A diverse group of Jewish community members share their pathways, obstacles and joys.
Featured photo by Jerry Zolynsky
When Re’uvein Rickman entered the sanctuary at Adat Shalom Synagogue for his first Shabbat service as a Jew, his thoughts immediately turned to where he should sit. The cantor told him to find a seat wherever he wanted, so Rickman chose one at the end of the aisle, seven rows from the bimah.
Sometime during the service, the significance of his seat selection became clear. Just a few days earlier, this trainer and former bodybuilder had walked seven steps into the mikvah and then seven steps out, symbolically marking the completion of his conversion to Judaism.
“When I converted to Judaism, I took seven steps away from the life I’d been living,” Rickman says now. “When I came out of the mikvah, I took seven steps toward the beginning of my journey with Judaism.”
In the three years since he became Jewish, Rickman, 71, continues to occupy the end seat in the seventh row. He’s in shul every Saturday morning. He makes a habit of coming Saturday evening, too, because that first Saturday night after his conversion, the congregation struggled to make a minyan.
Most Shabbat mornings, worshipers don’t take special notice of this tall, physically fit black man any more than they take note of any other congregant.
The High Holidays are different. Then, the sanctuary is packed with those who don’t typically attend services. Inevitably, some do a double-take when they see Rickman in his large colorful kippah, a blue-and-white Israeli tallit draped over his shoulders.
The stares don’t bother him.
“I know why they’re looking,” he says. “They think it’s rare. Especially when they only go to services once or twice a year and they come back and see something totally different — a black person in the synagogue.
“The surprise I see is a look of, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is really interesting.’ It’s not a look of fear, and it doesn’t give me a feeling of being unwelcome. God is probably smiling and thinking, ‘Maybe they should come to shul more often.’”
A significant and growing percentage of Jews in America are Jews of color. A 2018 Brandeis University study found that 1.9% of the estimated 7.4 million American Jews, or about 150,000 people, identifies as black and non-Hispanic.
However, a study released in 2019 by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, a San Francisco Bay Area-based national effort to advance the Jewish professional status of Jews of color, estimates that figure to be much higher. According to the group’s findings, between 12-15% of American Jews are Jews of color, defined as anyone identifying as non-white.
“American Jewish population studies have neglected to systematically and consistently ask about the racial and ethnic identities of American Jews,” the organization concluded in its findings, which analyzed numerous Jewish population studies dating to 1970. “The result has been that we know little about the composition and size of the population of Jews of color. This has been due, in part, to the working assumption that the vast majority of American Jews identify as white.”
The study also found that the number of multiracial and non-white Jewish households is increasing.
Locally, no statistics are available on how many Jews of color live in the Metro Detroit area. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s 2018 Jewish Population Study did not count them.
The JN talked to nearly a dozen Metro Detroit Jews of color about their thoughts on being a minority within a minority. They worship at a variety of congregations, from Reform to Orthodox. They range in age from 15 to 71 and live in Novi, Oak Park, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield and Detroit.
Some were born Jewish while others converted. Some talked of feeling marginalized by the Jewish community while others said they felt embraced.
A few, like Ariel Cummings of Farmington Hills, have struggled to connect with their own families over their faith.
When Cummings, a construction company owner who previously worked in the music industry, converted, his mother said: “Being black is hard enough. And you want to be Jewish on top of that?”
Welcomed, or Not
“The kind of happiness I feel from being Jewish is something nobody can take away from me,” says Camille McMillan, 63, of West Bloomfield. She and her husband, George, are members of Temple Israel. George regularly attends Friday night services, while Camille watches a livestream from home. Her multiple sclerosis makes it challenging for her to join him.
McMillan was raised Christian, but says she struggled to find spiritual meaning.
She asked one of her doctors, who is Jewish, where she could learn about Judaism. He suggested a class at Temple Israel.
“The rest is history,” she says. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Judaism, McMillan says, makes a lot of sense. From the moment she walked in the doors of Temple Israel, she liked what she saw.
