The frustration, hope and diversity of Minneapolis’ Black Jews
White Minnesotans liked to think their state was a progressive paradise — until it became the birthplace of America’s most powerful reckoning over racism since the Civil Rights era.
Having been born and raised there myself, I grew up with the myth of Minnesotan exceptionalism: The state has welcomed immigrant communities from around the world. Median incomes are higher there; it has half the rest of the country’s percentage of uninsured citizens. Minneapolis has more miles of protected bike lanes than any other American city. Great public schools, lots of Fortune 500 companies.
But as the state’s Black citizens knew well before the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, those achievements hid the systemic racism that plagued Minnesota. From 2008 to 2020, Black people as a group faced nearly twice as much police use of force than every other ethnicity or racial group combined. The median Black family income is less than half that of white families. In 2018, Minnesota had the second-largest gap between white and Black high school graduation rates of any state.
Minnesota’s white Jews are now waking up to problems that Black congregants have been trying to tell them about for decades.
When faced with instances of racism and lack of empathy, some Black Jews have stood their ground while others stepped away to take stock. They have demanded to be heard and expected to be ignored. Not all have faced racism in the synagogue — but they are demanding that their communities make sure no one does again.
Below are excerpts from six interviews with Black Minnesotan Jews, on their personal identities, their struggles with being Black in white spaces, and on their wish to hold the Jewish community accountable for the values it claims to hold.
The interviews have been edited and condensed.
Kingston, 47, is a consultant and human rights advocate. She is a member of Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in Minneapolis.
I’m on my sixth year now on my Temple’s board, and I started this conversation with them about the use of police officers, how uncomfortable it can be. I don’t think people fully understood what was happening right away, in terms of why that would be.
At the time, when the conversations started, I was working for the city of St. Paul and I was Director for the Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity. I was given the responsibility to lead a new police civilian internal affairs review commission. The commission made some huge changes. That was so fraught I ended up filing a charge of discrimination against the city, the chief of police, and his supporting officers. (To read more about Kingston’s fight for oversight of the St. Paul police force, click here.)
And to then have to walk into our synagogue past police officers was tough at times, especially at the High Holy Days. I don’t think people truly understood the nuance until I sat down with the board president and really shared with him what I had been experiencing, that the presence of uniformed police officers, especially Minneapolis police officers, how tough that was for people of color, how tough it was for me.
The murder of George Floyd just hit in so many different ways that because of the work that we’ve been doing. he conversation and the reaction and response today is different than what it would’ve been probably five or 10 years ago.
I’m not comfortable coming back to the synagogue and walking in the door with a Minneapolis police officer there. They just can’t be there anymore. It’s too traumatic. I don’t feel safe, and I’m not the only one.
Tanner, 36, is a social worker with families in unstable housing situations. He is a member of Shir Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Minneapolis.
I was at the synagogue when we heard that Jamar Clark was murdered. (In 2015, Clark, a 24-year-old Black man, was shot in the head by a police officer. The killing ignited protests and led to an encampment outside the precinct of the officers involved in the killing.) I was in a racial justice task force meeting. There wasn’t much of anything that happened. I remember that very clearly. Afterwards, I did a lot of cooking and stuff for the encampment, and for organizers. So the synagogue was involved. But it was not the immediate reaction that I needed at the time to feel as if my life mattered in the community.
I’m not throwing them under the bus. They did what they could at that time — it was what they knew. We couldn’t have the same conversations then. It took four years of this crap for the Jewish community to finally see and be willing to do the necessary work that is needed.
After Jamar Clark, the congregation as a whole was having those conversations, right? But it’s hard to be in a space where folks are having conversations about whether or not my life matters. Whether or not Black lives matter. Whether or not we could say that. I needed the community to grow, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hold my tongue. I’m not from Minnesota. I’m not passive-aggressive. I don’t hold anything back and Minnesotans could not handle that four years ago.
I still attend Shir Tikvah, I’m going to be clear about that. I actually am more involved now than I have been in a long time. Now, I think more about how we’ve changed. How far we’ve come. We have a lot of work to do. I’m not going to mistake that.
And I do feel like because of the time I took away from that, it allows for me to re-engage during this time in a refreshed type way. Because if I had been doing this work for the last four years in the congregation, I would be completely burnt out right now.
Wittfcoff-Kuhl, 45, lives in Minneapolis and is an educational consultant and coach for students.
I was born here in Minnesota and I am of mixed racial ancestry. My mother is white, and I grew up thinking that I was half-white and half-black, and only later learned that my biological father was actually mixed himself: He was born of an Orthodox Jewish mother and a black father. His mom’s Orthodox family basically kicked her out because she married a black guy. This was in North Minneapolis, which was predominantly Jewish back then.
My Black father, my biological father, was born there and grew up there, and then my adopted father, the person I call my father, is white and was adopted there by a Jewish family. But I very much grew up with the understanding that at one time, North Minneapolis was a great place to live and now, it’s not. And the reason that it wasn’t, even though no one ever said it, was because now, it’s a Black place.
There are lots of stories that I am told from older Jews all the time about how they loved Black people just as they loved anyone else, how they marched in the Civil Rights movement, and how they certainly didn’t treat people differently because of the color of their skin. But I would say that whether or not that’s actual, the reality is different.
