The title of an Atlanta Journal article, “Judaism Drawing More Black Americans,” caught our eye a few weeks ago for a variety of reasons. Rachel Pomerance’s article highlights the growing number of Black American Jews-by-choice and the ensuing need for increased Jewish communal inclusivity, which JOI is cognizant of as evidenced in our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. The article explores the various reasons Black Americans are drawn to Judaism – which for some is a spiritual journey, but for others it’s returning to their roots.
In the article, Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (an organization that studies the demography of the Jewish people) cites three reasons for the growing numbers: religious identity is increasingly fluid across the American landscape (as recently illustrated by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey); the Internet makes information much more accessible; and the rise in interracial intermarriage, which has led to more multicultural families and communities.
While these points infer a growing sense of religious and cultural ‘mobility’ resulting in conversions to different faiths, Pomerance also writes about a population that throughout history was often marginalized and questioned in their own right - Jews of Color who were born and raised Jewish.
Lewis Gordon, founder of Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, says this population was “swept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions” that saw Jews as exclusively white. He describes a history of segregated congregations and private observance amongst Black Jews due to exclusivity in the broader (white) Jewish community. But, according to Gordon, times have changed:
“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 create 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.
So, while there may be increasing religious ‘mobility’ contributing to more black Americans being drawn to (or returning to) Judaism, Gordon says that these groups have been a fixture in Jewish history. It’s only now that they are starting to be embraced by the broader Jewish community.
And that, we think, is a wonderful thing. Through a variety of initiatives including the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which serves as an advocate for newcomers, intermarried families and others on the periphery, JOI is proud to be a part of this movement towards a diverse, inclusive and more dynamic North American Jewish community.