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From the Atlanta-Journal Constitution…
Judaism Drawing More Black Americans
By RACHEL POMERANCE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/18/08
Pamela and Jim Harris have gotten used to the stares.
It’s not that people have never seen traditional Jewish garb before. They’ve just rarely seen it on a black couple.
“For a black male to put on a kipah and go wandering around in a predominantly black community, you get the strangest looks,” said Pamela Harris, referring to the traditional Jewish head covering.
Soon the Harrises, former Christian evangelicals, will complete their conversion to Judaism. If their choice seems unusual, it’s apparently becoming less so.
At Congregation Shearith Israel, a conservative synagogue in Virginia-Highland, where Pamela Harris works as the senior nonclerical staff member, at least eight of the roughly 20 people learning about Judaism with Rabbi Hillel Norry are black.
At the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody, roughly 20 percent of the nearly two dozen people enrolled in Steven Chervin’s introduction to Judaism classes are black.
Although there are no sound statistics on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that, in the past 15 years, increasing numbers of black Americans are exploring Judaism, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.
“Ten years ago, it was almost unheard of that a black person would come in and want to convert,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman, who is working with the Harrises and two other black people pursuing conversion.
Until their conversion courses intensified last year, the Harrises led a weekly learning/support group in Decatur for about a dozen African-Americans interested in Judaism.
So what’s going on?
Tobin cites three major trends. One, people are increasingly switching religions, he said. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey in February that found 28 percent of American adults have left the faith they were raised in for another one or none at all.
The Internet, too, has played a role, allowing people to readily access information on different faiths, he said.
And racial barriers have been breaking down over the past 40 years, with intermarriage leading to multiracial families and communities, he said.
American Jews now marry non-Jews at a rate of nearly 50 percent. Plus, there are more instances of interracial adoption and conversion, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. That’s contributed to more ethnic diversity, especially within the Reform movement, Judaism’s largest and most liberal branch.
“It’s a safe assumption that the number of black Jews in America is growing because of integration by both Jews and blacks,” said Chaim Waxman, senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank in Israel.
Next year in Cincinnati, the first black female rabbinical student will be ordained through the Reform movement.
‘I felt this is my place’
Latesha Jones’ introduction to the faith came through Jewish friends she met after moving to Atlanta from Richmond.
Though she was born into a Baptist family, the 29-year-old said she felt more at home in a synagogue.
Before long, she was studying Judaism and decided to convert, changing her name to Elisheva Naomi Chaim.
“I felt welcome,” she said. “I felt like this is my place.”
But not everyone felt comfortable with her decision. Chaim cites more than one awkward conversation with family members.
They asked which God she was serving, and whether Jesus Christ was involved. When she explained that she was not worshipping Jesus, her aunt told her she’d go to hell.
“They’re coming around one at a time,” Chaim said of her relatives. Her mother now says that as long as Chaim is “doing something spiritually,” she doesn’t have a problem.
It’s not always easy at synagogue either, said Chaim, who attends Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in Sandy Springs.
“There are some that will look at me strangely because I’m black, but I try not to let that get under my skin.”
Once she talks to them and shows a knowledge of Judaism, she said, “their attitude changes.”
They’ll say, “Welcome to the tribe” or “I have a lot of respect for you,” given the historic persecution of Jews, she said.
Under the radar
Since the turn of the century, there have been black congregations around the country that identify as “Hebrew Israelite,” that is to say, as descendants of the biblical patriarchs, said Lewis Gordon, founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University. But often these groups don’t consider themselves Jewish, despite some of them having similar traditions.
The 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by the United Jewish Communities, North America’s central Jewish fund-raising organization, found that 1 percent of Jewish adults, or 37,000 people, identified as black or African-American. An additional 1 percent of Jewish adults called themselves biracial or multiracial.
However, that was based on a total estimate of 5.2 million Jews in America, a number that Tobin and other key Jewish demographers have called too low. Tobin believes the number of black Jews in America exceeds 150,000.
The notion of black Jews is hardly new. The Jewish history of worldwide migration has led to Jews of every ethnicity. But much of the black Jewish experience in this country has flown under the radar of other Americans, Gordon said. That’s because many black Jews historically practiced privately or in segregated communities, he said.