“I’ve never felt different; I’ve never felt my color at Temple Israel,” she says. “I’ve gone to plenty of all-white churches where I felt my color as soon as I hit the door. At Temple Israel, I’m just another Jewish woman.”
The McMillans, along with their dauther, Aliza Bracha Klein, had a Reform conversion about 13 years ago.
Klein of Oak Park took her conversion further, subsequently undergoing an Orthodox one.
Unlike Rickman, who describes occasional curious glances at his synagogue, Klein, 34, says her skin color drew more attention at her shul than she’d like. Now she rarely attends Shabbat services.
“I can’t pray if I’m getting stared at the entire time. I’m still trying to find a shul where I feel like I fit,” says Klein, adding that out-of-town visitors, unaccustomed to seeing a black congregant at shul, made her feel uncomfortable.
Going out for a Shabbat meal at various homes in the community is when she feels most on edge. Often, she says, someone at the table makes an inappropriate joke or says something negative about black people.
“I’ve had someone say, ‘Well, if you get upset about things like that, why did you convert?’” Klein says. “That is wrong and should not be anyone’s business. I converted because I felt that Judaism was right and was the path that was meant for me to take. It’s not anyone’s business about what my connection to Judaism is.”
Klein, a social worker with the Oak Park School District, says that when she was in the Reform movement, people would occasionally mistake her and her family for members of the custodial staff or a caregiver to another congregant.
A black Jewish family from Novi shares a similar experience. Daniel Y. Hodges and his family belong to Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, where Daniel sings in the High Holiday choir. Once, he says, someone attending a bar mitzvah at his synagogue mistook his stepdaughter Chanteal for a kitchen employee.
“People sometimes make decisions with their eyes without having all the information, and that’s a normal human trait,” Hodges recalls telling Chanteal. “But sometimes people have to understand that things are bigger than what they see or what they’ve experienced in their past.”
When Chanteal was 8, Hodges self-published a children’s book for her called Shabbat Sparkles (available on Amazon), intended to help her “realize that not only is her Judaism a treasure, but that she’s a treasure to the Jewish world.”
Today, Hodges says that Chanteal, 22, does not identify as Jewish. She had a difficult time connecting with Judaism, both because her biological father and his wife are not Jewish, and because of some of the negative experiences she had growing up while trying to be accepted as a Jew.
Hodges’ son Jacob’s experience in Judaism has been more welcoming, although not without similar encounters. When Jacob, now a freshman at Walled Lake Western High School, was very young, a little girl told him he couldn’t be Jewish because he was black.
“I don’t think it even penetrated his thought process,” Hodges says. “Jacob’s identity is so set in being Jewish that he helps me with my identity.”
When asked how his peers react to his Judaism today, Jacob says: “Yeah, they’re surprised. But then they’re like, ‘I don’t care.’”
The Conversion Question
A typical response to learning that someone is black and Jewish is to ask if that person converted. It’s a question white converts rarely hear.
“People need to understand there are many Jews of color who did not have a conversion,” Klein says.
According to Jewish law, asking about someone’s conversion is prohibited.
“Although halachically you’re not supposed to question anyone’s past, I’m very open about mine,” says Ashira Solomon, a 31-year-old Southfield resident and preschool teacher at Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield.
Solomon grew up in Oak Park and had several Jewish friends. When she was 13, she told her parents she wanted to be Jewish. She spent many Jewish holidays at the home of her best friend and, in her circle of childhood friends, Solomon was called “the honorary Jew.” Little did she know then about the Jewish roots on her father’s side. After what Solomon describes as an eye-opening conversation with a rabbi, she did some research and discovered those roots.
Rickman had a different journey to the faith. He says many of his beliefs and customs were aligned with Judaism, but he didn’t know it at the time. For example, mixing milk and meat always bothered him, and on Saturdays he felt a strong desire to rest and abstain from things like listening to music.
“Are you sure you’re not Jewish,” a Jewish friend and client once asked him. His response: “I think I have a Jewish soul.”
Rickman, who is 15 years sober, expressed an interest in Judaism to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsee, who was Jewish and offered to take him to services for the first time. The same person helped him learn to read after he received what is known as the “Big Book” at an AA meeting and was told his salvation was contained within its pages. The book is considered the basic text for AA because of its message of recovery.
