'We needed this': Jews of color in US come together for first 'Shabbaton' conference

·4 min read

It seems as if every Jew of color has "that story."

Sometimes it happens at temple, where other worshippers inquire why they are there, said Harriette Wimms, an African American psychologist from Baltimore. "Or they assume you're the nurse of a congregant or a member of the kitchen or cleaning crew."

Often, there's the assumption a person of color couldn't possibly be Jewish from birth. "Some people ask how you became Jewish, which is rarely asked of white-skinned Jews," she said.

Wimms, 53, an advocate for Jewish diversity, hopes to offer an oasis from such experiences at the first Jewish People of Color National Shabbaton, which will be held virtually from Friday through Sunday.

The Shabbaton, a Hebrew term that refers to a retreat or celebration held on the Jewish Sabbath, will be a gathering for Jews of color and their families, as well as allies from around the nation. Programs will be aimed at education and fostering resilience and will be open to Jews of all denominations, said Wimms, who also runs the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project, which offers workshops and gathering spaces for the community. ("Mishpacha" means "family" in Hebrew.)

With antisemitic attacks near historic highs and police shootings of unarmed Black people roiling the country, it's been a particularly stressful year for Jews of color, organizers said. They often feel stuck between intersecting strains of hatred.

"The Shabbaton is cultivating supportive spaces for members of the JOC community," said Heather Miller, president of one of the event's sponsors, the Flatbush & Shaare Torah Jewish Center in Brooklyn. "It's a place for us to lean on each other and learn from each other. It's going to be a moving experience just to be with so many people who immediately understand."

At a breaking point: Subjected to antisemitism and racism, Jews of color feel 'stuck in the middle'

A supportive services navigator for the South Jersey Jewish Abilities Alliance, Lauren Rudin was immediately enthusiastic about the Shabbaton after hearing about it through Facebook.

"I'm looking forward to attending what will be, for me, the first event of this kind, where I am worshipping with people who look like me and share similar experiences and backgrounds," said Rudin. "I'm also looking forward to learning more about the people who make up the beautiful tapestry that is Judaism."

How big is America's nonwhite Jewish population?

Estimates of America's nonwhite Jewish population vary. Whether due to conversion, adoption, intermarriage or increasing recognition of existing diversity, their numbers appear to be rising, particularly in cities with significant Jewish populations, such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami, experts say.

Population surveys have been a topic of debate. Although a 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 6% of adult American Jews define themselves as people of color, researchers for the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University put the number closer to 11%.

And a 2019 study commissioned by the Jews of Color Initiative in Berkeley, California, which also included children in its total, found that Jews of color represent about 12% to 15% of the American Jewish population, or about 1 million of the 7.2 million Jews in the United States.

Ilana Kaufman
Ilana Kaufman

There's been a growing number of JOC-led and focused organizations in recent years, said Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Initiative in San Francisco. She counts more than 70 organizations, Facebook groups and influencers for Jews of color.

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"For so long, the only options have been for Jews of color to participate in shabbatonim as the minority," she said, adding, "That can take away from the purpose and experience. [It] can burden rather than provide lift."

Wimms' own Jewish journey began a decade ago while she was attending a 9/11 memorial service at a conservative Jewish congregation in Baltimore. Her son, Harrison, who was 7 at the time, picked up a prayer book, and a woman admonished him to be careful with the sacred text. The woman clearly had rebuked him because of his skin color, Wimms recalled.

The rabbi at the synagogue contacted Wimms to apologize, and they ended up talking in depth about Judaism. The following year, they began studying together. Wimms converted three years later and celebrated an adult bat mitzvah in the congregation two years after that.

"It will be beautiful and empowering to be in a place where Jews of color are leading," Wimms said of the Shabbaton. "People have already told me, 'We needed this for so long.'"

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com.Email: yellin@northjersey.com. Twitter: @deenayellin

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Jews of color in US come together for for first 'Shabbaton' conference