The population was “swept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions” that saw Jews as exclusively white, even though American Jews of European descent did not consider themselves white until recent decades, Gordon said.
“There have always been communities of either black people who are already Jewish or black people considering coming to Judaism. What is different is that institutional structures are changing,” he said.
“There is an increased effort to creating a welcoming environment for them.”
Gordon speculates that as many as 1 million black people in the United States have Jewish roots, among them African-Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants and Afro-Latinos.
Which is why Gordon thinks that, among the rising numbers of black Americans coming to Judaism, some of them are simply returning to it.
That’s how Sivan Ariel sees her experience.
Born to a Catholic family in the Virgin Islands, Ariel now believes her biracial grandmother practiced Jewish customs she learned from her mother.
“She would always talk about the laws of God” and the Exodus story, Ariel said. Her grandmother would light white candles, which now remind Ariel of those lit on the Sabbath.
“She was the only person I knew that actually did that, so I wondered if it was actually witchcraft,” Ariel said with a chuckle.
Ariel left Catholicism when she moved to Atlanta for college and joined a Pentecostal church for a while. But she never felt comfortable there, and she began a spiritual search that led her to convert to Judaism.
“A long time ago, religion was not something that you thought about,” Pamela Harris said.
“You went to whatever church that Mama and Daddy went to.”
Ariel, referring to her experience and those of other black Jews, said, “Some of us know beyond a shadow of a doubt we’re here because we’re home.”
Rabbi Norry called this an “unprecedented time” of interest in Judaism.
“Business is booming,” he said. “On any given Shabbos, there’s 10 non-Jews at our service, visiting or studying to be Jewish.”
Still, he asks every convert: “Why would you ever want to be Jewish? Don’t you know how many people hate us?”
The black converts respond differently, he said. They look at him as if to say: “Welcome to my world.”
And yet, for Pamela Harris, race was always beside the point. In fact, her Jewish identity trumps her racial one.
“My community is the community of B’nai Israel,” she said, using the Hebrew expression for the children of Israel.
“I was on a quest for a relationship with God,” she said. “That search has nothing to do with race or creed or color or even your religious preference. It has to do with fulfilling a deep need.”
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Moments before Yosef Abrahamson, 16, accepted an award for the essay he’d written in a competition sponsored by the Police Athletic League, an officer approached him to complain about his fedora. The hat, an essential wardrobe item for Hasidic men, was gaudy, the policeman told him, and what’s with all these kids today and their nose rings and their attitudes. A second police officer, overhearing the conversation, came over to steer away the first one, who reappeared a few minutes later to apologize. He’d never seen a Hasidic Jew, he told Yosef.
A policeman working in New York who’d never seen a Hasidic Jew? What he probably meant, Yosef theorized, was “that he’d never seen a Hasidic Jew of color. I think he was probably making some assumptions there.”
Thanks to his Egyptian father, who left the family when Yosef was young, and his maternal grandfather, who was of African descent by way of Panama, Yosef looks African-American (though his family prefers to describe themselves as Jews of color, believing their culture to be exclusively Jewish). Yosef moved to Crown Heights only a year ago, until then having lived in Omaha, where his mother’s maternal family, German Jewish merchants, had settled several generations earlier.
If Yosef, who attends the yeshiva Darchai Menachem in Crown Heights, ever finds himself writing a college application essay, his advisers would have a hard time choosing which of his compelling story lines would most dazzle those college admissions officers: The story of growing up in the only Hasidic family in Omaha? Or the story of being the only student of color in his yeshiva? Or maybe the story of being the only Hasidic person of color in Omaha’s competitive ice skating circuit?
Despite the friendships he made while ice skating, a hobby his mother encouraged to round him out, life in Omaha was “a bit lonely,” Yosef admitted last week while eating a Kosher hamburger on Albany Avenue with his mother and his older sister, Sarah, 22. His mother, Dinah, who joined the Chabad-Lubavitch movement after seeing videos of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson several years ago, home-schooled both of her children.
Yosef was obviously sheltered from too much scrutiny from the outside world, but the surprising combination of his race and his particular form of religious observance fazed no one in Omaha — for all the average person knew in Omaha, all Hasidic Jews were of African descent, his mother said. When friends from Nebraska first visited New York, they were fascinated to meet some white Hasids for the first time.
