Jews of color are not an homogeneous group
Although they may share some issues in common, Jews of color have different backgrounds, life experiences and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. Diverse Jews are..diverse. This includes geography, class, ideology, culture, skin color, language and a host of other factors. Understanding Jews of color cannot be achieved through bifurcating Ashkenazi Jews and Jews of color as two distinct monolithic groups. Ashkenazi Jews themselves are a mix of Sephardic, Mizrachi and a host of other cultural and ethnic mixtures that they have achieved over the centuries in their Diaspora wanderings.
There is a lack of knowledge and awareness of diverse Jews
The politics of race and the suspicion and closed nature of the Jewish community can combine to make Jews of color invisible in the majority Jewish community. Diverse Jews recount experiences of being questioned by others, most often with innocent inquisitiveness, and sometimes with hostility. In both circumstances, Jews of color feel that others are scrutinizing them solely because of their color, subjected to the test of proving that they are “real Jews.” Do they have “papers?” Did they convert? If so, how did they convert? Can they read Hebrew? Are they some sect of Christian Hebrews “masquerading” as Jews? While many of these same issues generally characterize Jewish views of converts, strangers and different kinds of Jews, this testing is particularly administered to Jews of color.
This includes not only racial diversity, but diversity by origin of one's Judaism as well. If Jews of color become Jews through adoption or conversion, they face the dual barrier of being a person of color, but not a person of Jewish bloodline. The obsession with “Jewish genes” or “Jewish blood” can be destructive.
The Jewish community is sometimes not welcoming
The Jewish community tends to be closed to outsiders and strangers. These attitudes evolved to cope with hundreds of years of injustices suffered by Jews. Isolated by others, they turned inward. To cope with being unwelcome they learned to reject others. These feelings can be pervasive even among liberal “accepting”Jews, almost always unconsciously. The lack of openness and welcoming of the Jewish community, especially as expressed through its institutions and organizations, is a significant barrier to the increasing the population of the Jewish community.
Diverse Jews serve as a microcosm for examining issues of alienation, disconnection, and disaffiliation from the organized Jewish community that many Jews experience. Feelings that synagogues are not warm and welcoming enough, that Jewish institutions throw up class barriers, that they are not open to newcomers is felt by significant numbers of Jews of all colors. Sometimes the alienation that Jews of color feel are due to race, and other times due to the institutional character of the Jewish community as it affects everyone.
Jewish intermarriage includes interracial marriage
Like nearly all ethnic and religious groups in the United States, Jews are marrying “others” at an increasing rate and some of those unions are interracial. One of the great social taboos of American society-interracial marriage-has been gradually breaking down for some time. Of course, looking at the skin tones of Americans, both black and white, interracial relationships have always been the norm, even if they have always carried with them either social or legal condemnation. The legal barriers are gone and social restraints against racial intermarriage have been gradually waning since the 1960s. Increasing numbers of Jews are multiracial by virtue of their parents' crossing racial lines. This phenomenon will probably continue to grow with each successive decade.
The significant population of multi-racial Jews who are the children of interracial marriages face the challenge of sorting out multiple identities and figuring out where they “fit in.” For example, one such individual felt that this struggle was a painful yet valuable experience. She felt that since she could not just take her identity for granted, that act of searching and choosing made for a more complex and ultimately stronger sense of one's self, as well as a deeper understanding of others.
Conversion to Judaism is attractive to many people
Judaism has a large and growing appeal to many non-Jews of all colors because of its communal structure, its theological tenets, its celebration of holidays, and the beauty of Torah. As people search for religious roots and grounding, many non-Jews see Judaism as an option. Our interviews with African Americans who converted to Judaism indicate that the numbers could be significantly larger, given the African-American affinity for the Old Testament and the identification with Hebrews, especially, the Exodus story and the transition from slavery to freedom. This is also true for significant numbers of people throughout Africa, as well. Some Black Jews do not call themselves “converts” but “reverts,” coming back to their original roots and religion. All together, there is the potential for welcoming millions of more individuals to be part of the Jewish people. This has been one of the more fascinating findings in the work.
