Episode 68: Beyond the Count: Talking to Jews of Color (Transcript)

Episode 68: Beyond the Count: Talking to Jews of Color

Intro: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

Kasandra Housley: Being a black American Jew means that no matter what I'm doing, the first thing people see is that I'm black.

Mirushe Zylali: I am from an interfaith, Muslim Jewish family. Growing up in a post-9/11 post second Intifada America, I grew up a racialized Jew.

SooJi Min-Maranda: For me being a first-generation immigrant Jew by choice means that I most often find myself on the outside, looking in, of multiple spaces and places. Koreans see me as being more American than Korean. Jews see me more as being non-Jewish, uh, as a convert than really and truly Jewish.

Gage Gorsky: For me being a mixed-ethnic queer Jewish person is both about being part of something vast and communal and also something that's isolating,  because it's... the pie is getting cut into very small slices and, uh, it's hard to find others like yourself.

Intro: That was Kasandra Housley, Mirushe Zylali, SooJi Min-Maranda, and Gage Gorsky, who all identify as Jews of color. The Jews of Color Initiative, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, estimates that between 12 to 15% of American Jews are Jews of color. The Pew Research Institute has a similar, if slightly lower, estimate.

The Jews of Color Initiative recently released a survey of over a thousand self-identified Jews of color from all over the United States. The survey respondents were a diverse group of Jews who also identified as African-American, Hispanic or LatinX, Native American or indigenous, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Mizrachi, and Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jewish, and multi-racial.

Ilana Kaufman is the Executive Director of the Jews of Color Initiative. I spoke with her about the survey’s findings and the Jewish community’s growing awareness of its own diversity.

Ilana: As this conversation has continued to gain momentum, there has been some very sincere wondering about our experiences as Jewish people of color, um, our perspectives. What happens to us when we're in communal spaces? Do we really have experiences or racism or not? Um, how, and in what ways do we engage in Jewish life and why?      

Intro: The survey respondents report engaging in Jewish life in many of the traditional ways—going to synagogue, celebrating Shabbat and holidays, passing on Jewish identity to the next generation. Three-quarters of them said that engaging in tikkun olam, or social justice, was an important expression of their Jewish identity. And an overwhelming majority report facing racism and discrimination in majority white Jewish communal settings.

In this episode, Ilana and I talk about the survey and its implications. You’ll also hear from Kassandra, Mirushe, Gage and SooJi about their personal experiences.

[Theme music fades]

Nahanni Rous: So Ilana, this is an engaged group of Jews.

Ilana Kaufman: That's right.

Nahanni: And yet the survey shows that the vast majority, 80%, report they faced discrimination, especially in Jewish congregational settings. I mean, I don't imagine that came as a surprise to you, or did it...I mean, what was your reaction to that finding?

Ilana: [Sighs] You know, this number is jaw-dropping and while it's not surprising because each one of us who's a Jewish person of color who engages in community life experiences racism on a daily basis...what does it mean that a group of a collective group of people, um, who again, have different experiences based on our own racial, ethnic backgrounds, but a collective experience of racism in this context? You know, what does it mean when a group is so highly engaged and enduring so much injustice and pain? And what would it be like if we could just, uh, just daven and just engage in Jewish life without having to endure racism?

Kasandra: My name is Kasandra Housley. I'm originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, but I've been in Bloomington now for quite a long time. I'm hyper- aware that I'm the only Black woman in this space, like, there's no way around that. And all of that, like, subconscious performance, like I have to be awesome, because if I do anything wrong, it's not just because I'm, you know, I had a bad day or because, you know, I tripped on my way here and it threw off my mojo, it's because, well, she's Black and she's this and she's that. And she's the affirmative action hire that we didn't blah blah blah, or whatever, you know, and just not wanting to go down that road, because once you go down that road, you don't have brain space left to think about what it is you're there to do.

SooJi: I'm SooJi Min-Maranda. I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I am an immigrant, uh, first-generation uh, was born in Seoul, Korea, uh, converted to Judaism as an adult on my own, and I am currently the executive director of the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal. I was, um, in a, uh, waiting room, and happened to come across a woman, um, from a synagogue that I, you know, was the executive director of for six years. I was very, very involved in this, in this synagogue for six years. And she mistook me for another Korean woman who belongs to the synagogue. Um, so there really is, you know, this feeling that, um, you know, Asians, we all look alike. I mean, that's what resonated or made me, um, sort of reel.

Mirushe: My name is Mirushe; I also go by Mira. I’m 22 and I grew up on the Northeast coast in the so-called United States. I just want to say that for the past maybe 20 years, both my wider communities and their leadership—you are responsible for pushing away and actually creating a self- fulfilling prophecy of mixed and interfaith Jews not wanting to be a part of Judaism.

Ilana: With so many Jews of color, uh, experiencing racism, discrimination, uh, people questioning us about our appearance, people questioning us about how we became Jewish, some real clear feedback in the study that based on these experiences of racism, it is believed by Jews of color that community leaders are not doing enough to respond to racism. They're not doing enough to respond to racial injustice.