It was easier for Ms. Abrahamson to raise her children in Omaha than it would have been in Crown Heights, she said.
“People are laid-back in Omaha,” she said. “It’s different there.”
Omaha is not, for example, a place where race relations between Jews and blacks have exploded into days of riots, as they did in Crown Heights in 1991; nor have the police in Omaha ever deemed it necessary to set up mobile command centers to monitor simmering tensions between Jews and blacks, as the New York police did last month in the Brooklyn neighborhood in response to two unrelated physical altercations.
A young man like Yosef could easily start to feel like a powerful symbol, rather than just a kid, the human embodiment of that famously controversial Art Spiegelman New Yorker cover depicting a Hasidic man embracing an African-American woman.
But life in Crown Heights is somehow less complicated than that for Yosef, a tall, athletic young man who seems to have internalized Omaha’s easygoing ways (and its broad Midwestern accent). Beyond the misunderstanding at the awards ceremony — of which Yosef said, “It was a bit strange, but really, I understand” — he says he has felt comfortable in Crown Heights from the moment he came there to advance his education.
Through summer camps and occasional trips to New York, the Abrahamsons were already familiar to the Jewish community in Crown Heights when he arrived last fall (the community has only a handful of other black families). The response from the African-American community has been, if anything, amazement. “Now I’ve seen everything,” an African-American man said three or four times as he passed Yosef and his mother and his sister walking home from synagogue.
Some black neighbors recently asked Ms. Abrahamson questions about the meaning of some Lubavitch fliers they had received in the mail. The family sensed that the neighbors had long been harboring those questions but had felt a certain comfort level with the Abrahamsons because of their shared skin color.
If there have been resentful or disapproving responses from either side, they have apparently gone as far over Yosef’s head as the references his ice skating friends used to make to movies or television shows he’d never seen.
The ease with which both communities have received Yosef seems a little unlikely, but appropriate in the year of what some call the country’s first post-racial presidential campaign. Except that the Abrahamsons consider themselves “post-racial, for real,” said Ms. Abrahamson, a Republican delegate in Nebraska who is not a fan of Mr. Obama. To the contrary, the whole family strongly supports John McCain, and Yosef will be a page at the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities in September.
One more item to add to that list of possible essay topics.
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Attitudes Toward Multiracial Americans Evolving
By Todd Lewan, Associated Press
Alex Diaz-Asper, left, and his wife Rachel Lerman, far right, play with their twin boys, Alejandro, center left, and Miguel, 3, at their Washington D.C. home.
Rachel Lerman is the embodiment of melting-pot citizenry: Born in 1967 in Boston to a blonde, blue-eyed, Roman Catholic white woman and a black man from Nigeria, she was placed in foster care and shortly thereafter adopted by a white couple and raised Jewish.
After college, she met Alex Diaz-Asper, a Catholic born in Miami of immigrant parents from Spain and Cuba. At 33, she married him, then settled down in Washington, D.C., in Adams Morgan, a “multi-culti” neighborhood where folks can find Ghana on a map or, at the very least, a Ghanaian eatery around the corner.
Three years ago, the couple had twins: Alejandro, a brown-eyed, curly haired boy, caramel-colored from head to toe — “People say he looks like a kid in a Gap ad: very ‘ambi-ethnic.”‘ — and Miguel, a tot with straight, blonde hair, ice-blue eyes, and the ruddy cheeks of a windburned Irishman.
Their momma, who is brown-skinned and curly haired herself, couldn’t be prouder. And yet, when she and the boys are at the playground or the grocery store, she still draws puzzled looks, curious stares and the questions …
“Are you the nanny?”
“Is Miguel adopted?”
“What are you?”
Even today, at a time when immigration and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the numbers of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of white population growth, multiethnic people are still struggling to avoid being labeled and marginalized by a society they say is far from entering a “post-race” era.
Clearly, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, son of a black man and a white woman, has revived a national conversation on racial attitudes. Likewise, it has drawn new attention to the unique perspectives and experiences of the roughly 5 million multiethnic people living in America.
Ask multiracial Americans whether things are changing, and you’re likely to hear there’s more outward acceptance now than in decades past for biracial couples, adopted children who don’t share the ethnicity of either parent, and so-called “non-mixed” members of multiracial families.