“I thought it was a sick joke HaShem was playing on me,” Rickman says. “How could a book be my salvation if I couldn’t read? But all the time HaShem was saying, ‘I’ll be with you,’ and I was able to do it.”
Rickman later started a weekly AA meeting at Adat Shalom.
When he signed up for the adult b’nai mitzvah classes at Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills, he was still struggling to read English — and suddenly he was also trying to learn the Hebrew alphabet and Torah tropes. Ultimately, he ended up reading the longest haftorah part in his class.
Marriage & Relationships
At a Jewish function or kosher restaurant, it’s hard for Aliza Klein to ignore the occasional stares and gossip directed toward her and her husband, Aryeh, who is white. In social situations, people sometimes treat Aryeh with more respect. And it’s especially hurtful when someone thinks it’s OK to make a racially inappropriate comment to Aryeh.
“I don’t necessarily see things as being racially insensitive like my wife sees it,” Aryeh says. “So I’m constantly attempting to see things from her viewpoint … Often, the best response is to do nothing while showing I understand that what happened was hurtful, and to just be there for my wife to provide comfort and support.”
The Kleins initially met six years ago. Aryeh was hosting a fundraiser and Aliza, an active volunteer within the Jewish community, was asked to help with the event. A few years later, a friend set them up. The couple married in December 2017. They do not have children yet. The pair is concerned that when they do start a family, their kids will have to deal with racism, not only from within the Jewish community but from society as a whole.
“We want to raise strong children and will try our best to make sure our kids are exposed to positive people with positive attitudes,” Aliza says. “Unfortunately, there will always be ignorant people. And while we can’t control how they act, we can control our responses to them.”
Ashira Solomon, a single Orthodox Jewish woman with a 4-year-old daughter, hopes to meet someone that her neshamah (soul) connects with. She wants to get married again but she’s been told it might be hard for her to get a shidduch (match).
Solomon isn’t necessarily offended by this comment, saying she understands the challenges of why a Jewish person — whether they’re Orthodox, Conservative or Reform — may not consider marrying a Jew who isn’t white.
“When you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who mostly look the same and you’re taught that saying derogatory words like schvartze (“black” in Yiddish) is OK, then what happens when you meet a Jew of color?” she says. “How do you react?
“It’s a mixed message.”
Solomon believes the key to addressing such stereotypes is through education and being conscious of the fact there are different types of people with unique characteristics.
A handful of initiatives and organizations, many working on a national level, are addressing the needs of a more diverse Jewish population.
Olivia Guterson, a 29-year-old artist living in Detroit, wouldn’t mind seeing more local initiatives. She says she usually connects with other Jews of color when she attends conferences that more actively recruit or create space for them.
In a city like Detroit, where 85% of the population is black, Guterson says she is surprised she hasn’t come across more Jews of color. She occasionally attends the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and guesses she knows two or three others who identify as a Jew of color. She suspects there may be more who are not visibly identifiable.
As part of its 2020 programming, the Union for Reform Judaism is spearheading an initiative called Audacious Hospitality, designed to embrace Jewish diversity. URJ hopes to listen to the experiences Jews of color have in majority-white spaces and provide educational resources that address how to improve in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, according to Chris Harrison, a writer and editor for Audacious Hospitality and a Jew of color.
Harrison, who recently relocated to Michigan, serves as a committee member on the Audacious Hospitality working group with Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, where he is a member.
Harrison says congregations can take several steps to help others feel more welcome.
“When Jews of color talk about their experiences, microaggressions they’ve received in Jewish spaces, believe them, promise to do better and act on it,” he says.
“Look at your congregational or institutional practices, ranging from engagement to hiring, to the resources you provide in your religious schools and libraries and beyond. Do the images on your website and social media reflect true Jewish diversity? Has your staff taken implicit bias training?
“Taking these steps can be challenging and cause some discomfort,” Harrison says, “but they are necessary and healing and will help make your communities places of true belonging.”