazi practices. Those who oppose the existence of Israel often appeal to individuals of color to join together against the "white colonialists." The misrepresentation of Israel, Jews, and Judaism becomes harder to believe when it is made clear that Jews are people of color. African American Jews are the best spokespeople to connect with other African Americans, Latino Jews can speak to the Latino community, and so on. The more the Jewish community looks like America, the closer the Jewish community remains to all Americans.

4. Diversity helps make Judaism more meaningful
For the Jewish community to continue to thrive into coming generations, the American Jewish mainstream must find a way to make Judaism more meaningful to the growing numbers of disenfranchised Jews, which include younger people, and diversity is one of the keys to that future. The American people, including younger Jews, are growing up in a world that believes racial or ethnic insularity to be racist and polarizing. They consider archaic a community that separates itself from other minority cultures. Popular music, film, and other art forms that appeal to younger people borrow freely from many cultures and no longer disguise their origins. Diversity is such an important part of American identity, that the Jewish community would be well served by devoting resources and energy to racial and ethnic diversity within its own ranks.

5. Racial and ethnic diversity are the hallmark and soul of the Jewish experience
The American Jewish community must support, encourage, and seek diversity, because diversity has always been a vital part of Jewish history and heritage. Throughout Jewish history, the Jewish people have borrowed from and added to other cultures wherever they were, in Egypt or Ethiopia, in Cartagena or Calcutta, Russia or Romania. The Jewish people have always grown by the addition of people from the surrounding cultures, changing and adapting and becoming richer with each addition, whether by choice or by force. No single ethnic or racial group holds the "true Jew" card. The Jewish people have survived by being a people and there is no better reason to embrace that tradition than the mere fact that it has always ensured group survival.

Toward a More Inclusive Future

Programmatic needs of diverse Jews are as varied as the backgrounds of the people themselves. There is no singular group with a singular set of needs. In some circumstances, diverse Jews want to be with other Jews just like themselves: Latino Jews only with Latino Jews, African American Jews with African American Jews, and so on. Even within those smaller groupings, there may be a need for sub-groups, like transracially adopted Jews meeting other transracially adopted Jews. At different times, communities of color may wish to join together: All marginalized Jews, for example, may feel a sense of community simply for their status as "not of the mainstream." Finally, diverse Jews also want to participate in programs with the general Jewish population. The permutations of "community" are endless, and institutions that support diverse Jews must bear this in mind.

A New Initiative: Be'chol Lashon (In Every Tongue)

Created by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, Be'chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) is a research and community-building initiative for ethnic and racial diversity in the Jewish community. Many of the needs of diverse Jews are not being met by existing programs and institutions. Be'chol Lashon is helping to bridge that gap to create a Jewish community that is more racially, ethnically, and culturally inclusive, both in the United States and around the world.

Be'chol Lashon derives its agenda from the work of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, helping to guide organizational and institutional missions and activities. Be'chol Lashon helps conceptualize and design programs-even envisioning new organizational structures-to address the needs uncovered in the Institute's research. Be'chol Lashon also helps build partnerships and cooperation among organizations and institutions so that duplication is avoided, unmet meets are met, and efficiency and economies of scale are achieved. The agenda is so vast, complicated, and challenging that more, rather than less, organizational and institutional synergy is essential.

Be'chol Lashon now acts as a central clearinghouse-partnering with individuals and organizations to accomplish this significant agenda. Be'chol Lashon supports the "best and brightest" to assume leadership roles. The initiative has emerged as a model for promoting and embracing both growth and diversity in the Jewish community. Be'chol Lashon is community-building writ large, helping to create lasting, effective ties among those people who might not otherwise have found a way to join together.

In the end, there is a single concept that unites people of different cultures, languages, and colors who feel themselves part of the Jewish community: Israel, Hebrew, and Torah. With those three cornerstones of Judaism as an immutable starting point, creating a community made up of all kinds of Jews is possible.

Published

book cover: in every tongue In Every Tongue: Ethnic & Racial Diversity in the Jewish Community.
San Francisco: Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2005.
Tobin, Diane K., Gary A. Tobin and Scott Rubin.

More information...


Article

“Do We Want to Be Who We Really Are?”
Sh'ma, A publication of Jewish Family & Life, Needham, MA, April, 2003.
Tobin, Gary A

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