Still, activists who campaign to raise understanding of multiracial people say that acceptance is uneven, varying widely across regions, social classes and generations.
“Appearance is still how people judge you, categorize you,” says Heather Tarleton, 28, a biology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and president of the Interracial Family Circle, a support group founded by her mother, who is black, and her father, who is white.
“You spend most of your life trying to explain to people ‘what you are.’ And then, once they know what you are, you still are identified with the race you look most like … So, it’s never so much that you’re one complete individual with multiple sides, but a fraction of a person that society selects.”
Which leads multiracial people to ask some questions of their own.
Is it possible, they wonder, that this nation — its history steeped in slavery, terrorism by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and illicit eroticism between black and white — is ready to embrace not just white or black, but shades of brown?
Why is it, they ask, that multiracial people, from the time they leave the stroller to time they go to their graves, are verbally poked and prodded to choose their “primary” ethnicity — lest it be chosen for them by their peers, based on a glance?
How is it that even today, when a highway patrol trooper spots a motorist with European and African heritage he sees a black man, not a white one?
At a more basic level, why are terms such as “race” and “mixed” — leftovers, sociologists say, from the misguided “racial science” of the 19th century — still widely used to describe genetic, cultural and social variations within our one human race?
Why are concepts such as the “one-drop rule” — the arbitrary, Jim Crow classification of anyone with any African heritage as black — still accepted by many blacks and whites, even as they serve to deepen racial divisions?
Rachel Lerman contemplates such questions, of course. Life as a biracial mother with a Spanish-speaking spouse in 2008 America doesn’t come with a laugh track as did the ’70s sitcom, “The Jeffersons.” But she has two boys to raise, groceries to buy, trips to the playground to make.
So, to avoid confusion when she’s out with her light-skinned son, she recently bought Miguel a T-shirt online.
“She’s my mommy, not my nanny.”
By the numbers
The year 1967 was particularly memorable for multiracial America: Hollywood came out with the Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a comedy built around white parents’ acceptance of an interracial couple; and, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a Virginia statute that barred whites from marrying nonwhites, a decision that overturned bans in 15 other states.
Since then, the number of interracial marriages has steadily risen, from 67,685 in 1970 to 440,150 in 2005, comprising more than 7% of America’s 59 million married couples, according to the most recent census figures.
Likewise, attitudes toward interraciality appear to be growing more tolerant.
In 1972, 39% of Americans said marrying someone of a different race should be illegal; by 2002, only 9.9% felt the same way. In 2003, more than three-quarters of adults said it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” up from 48% who felt that way in 1987, according to the Pew Research Center.
Not everyone signs off on interracial unions. Bob Jones University in South Carolina only dropped its prohibition on interracial dating in 2000. The following year, 40% of voters in Alabama objected when officials removed a non-enforceable ban on interracial marriages in the state’s constitution. And there are occasional incidents involving taunts and threats.
Nonetheless, says Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, as interracial unions increase, “there is a growing acceptance of this in American society.”
One sign of this came in 2000, the first year the Census Bureau allowed Americans to identify themselves as multiracial by checking as many boxes about race as there were distinct branches of their family tree.
Some traditional civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund opposed the change, fearing that fewer self-identified black or Asian people would diminish their constituencies — and thereby make it more difficult to raise funds and monitor discrimination.
Those fears haven’t panned out, as it happens: As of July 1, 2007, the number of Americans who identified themselves as being of “two or more races” in the government’s annual Population Estimate shot up 3% from the previous year. That exceeded the growth rate of the white population by 10 times.
And although multiracial Americans still only represent 1.6% of the nation’s 302 million residents, the intense spotlight focused on celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter and Jessica Alba is a clue that corporate sponsors and marketers sense a shift in attitudes toward multiethnicity.
Jerome D. Williams, a professor of advertising and African American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says advertisers remain skittish about backlash from consumers over black-and-white couples in romantic ads. Still, he’s noticed more “ethnically ambiguous” models in TV commercials.
“You’re trying to straddle the fence, to get someone to appeal to an ethnic audience while at the same time making sure you don’t turn off a mainstream, white audience.”
One thing is apparent to Williams: The younger you are, the more likely you are to know someone who is multiracial — and the more likely you are to accept people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Opposition to multiraciality, he says, is aging out.
