Converting to Judaism is the best decision I’ve made in my entire life. It has given me the chance to connect to my Jewish heritage that was unfortunately quelled due to American Christian hegemony. It has provided me with a path of righteous love, a rich and endless depth of wisdom and insight, and a beautiful, diverse culture that I get to claim as my own.
As a Jew who is also African American, I wear my background with pride. I have no reason to segregate my identities; I recognize their respective complexities but relish in every way how they intersect and enrich me. I even had the recent honor of being accepted into the JewV’Nation Fellowship, a leadership cohort through the Union for Reform Judaism. This has allowed me to connect with brilliant Jewish professionals of color across North America and develop projects to enrich the Jewish experience for individuals of color and their communities.
However, existing with these labels can at times lead to feeling unheard or isolated, even unintentionally, by the broader Jewish community. Recently, Rabbi Alana Alpert (rabbi at Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park and director of Detroit Jews for Justice) invited me and other Jews of color into her home for dinner and conversation, facilitated by Aurora Levins Morales, a brilliant indigenous Puerto Rican Jewish storyteller. The evening was validating and warm and just what my black Jewish soul needed.
Throughout the night, as wine poured and we savored grape leaves and lentils and rice, we became unified through telling our stories. We realized that even though we may come from different backgrounds and nationalities and levels of observance, our story as Jews of color is one.
As Aurora told me, “There’s this wonderful mutual affirmation and recognition that happens even when our stories are different; there are pieces of the story that everybody recognizes. It’s very joyful for me to experience that because I get affirmation from it … and it just reinforces my deep-rooted belief in the power of storytelling.”
As we each talked about our experiences as individuals of color in the Jewish community, I loved the instant identification with our stories from everybody in the room. The low, warm sounds of the various “mmhmms,” the snapping of fingers in agreement, the nods of empathy that could only be that deeply understood by others who have experienced what we have.
In some way, we’ve all been outsiders within a group of outsiders. We’ve been told that you can’t be both Jewish and black/Latinx/Indigenous/Asian/etc. We’ve had our identities questioned because they don’t fit into the “white Ashkenormative” model of Jewish existence. We’ve had to take extra steps to “act” or “look” Jewish to prove our identities in ways that white-passing Jews rarely have to. We’ve had to smile and nod when faced with microaggressions from well-meaning individuals so as not to disrupt their comfort or, even worse, conform to whatever subconscious stereotypes they may have about us.
Despite the challenges that we as Jews of color face and the work that still needs to be done to repair and include us, it is important to note that progress is being made. Speaking from my own experience, I feel fully welcomed as a Jew of color at Congregation T’chiyah. I feel accepted and loved because of my identity, not in spite of it, and yet I also never feel tokenized. I relate to what Aurora said about her experience with her synagogue, that “[the congregation is] warm to all of me, not the idea of me that’s comfortable.”
Aurora stated that her congregation’s journey to inclusivity was not without its obstacles, particularly the task of sitting in discomfort and analyzing the ways they may be indirectly contributing to excluding its members of color. However, she mentioned that a lot of good has come from that intense self-reflection; that over time, “people have become more aware of the need to just see something deeper and more intentional and looking inward at our own community, not just outward.”
When I look at the future of Judaism, I acknowledge all the challenges that lay ahead to amplify its voices of color. Regardless, I am nonetheless hopeful and excited to be an architect of change alongside my fellow Jews of color and our incredible allies.
Judaism has never once been a path of least resistance; it is a beautiful struggle based in hard work and deep love, and those values are our tools to foster a Judaism of inclusivity and acceptance.
Chris Harrison is a 2018 fellow in the JewV’Nation Leadership Cohort for Jews of Color. He has a passion for Jewish studies, writing and cinema and loves to cook, exercise and explore Detroit in his spare time.