There is a likelihood of continued population growth through conversion. Some Asians that we surveyed are attracted to Judaism's emphasis on tradition. This is coupled with the phenomenon of Jews adopting Asian girls, particularly from China. There are significant populations of individuals of Latino Jewish heritage - Anusim, or Crypto-Jews - who are interested in reclaiming Judaism.
Converts are often discouraged
Jews by choice tend to become Jewish through their own persistence. Making a life choice of this nature is difficult. Potential converts are often discouraged from pursuing conversion by the organized Jewish community, rabbis in particular. Even rabbis who think that they are open can be more off-putting than they realize. As one potential convert who has struggled to find a welcoming congregation for ten years expressed, “It seems like they just hoped I would go away.” Many individuals will live Jewish lives on their own for years before having the confidence to be persistent enough to break through the barriers that exist to keep out strangers and particularly stranger who look different than the majority.
Diverse Jews may be conflicted about their racial and religious identities
Jews of color may experience difficulty resolving their religious and racial identities. They may feel bifurcated; culturally relating to their respective racial communities and religiously to Judaism. If they are isolated from the Jewish community, a Jew of color to may be forced to identify primarily identify with his or her race. Conversely, they may face scrutiny from their racial group for their identification with Judaism.
Jews of color may feel isolated
Some Jews of color feel isolated, not knowing others like themselves. These Jews of color exist outside the majority communal structure. They can be even more alienated than other disaffected Jews. Put simply, they do not fit. Of course, Jews of all kinds are also removed from Jewish communal life. They do not belong to synagogues, they do not contribute to Jewish philanthropies, and so on. Institutional barriers are a problem for many Jews, no matter how welcoming many Jewish organizations think they may be.
The history of rejection of minority Jews in America has produced internalized rejection, particularly among some African-American Jews. Some minority Jews have been questioned so often, that they themselves often develop an ideology of isolation. The mutual history of rejection is now at least two generations old between some communities of black and white Jews-slow progress is being made to heal the rift.
Sephardim sometimes blend in with other groups of Jews and prefer to do so, and at other times to preserve a distinct heritage and identity. Some see themselves as white and part of the dominant culture and others see themselves as people of color and want to be recognized as such.
This population also includes individuals of Jewish heritage - “Marranos,” Anousim, or Crypto-Jews - in search of a Jewish identity that may have been lost generations ago through forced conversion. In Spanish, the converted Jews were known as Conversos, or “those who converted.” The secret Jews were known as Marranos, or “accursed.” Today, most Jews of Iberian origin prefer Anusim, the Hebrew term for “forced converts.”
African American Subcultures
There are sub-cultures of African-American Jews that have existed for generations with separate synagogues and an exclusively African-American board of rabbis. Some call themselves Jews, while others take on names such as Israelites or Hebrews. Black groups are heavily questioned and scrutinized. Some are Judaic Christians, while others are clearly Jews in theology, belief, and practice.
Significant numbers of Jewish families are adopting children
The growth of diversity in America through adoption is also an important origin for Jews of color. Increasing numbers of Jewish families adopt internationally, children from Asia, South America and Africa. Some families also adopt domestically, African-American and mixed-race children. The choice to adopt is sometimes the result of high infertility rates among Jewish women; this phenomenon itself a result of high education levels and high socioeconomic status. Children of color are adopted in proportionally greater numbers by "marginalized" Jewish populations, including gay and lesbian families, as well as single or older parents.
Many adoptive parents with young children who are active in a synagogue indicate that they feel welcome in their community. However, they almost unanimously voice a concern about long-term acceptance revolving around two related issues: Will other Jews "see" my child as a Jew? Will my child be a desirable marriage partner? This is both a visual issue: What do Jews look like? (particularly in the United States) and an issue of acceptance of converts into the community, in other words: Will my child be considered a “real” Jew? There is an assumption that the Jewish community, as a “religious” community, should be welcoming and supportive. It is particularly painful and demoralizing when the community falls short of this expectation.