It’s not gone unnoticed among America’s multiethnic population that the mainstream media — indeed, a broad swath of Americans — tend to refer to candidate Obama as the first serious “black” contender for the White House.
Jennifer Noble, 31, a psychology professor at Pasadena College (and the daughter of a Sri Lankan woman and an African-American father), says some may use this to pigeonhole him as JUST black: “Whatever you look like to us, that’s how we’re going to treat you.”
Obama himself has said: “I self-identify as African-American — that’s how I’m treated and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it.”
Multiethnic Americans wrestle with terms that others casually use to categorize them. They wonder whether “mixed” may have a negative, rather than neutral meaning to some people (as in, “mixed up”). Is the term “African-American” appropriate for black immigrants from, say, Haiti?
Megan Hughes, 32, a white woman who is raising a biracial daughter with her black husband in Washington, confesses that, “We are still searching for a term that identifies our relationship and our family. ‘Blended’ works for me but my husband thinks that sounds like a smoothie.”
Michael Cooley, 17, a high-school senior in Raleigh, N.C., has a white mother and a black father. At Wakefield High School, he has a group of black buddies, and a group of white buddies.
They don’t mingle much, he says.
“I’m the only intermixer. I’d say it’s like balancing time between them. Because if I hang out with one of them, well, my black friends will say, ‘I guess you got to hang out with your white friends tonight, don’t you?”‘
The road to understanding may be full of bumps, but at least multiethnic people are seen less and less as anomalies, says Susan Eckert, 39, a Long Island, N.Y., writer.
Her ancestors included a Spanish conquistador, an African slave, a Cherokee woman, and an Irish woman who was disowned by her family for marrying a half-black, half-Blackfoot man.
As a result, she says, “I am often taken to be black or Indian — depending on the individual’s particular lens — and have been mistaken for Ethiopian, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Sicilian, and others.”
Doesn’t that get tiresome?
Not at all, she says.
“I’m open to learning about other cultures, and I’m respected for that … When you are racially ambiguous, a wider pool of people want to associate with you, which is actually quite a pleasant feeling.”
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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NY Daily News article on a young black hasidic jew here in new york…
Yosef Abrahamson, 16, with plaque designating him as essay winner and commanding officer for a day of 71st Precinct.
He’s someone everyone should be able to agree on.
Yosef Abrahamson, an African-American Hasidic Jew, took his place as commanding officer of a Crown Heights precinct for a day Tuesday.
It’s a symbolic gesture that the 16-year-old Brooklyn boy hopes could heal rifts in the neighborhood racked by fresh violence between the cultures he claims.
“There’s a lot of trouble in my community,” said the teen, who wears the distinctive black suit and fedora of the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox Jews.
“But I’m willing to do anything to help,” he said.
Yosef won an essay competition for the honor of being named the top cop of the 71st Precinct.
He joined 120 other city teens who won similar recognition for a ceremony yesterday at Police Headquarters.
The Yeshiva student never intended on becoming outspoken on the issue of bias violence in Crown Heights – nor was his unique background known to the judges who selected his essay as a winner.
“Some people become leaders, some people are drafted,” said Rabbi Chaim Perl, the administrator of Yeshiva Darchai Menachem, where Yosef studies. “We’re drafting him.”
Yosef arrived last year from Nebraska, where he was home-schooled by his mother, Dinah Abrahamson – the daughter of a Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany and an African-American father.
When he landed in Brooklyn, Yosef was the subject of innocent curiosity from both the Hasidic and black residents of Crown Heights.
But as instances of ethnic violence erupted, he became keenly aware of the simmering tensions.
In April, a 20-year-old son of a black cop was assaulted by several men believed to be members of an Orthodox neighborhood watch.
Last month, a 16-year-old Jewish boy was robbed and beaten by two black teens.
The violence has led to protests from both communities and accusations that the NYPD has favored one group over the other.
Yosef was subjected to sharp comments about his mixed heritage. Some Jews have told him he doesn’t fit in and some African-Americans have warned him that his schooling is turning “him into a Jew.”
But for the most part, “People have been very welcoming of us,” said the boy’s mother.
“I hope I can make some difference,” he said. “Things have to change.”