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Hoping to Show That Jews Come in All Hues

April 21, 2011 By:
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Jared Jackson talks to community leaders about promoting inclusion.

Jared Jackson discovered what it felt like to be an outcast caught between two worlds at the age of 7.

At the Sunday School he briefly attended near Willingboro, N.J., "people would come up and shout out the 'N word' to me and my sisters, saying, 'Leave here, we don't want you here, you're not really Jewish,' " remembered Jackson, now 28.

He found the same dismissal in the black community: "You're not part of us, you're just Jews."

Despite those experiences, Jackson held onto his Jewish identity, which he attributes to his mother and grandmother. (His father, who was Catholic, died of cancer just before he turned 3.) He said he finally found a place to express his Judaism at the Rowan University Hillel, and later, as a Birthright trip leader and fellow.

Still, he continued to be reminded that he was "the other" in more subtle ways -- a lingering stare, a probing question about his background, an assumption that he must be from Ethiopia or even a staff worker at the synagogue.

Fueled by the demeaning weight of all that, Jackson created "Jews in ALL Hues," an organization where people like him could feel comfortable being both Jewish and whatever else they were. Some grew up with a non-Jewish parent; others were adopted, converted or married outside their faith.

"We're welcoming people as whole people, which means welcoming the non-Jewish part as well," explained Jackson.

Last week, the group held its first event targeted at the greater Jewish community: a "professional development day" designed to help communal leaders change perceptions about "nontraditional" Jews.

About 25 people attended the conference at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel.

Many of them said they wrestle daily with the question of how to be welcoming without seeming overtly politically correct.

Discussions like these are "desperately needed because there's racism in every atmosphere, why should a Jewish atmosphere not have it?" said Allison Pokras, executive director of Operation Understanding, a nonprofit that provides leadership and diversity training to interfaith groups of black and Jewish teens.

Each Have a Story

The fact that Jews in All Hues and other groups have emerged nationally and locally to meet the needs of this community is proof that there's a disconnect -- at least within institutions like synagogues, said Catherine Fischer, membership director of Rodeph Shalom, a Reform congregation in Center City.

Synagogues need to do more than just station a friendly greeter at the door if they ever hope to be as welcoming those groups, said Fischer.

If someone gets past the door but then goes into a program where the language is not inclusive or the participants convey animosity, "that's a turnoff," she said.

"We need to be thinking about that all the time," continued Fischer. "Look at each person who walks in the door and know that they have a story to tell that you don't know anything about."

'Different From Other Jews'

At the same time, be aware that not everyone wants to tell you their story, or be asked about it, said conference presenter Shais "MaNishtana" Rison.

Rison set out to connect with other disenfranchised, multiracial Jews in New York through two websites -- jocflock.org, a free dating websites for J.O.C.s, or "Jews of Color," and a snarky blog under his nickname, MaNishtana.

He adopted the moniker, better known as the lead-in for asking why the Passover seder is different from all other nights, about a year ago, he said.

"I'm a black Jew, so what makes me so different from other Jews, which is everything and nothing," he said.

Over lunch, the conference attendees split into small groups to examine real-life case studies from multiracial Jews.

Several stories were as compelling as Jackson's Sunday-school snub: a Jewish-studies teacher of Asian descent whose principal cut her hours way down but kept her on staff because he wanted a diverse face on their advertising materials; a young man who was mistaken for a waiter at his own Bar Mitzvah party; and a recent transplant from the Midwest who was told over a Shabbat dinner that she wasn't really Jewish unless she converted.

Then there were stories of acceptance: a distant cousin who was warmly absorbed into the family, a visiting guest at a synagogue who was invited to give a Torah blessing.

They discussed what worked and what didn't, what was appropriate or not.

"It's a deep process of opening our heart, our minds," said Rabbi Julie Greenberg, who heads Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir in Rittenhouse Square.

She's seen the way people react to her Latino son who was adopted from Guatemala, a "kid who loves Judaism," she said, and can't understand why a guest next to him at Passover would ask, "Oh, is this your first seder?"

Education helps, too, the presenters agreed.

To start, Greenberg suggested that organizations put up posters from the national Jewish Multiracial Network or other pictures highlighting Jews from diverse backgrounds. Obviously, she said, that alone doesn't create a welcoming community, but like a mezuzah, it's a sign of what's valued.

Jackson said he hopes to keep last week's dialogue flowing at future outreach events.

Eventually, he said, he'd like to build "microcommunities" of Jews of ALL Hues in other cities. He's already spoken at events in Baltimore and San Francisco.

Before expanding, though, he's got organizational groundwork to tackle. The last of a $5,000 programming grant must be used up this spring, which means he and fellow organizers will revert to relying on their own pockets for funding. He's been working to better frame and fund the group through a business-incubator fellowship launched earlier this year under the local group Tribe 12.

"It's not about creating a community for 'Jews of ALL Hues,' " said Jackson. "It's about creating community."

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