The racial justice protests that swept across the country this past summer has prompted the American Jewish community to reckon with the racial disparities that exist inside and outside of our communities.
My own life has been a masterclass in understanding these tensions. When I was two, I was adopted. Two years later, my adoptive parents divorced. I lived with my mom, who did not have a college education, and we struggled with poverty. We lived in Orange County, an interconnected mesh of largely white wealthy suburbs, so I saw what life could be even if we couldn’t afford it. I saw what nice houses looked like even during times that we didn’t have a home.
When I was in middle school, my adoptive mother unearthed a genealogical bombshell: my birth mother was Jewish. My adoptive mother, by comparison, was a worship leader in our church, and I mostly grew up within the Christian community. In fact, the first time that I consciously met another Jew was in sixth grade.
This discovery dramatically altered the course of my life. I began to engage deeply in our Jewish community. I learned more about the faith of my ancestors and reconciled my Christian upbringing with my newfound connection to my birth mother’s Jewish heritage. In high school, I led Kabbalat Shabbat services for my Jewish day school on Fridays and sang on the worship team for my church on Sundays as a featured singer during services.
Although Jews of Color like me represent approximately 15% of the American Jewish community, we are egregiously underrepresented as constituents and as leaders in mainstream Jewish organizations. This disparity is especially true for Black Jews. Events from this past year have forced the American Jewish community to recognize the difficulty of living as a Black person in our country and how it is necessary to be an active ally — including to the Jews of Color within our community.
While we must change internally, we also have a responsibility to advocate for our people, starting with educating our peers about Judaism and Israel. In college, I began to see how anti-Zionism breeds bigotry and stifles free speech on campuses. I was in a unique position because most Jews involved in pro-Israel advocacy had very different childhoods than I did. I explained why Zionism is so important for Jews to my non-Jewish classmates.
After college, I decided to work in Jewish communal life. Today, I am one of a few Jews of Color who are leaders at a Jewish organization not specifically devoted to Jews of Color. I am deeply proud of the work I do as Associate Director of Alums for Campus Fairness, which serves as America’s unified alumni voice on issues of anti-Semitism and bigotry on campus. Alums for Campus Fairness takes alumni off the sidelines and mobilizes them to speak out at their alma maters. As the Associate Director, I have the privilege of engaging directly with alumni and building chapter networks from the ground up. My experience as a Jew of Color growing up in Ashkenormative spaces helps our chapters be more purposeful and effective in engaging a wide array of Jewish alumni and supporting their development as leaders in this space.
The struggles I have faced in my life — as a Black child who faced poverty, as an adoptee who learned of his Jewish identity later in life and as an empowered advocate for my communities — are what have made me the man I am today. Genesis 32:25-29 tells the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel all night and at the end, being renamed “Israel” (he who wrestles with God). In his commentary on Genesis 32:25, the medieval Italian Rabbi Obadja Sforno says that Jacob receives this name because a period of ups and downs — like Jacob’s struggle with Esau — occurs before we can emerge triumphant. Certainly, much of our history as Jews — as the nation of Israel — has been rife with trials and tribulations.
Most communal Jewish leaders lack a personal stake in stopping the racism that is the daily reality for many Jews of Color. We must wrestle with challenging conversations: How can we welcome Jews of Color? How can we more effectively dedicate our organizations to the anti-racism movement? How can we say “Black Lives Matter” when the previous BLM platform espoused the bigotry of anti-Zionism? What does this mean about the future of our communities?
Like Jacob, I have always embraced struggle because you learn more by facing adversity head-on. Challenges teach you about yourself, your community and your ability to persevere. The struggles I faced growing up led me to never see any challenge as insurmountable. I believe there is a solution to everything. Finding the solution to a problem is the hardest part, but applying it requires courage and willpower.
Meeting these challenges will not be easy. It means devoting resources to recruiting and retaining Jews of Color at the grassroots and leadership levels. It means many Jews must wrestle with preconceptions about the Black community. It means taking a second look at how we end bigotry in our daily lives. It means respectfully and genuinely engaging in difficult conversations.
But we are the nation of Israel, of he who wrestles with God. When the Jewish American community embraces these struggles, we will be stronger and more vibrant than ever before.