When news about the Jews of Color National Convening came to my inbox, I was thrilled. It’s the first large assembly of its type that I’ve encountered.
Among the many participants, myself included, there was a sense of homecoming to a community we never knew we had. With Passover just behind us and Shavuot right around the corner, the JOC Convening calls to mind the gathering at Sinai.
The United States is Egypt to so many of us. Just the act of making this journey to a sacred space created a Shabbat-like sanctuary in time that I look forward to repeating in the near future. I walked in there not knowing a soul, but when I caught my flight, I believe I made friends for life.
Yes, there was learning. Yes, there was discussion. However, the connections I made with others who share the experience of being a minority within a minority (within a minority for those of us who are LGBT, disabled, immigrants, etc.) are the most valuable things I gained there.
Throughout the convening, I noticed several common threads emerging from each session and each conversation with other presenters and attendees.
1. We are not alone.
So many people came to the Jews of Color National Convening that there weren’t even enough chairs to hold us all in the common area at lunch time. We filled up the space with our bodies, our presence, our culture, our laughter, our arguing. I’ve never seen so many of us in one place before. It was equal parts family reunion, holiday, and yeshiva.
2. We contain multitudes.
We are as diverse as the rest of the Jewish people. We are not some undifferentiated mass named “Jews of color.” We are more than that. We are Black Jews, Asian Jews, Latino Jews, biracial Jews, and mixed race Jews. We’re Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and secular. We are in all branches of Jewish observance. We are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahim, and more. Our identities straddle the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, class, nationality, and more. We got to the Convening from all over the country, not just New York.
In the words of one presenter, “We are not fractions, but layers.”
3. We exist for ourselves.
Being a Jew of color, especially among liberal Jews, can at times feel like being drafted as the unofficial anti-racism ambassador. Our time, our labor, and our emotional energy are often used not in service to ourselves and other Jews of color, but in the service of white-dominated institutions that want to be seen as progressive about race. Our lives and experiences become a thing to consume for the betterment — or worse, entertainment (aka, Watch Those Angry Brown/Black People Act Up) — of white people.
But the fact is we do not exist only to make white people and white organizations less racist. In the meantime, our own spiritual and communal needs go ignored. We need to engage with the broader Jewish community on our own terms, and not according to the expectations white people place upon us.
4. We need our own spaces.
So many of us came to the Convening and were affirmed and validated in a way that we rarely are outside of each other’s company. For quite a few of us, it’s the first time where we could bring all of ourselves to a Jewish gathering, where we don’t have to section off pieces of ourselves to fit in.
In other words, we didn’t have to avoid scaring or angering white people.
Comedian Wanda Sykes has a joke in her HBO special I’ma Be Me that pokes fun at the ways African Americans repress our culture around white people. We can’t do things like dance or eat watermelon publicly because, “White people are looking at you!”
White people weren’t looking at us at the JOC Convening. I didn’t have to worry about what white people would think, feel, say, or do about anything I said or did. It was tremendously freeing, but it was more than that.
It’s difficult to explain what that feels like to people who don’t experience the constant self-scrutiny that comes with living in a white supremacist society. The closest comparison I have is Torah study. At Torah study, we don’t have to worry about getting caught up in spending our limited time and energy dispelling erroneous assumptions about who we are as a people based on our reverence for the text.
Just as Jews as a whole need our own spaces to worship, study, and simply exist free from the watching eyes of gentiles, Jews of color need such spaces for ourselves too. I don’t believe it has to come in the form of a shul only for Jews of color, although a progressive synagogue filled with Jews of color would be amazing. It can be as simple as an independent minyan of Jews of color who get together on a regular basis — weekly, monthly, whatever — and simply hang out and enjoy each other’s company.
The form it takes matters less than what it does: give us a space where, as Jews of color, we can simply be.
5. Our experiences and perspectives aren’t tidy.
We are not simple, and we shouldn’t pretend that we are. We should honor our complexity by not forcing our experiences and perspectives into neat, bite-sized chunks. We are not obligated to have a final answer or a statement that can fit into a ten-second soundbite.
Sitting with tension and living with uncertainty mark every facet of Jewish history and culture. This is no different.
In May 2016, the Jewish Multiracial Network and Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, in partnership with co-sponsor Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, hosted the first-ever national conference for Jewish people of color in the United States. More information about the convening can be found at http://jocconvening.org/.
Shoshannah is a playwright, producer, and a founding member of Kolot Chayeinu’s Race Task Force. Jew by choice who has been a queer Black woman all her life. She is based in Richmond, Virginia and currently writes a column for The Clyde Fitch Report.
(Photos by Rafael Shimunov)