I work with a lot of white leaders and, um, over time, I've had all kinds of reactions, uh, being both Black and Jewish. For people who have, you know, who, uh, you know, didn't know me, did not know what to expect, I've walked into rooms and literally have had colleagues look me up and down and, and go, “But I, I expected somebody who was white.” Just kind of said in this unfiltered um, and kind of just really both confused and kind of amazed sort of way.

And you know, my job has always required me to kind of rise above and act with grace. And so, you know, that little peppering of microaggressive, not entirely micro, kind of macro-ly aggressive racism, just kind of gets stuck on me.

I have been in professional environments where I've tried to name something as racist and could identify it and could use data and a framework to inform what I was saying, and I was told not to use that language because it made people uncomfortable. I was required to rewrite that language, using the term “bias,” with the supervisor at the time, um, really comfortable about centering the comfort of white people ahead of my own experience and ahead of what was true and real.

Nahanni: This just reminded me that the survey really unflinchingly uses the terminology of white supremacy to describe racism within the white Jewish community. And, um, that clearly was intentional, you know, was a choice.

Ilana: Yeah.

Nahanni: Can you talk about that?

Ilana: Oh my goodness. I mean, so first of all, like my training as an educator, you know, I was a US history teacher for a long time. And then I have a life experience to affirm all that we studied, just to clarify what's real and true. I get to work with a lot of Jews of color, we get to hear from and learn from a lot of Jews of color. And what is consistent across the experience of Jews of color in the United States and people of color in the United States is that racism and white supremacy and the impact of racism and white supremacy are real. And they're real on us as people and they're real on us in partnerships and they're real in terms of organizations and systems and policies and procedures. And we can point to, with clear data, the impact of these policies.

And so it just seems, like, both unethical and silly, in some ways, not to frame this study within reality. And I appreciate that for some and in some communities and in some towns and cities and on some school boards, there is intense discomfort with the grappling, with the impact of racism and white supremacy, because it doesn't feel good. But you know what? Enduring racism and white supremacy doesn't feel good.

Nahanni: I have to say that for me personally as a white Jew, that term really hits home very hard, because Jews are so conscious so much of the time of being targets of the antisemitism that's connected with white supremacy. And so, you know, to look at that and say, oh wow, the Jewish community is, you know, um, is not immune to that and is sort of reflecting the problems in our, in the wider society...that's very, very powerful.

Ilana: Yeah. No, I mean, I appreciate that. And I'm also a little bit less... I mean again, as a historian, as a social scientist, uh, I, of course racism has impacted the US Jewish community, right? And so it's really racism that we haven't grappled with or dealt with as US Jews. And the cost of that is that something like this can feel really jarring, when what I want to sort of feel energizing, is really the impact of racism, not the fact that Jews are racist.

Nahanni: Right. So a call to action, rather than something to make you feel defensive.

Ilana: That's right. That's right.

Nahanni: How much of the discrimination that Jews of color face do you think is a lack of understanding about how diverse our community is, and how much is due to racism among white Jews? And maybe, I mean, maybe those things are very much related, like an inability to sort of see who is the “we” here.

Ilana: Right. No, I mean, I think they're connected questions. It's an expression of racism to think that Jewish people of color don't exist in a country that is multi-racial by its natural physics, right? Like, to assume that all Jews are white would mean that there's an intense kind of ethnocentrism that can't see beyond the self. Like, people of color know that people co-mingle and people of color in the United States know that people are multi-racial and people mix. And so there's something off in terms of being racially inclusive when you're, when you espouse racial equity, but your community is all white It's very, it's a, it's a real thing to grapple with.

Nahanni: I mean, the story of the Jewish people is at stake, right? Like who we see as part of the Jewish community determines what our story is. This is the idea behind the Jewish Women’s Archive. It’s not just about making people feel a sense of belonging.

Ilana: That's right. For so long, we've missed a whole other, all these other sets of our stories, all these other chapters. And the, the idea is not to do away with the narrative that we've been telling, but to expand that narrative. And when we do that, not only do we tell the truth, but people become relieved, because the truth allows us to fully engage in what we know to be real, right?

And so we will no longer have these very difficult and awkward experiences of a white Jewish person, and a Jewish person of color meeting, and that white person saying to you, “You can't be Jewish,” right? Like that expression is an expression…it's a failure of story and it's a failure of history and it's a disservice to that young person who thinks all Jews are white. Because it also means that they're not going to make friends with Jews of color. They're going to probably be in conflict with Jews of color and that's not good for the Jews, right?

 And I think it's been hard for a lot of white Jews of a certain generation in the United States to talk about why becoming anti-racist is a good thing for the Jews. Like, it's confusing when you only think of yourself as white. It's scary when you're trying to, um, ensure the survival of Judaism, and you think that maybe race and religion compete, when we know they don't compete.

