While JOI’s focus is mainly on engaging and encouraging interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews to become more involved in Jewish life, we also promote a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who wants to be involved in the Jewish community. That’s why we were happy to read about a recent conference in San Francisco sponsored by Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a project of Gary Tobin’s Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
Be’chol Lashon sponsored the event to bring together African, Asian and Latin American Jews. Writing in the JTA, Sue Fishkoff described the event as three days of “networking and sharing information about their struggles to join the global Jewish family, a family that is not always eager to embrace them.”
The conference was held in part to shed light on groups outside the Jewish mainstream who struggle to find a foothold in the wider Jewish community. These are people with “Jewish heritage, spiritual seekers, Jewish communities of historical significance,” Tobin said, yet they are still shunned by many in the Jewish mainstream. Rather than focus on intermarriage, he wonders “why aren’t we extending our ideological borders to include all these people who are so interested in joining us?”
At issue for many of those in attendance is conversion. While some, like the Abayudaya of Uganda, have been formally converted, others feel their ancestry gives them ample claim to the Jewish community. The anusim of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America believe that because their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism under the Inquisition, they should now be allowed to reclaim their Jewish status without a formal conversion.
These groups raise some excellent questions about who is and isn’t Jewish – if your ancestors were Jewish, should you have to convert? Or in the case of the Lemba of South Africa, who “point to the Jewish cultural practices they have maintained for centuries,” do they need to undergo a formal conversion?
But more importantly, why does there seem to be such an effort to keep these Jewish groups on the periphery? This isn’t an issue of demography – these groups aren’t interested in the number of Jews worldwide. This is an issue of people who identify as Jews, who’s ancestors lived as Jews, being pushed to the side by the Jewish mainstream.
At JOI, we often talk about barriers to Judaism – whether it’s language, money, or ideology. We work to make the Jewish community more accessible through low barrier entry points to Jewish engagement, for both intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews. We applaud our friends at Be’chol Lashon for taking the lead in giving these other groups on the periphery access to the Jewish community. Diane Tobin, director of Be’chol Lashon, sums it up nicely when she says “We will work with anyone who wants to move forward toward being part of the Jewish community.”