Our Diversifying Community: Real or Perceived?

Sociologist Bethamie Horowitz’s recent column in the Forward newspaper, “How Jews Became Not Just White Folks,” contrasts the growing interest in racial diversity among some in the organized Jewish community with the actual statistics. She writes, “While it is true that the trends are changing as a result of intermarriage, adoption and conversion, nonetheless the proportion of non-whites and Hispanics among the adult population that is ‘Jews by religion’ remains under 10%.”

With such small numbers, she wonders, “Why is racial-ethnic diversity all of a sudden on the communal agenda?”

While pointing out that “American Jewish history is hardly un-diverse,” she appears to conclude that the recent attention to racial diversity is not so much about the numbers but more about a change in “personal expression and meaning-making,” primarily among younger generations, whereby “attention to diversity is a call to widen the normative expectations normally contained in the term ‘Jewish’ so that it can begin to include a multitude of subcultures, choices and flavors.”

At JOI, we read all of Dr. Horowitz’s work with great interest and respect, as her innovative research has provided the Jewish community with a better understanding of the way Jewish identity changes over time. While we usually see eye-to-eye on issues of inclusion (here and here, for example), in this case I believe Dr. Horowitz is missing the relevance of the numbers themselves. The simple answer of statistics—and the visibility and growing influence of the population represented by those statistics—is the primary reason behind whatever interest now exists in the organized community about racial diversity.

Ten percent sounds small, and it is, but what was the percentage 30 years ago? Or even 15 years ago? Even if non-Ashkenazi Jewish births, immigration and conversion remained constant, it is clear that multiracial adoption and interracial marriages have skyrocketed in that timeframe. Today’s ten percent is enough for every Jew to at least know of another Jew in an interracial household or multiracial adoption, let alone have one in his or her extended family. That was not the case in 1980 or even 1990. A recent New York Times article that we blogged about here followed the bat mitzvah of an adopted Asian girl as the vanguard of a wave of such celebrations expected over the coming years, as these new adoptees grow up in Jewish households.

The seemingly low number of non-Ashkenazi Jews made me think of the impact of another seemingly low number: that of Jews in general. We are only about 2.5% of the U.S. population. According to that statistic, we shouldn’t have any impact at all on public issues like politics, law, academics, or entertainment, but of course we have a great impact. And because we have spread out over the last few decades (and also as a result of higher intermarriage), many more Americans today know Jews and are related to Jews than in decades past, perhaps contributing to the record low levels of anti-Semitism in this country.

Yet it was not the benevolence of the larger American community that raised Jews up to equal status, but rather a long and sustained effort by our grandparents and great-grandparents for acceptance and integration. Likewise, I do not find the growing interest in diversity as coming primarily from the top-down. The call for racial diversity within the Jewish community is, for the most part, driven by the diverse Jewish households themselves, either through new advocacy groups like Be’Chol Lashon, Ayecha, the Jewish Multiracial Network, and allies like JOI, or simply by the growing visibility of the multiracial population in communal institutions like Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue—and much less from an Ashkenazi-dominated establishment looking for new definitions of Jewish identity.

In fact, despite the coincidence of the three recent gatherings Dr. Horowitz mentions, JOI’s work on this issue around the country indicates that hardly any local Jewish institutions believe multiracial households are a target population for which they need to provide specific programs and services, so I would question just how deep this new “communal agenda” runs.

Certainly there are many Ashkenazi Jews who are aware and proud of Jewish racial diversity and do indeed take it on as a mandate to expand our collective identity, as Dr. Horowitz suggests. Anecdotally, however, the experiences we hear from many Jews of Color about when they try to engage with communal institutions suggest that the overwhelming majority of Ashkenazi Jews are in no rush to give up their hard-earned white privilege anytime soon—the phrase “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” is still in wide circulation, for example. The multiracial Jewish community is going to have to continue to push for the sensitivities and recognition it deserves.

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