And it's also, I think, hard to commit to a multi-racial society and a multi-racial community when for 5,000 years, our proverbial bags have been packed in case we have to run from the people who are going to kill us. You know, so it's complicated to be a US Jew, but that complication can't be an obstacle, uh, to doing what's right for the, really what I believe is one of the most important parts of survival for the Jewish people

Nahanni: I want to talk about gender for a second.

Ilana: Sure.

Nahanni: You said 67% of respondents were women, which might just be a sort of thing about surveys in general, women being more willing to spend their time on things like this. Um, but I wonder if it impacts the results in any way.

Ilana: No, I mean, I, I appreciate you bringing that up. Because we know that Jews of Color Initiative is positioned in the communal ecosystem, our ecosystem is overrepresented by women or those who self identify as women. And so I think this data is also a reflection of where we sit in the ecosystem.

Um, but what I think is amazing is we were able to at least connect with 88 folks who self identify as nonbinary or two-spirit or third gender, which is such an important set of perspectives to have, um, and is really important information to us about how we, again, we are seeing ourselves in this community and are we seeing ourselves as diverse as we are in terms of gender?

Nahanni: Because it sounds, I mean, one of your, one of the main goals, as I understood it from the survey, is to really speak to Jewish communal leadership or institutional leadership. And so it just strikes me that that leadership is disproportionately white and disproportionately male.

Ilana: Right.

Nahanni: You know, there's something there, where you've got a majority of respondents being women in a survey of Jews of color. And you're also saying that your leadership, you know, of your organization is predominantly female.So it's an interesting power dynamic to me.

Ilana: I would say there's been an enormous amount of energy from, you know, some women leaders. We've had strong participation from some male leaders— some leaders who identified as male—um, but you know, the door, the door has not been knocking specifically from, um, those community leaders who are, who self-identify as men and who are part of the leadership of the largest legacy institutions that might help make the biggest impact in the US Jewish community. Um, I've been, you know, I've been in conversation with some of their colleagues, but they haven't yet called.

Nahanni: So going back to that finding that 80% of survey respondents report experiencing discrimination and racism inside the Jewish community, what do you think the next steps should be for Jewish leadership?

Ilana: The first thing I would say to those who find themselves unmoved by this data and, and uncompelled by this data, and I mean this in the most sensitive way, but let's do a replacement test, right, of any other group in our community: people from the former Soviet union, Holocaust survivors, elders, clergy...When data that was less sharp and pointed than this data came out about interfaith families, whole organizations were born to intervene and make more Jewish partnerships in hope for making more Jewish babies, and billions and millions and millions and millions of dollars have been invested, ongoing, in this kind of work.

And so the first thing to do is understand that if you are not really, really agitated in the best ways by this data, that's probably a racist filter coming up. Um, but we have to be highly motivated to respond because we're talking about Jews, we're talking about our own people here. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is it is vital that we center these experiences as real and that we use them to inform how we think about culture, a sense of belonging, a sense of climate and all of our organizations. None of that is possible if more leaders of color aren't in leadership roles. And so we have to start to really invest, in a very robust way, in cultivating more Jewish leaders of color and we need to shift power from white folks in this community to leaders of color.

And what that means is we need to look across our legacy and mega organizations that we've been talking about. We need to look across the thousands of philanthropies and foundations across this country and our Jewish communal space, and we need to ask ourselves the impact of having almost all of that leadership be white, in a context where 8 and 10 and 15 and 20% of our community—and each day it will be more— are people of color. And we have to intentionally hand power to the next generation. And that next generation is for certain more racially diverse.

Mirushe: I'll be the one to say it. The future of Judaism is queer. The future of Judaism is not white. The future of Judaism is interfaith. The future of Judaism is first-generation children of immigrants. The future of Judaism is incredibly diverse.

Gage: I think we're past the point of tolerance and inclusion, right? Like, it's time for immersion, expansion, evolution, revolution, right? And I think that's what's happening right now.

SooJi: I believe that the principle of welcoming the stranger is not enough. What we need as a community, uh, is, um, histarshoot. And that means, uh, fostering unconditional belonging. We need to engage in courageous conversations and examine what are the fears that are holding us back from moving forward together?

[Theme music]

Outro: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Ilana Kaufman is the Executive Director of the Jews of Color Initiative. You can find the recent survey of Jews of color, called Beyond the Count, at jews of color initiative dot org. In this episode, you also heard the voices of Kasandra Housley, Mirushe Zylali, Gage Gorsky, and SooJi Min-Maranda.

This episode was produced by Jen Richler. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.

Join the Jewish Women’s Archive for a new online history course about “The Hidden History of Jews and Reproductive Rights in America.” The course begins in December. Visit jwa.org/events for more information and to register.

You can listen to Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please make sure to leave us a review and share your favorite episodes with your friends.

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous… until next time!


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 68: Beyond the Count: Talking to Jews of Color (Transcript)." (Viewed on December 1, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-68-beyond-count-talking-jews-color>.


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