I lived in North Minneapolis with my husband and my children for 10 years. And certainly, there were still some Jews who lived there, but by and large, most of them had left for St. Louis Park, Golden Valley or other suburban areas. That always made me feel, I think, like, “Oh, OK. I don’t know where I fit in there.”
When I was in Chabad, in my thirties, I met this other Black woman, Leah. She had a white husband and she had converted with her husband. They had converted together to Judaism, to Chabad specifically. They knew I hadn’t grown up observant, and that I had a non-Jewish husband, and they never treated my kids or myself different. Nobody looked at me strangely. Nobody doubled-flinched me. Those years that I spent there, not feeling like my color even mattered, it was like, “Oh, there are Jewish people who don’t hate black people.”
Dunlap, 54, is a real estate agent and a member of Temple Beth El in Minneapolis.
I am Eritrean, and I’m adopted, but I knew that I was from a Jewish Eritrean family. It wasn’t a practicing family that I had. But, Jewish values have permeated throughout my entire life. And they have defined the choices that I’ve made, and the paths that I have taken.
I believe the greatest freedom that we can achieve is the freedom to just be Aklilu, and not Aklilu who is Eritrean in America, Aklilu who is Jewish. I’m always Aklilu until people remind me that I’m not. Because they see me as an immigrant, as African, Black.
But I have not felt ostracized. I have not felt unwelcome by the Jewish community at all. But let’s just face it. I mean, I hear the word Black again and again and again, almost every day like you do. I hear it at shul — I’m on the board and I am involved in other volunteer capacities. We say it because I guess we have to say it. So it’s said in the right context, but it has a dehumanization effect, I think.
When I was younger, I raged against the machine, wanting change, and I took on that mantle. And then later on in life, when I acquired economic position, job security, and that sort of thing, I said “I’m tired. I’m not doing that anymore.” But the fact is we now live in a more racist society than I’ve ever experienced in my life. And so I have to take on that mantle. Because I think as a responsible member of society, one who bears this pigment, I just got to do it, because the alternative just isn’t possible.
Curry, 52, is a communications consultant and journalist. She is a member of Adath Jeshurun, in Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis. In June, Curry reported for USA Today about Minnesota’s hidden history of systemic and economic racism.
I’ve been a part of the Jewish community, in general, for 30 years. I was well-established as a Jewish person coming in. And there has been nothing strange about that, nothing that has stood out, because my work life and my religious life was always predominantly white. That’s the world we live in as Black Americans.
I’ve heard of some other African American Jews’, or Latino Jews’, experiences, which can be wildly different than my own. Why are sometimes some of our experiences so different? I can’t say why that is. Being Jewish is a part of who I am. I would say I haven’t spent or led my life too different than any other affiliated Jewish person has. Somebody asking you about your Jewish background, of course questions like that occur. But St. Louis, Iowa, Minnesota, they’re not that large of a community. Once you’re known, you’re known.
What if you, as a white person live the majority of your life in an African-American community? Your bosses, the majority of them were African-American. A majority of your coworkers were African-American. The majority of the people where you worship were African-Americans and not just the majority, the vast majority.
For some people, as they start to imagine that, they might feel uncomfortable thinking about that because they’re not used to it. Now take someone like me — This is what you’re used to. I can’t speak for everybody, but for myself, this is not an uncomfortable feeling. It doesn’t mean you don’t have some incident here or there, but it’s ingrained, and it becomes a part of who you are.
Washington, 63, is a journalist based in Duluth, Minn., where he attends the Reform and Reconstructionist Temple Israel. In 1995 he helped found what would become the Alliance of Black Jews, and has spoken and written about Black Jewish issues for decades, as here on BET in 1991.
In the 1980s I moved up to Minnesota. I lived in Duluth, and I fell into Temple Israel. I’d have to say it was the warmest synagogue I ever found, in one of the coldest places in the country. Nobody at the synagogue said, “Are you from Israel? Are you from Ethiopia?” Except one year, on Hanukkah, but that person was visiting from out of town.
I attributed it to it being a place where there aren’t many Jews. Back then, there were 600 Jews in Duluth, and 300 belonged to temple Israel. You didn’t walk in the building unless you had some affiliation.
I want to bust your stereotype that all Jews of color enter white Jewish spaces terrified and horrified. That’s not true. Either leave it, forget about it, or do something about it. The key is to confront, and to get others to confront you. My whole thing is, I do not tolerate crying in your beer. If somebody treats you badly in a synagogue, I think it’s appropriate to say, “Fuck you,” right then and there, and I don’t care if you’re on the bimah.
A couple years ago, someone posted on Facebook about an incident in the Twin Cities, where someone called the cops on a Black kid at a synagogue. There was an altercation — he was extremely pissed. And he posts this, and just complains and cries out loud. It’s okay that you need therapy and all that, and that you should want comfort or solace. But I said, wait a minute, this is the rabbi that bar mitzvah’d you or whatever, and didn’t know? So I picked up the phone and called the rabbi and chewed him out.
The George Floyd stuff is nothing new. We’ve been talking about that for 400 years. If people want to wake up, that’s great. Some of the stuff among white people, and white Jews, that’s going on is more of a need to articulate, I’m not racist.
This is my question to white people: What can you do affirmatively, that is actually going to help Black people? The typical white family has something like $220,000 in net worth. Black people, it’s like $70. Don’t tell me, if you’ve got a net worth of $220,000 someone else has $70, that there’s nothing you can do but wear a button. (Since 1968, the wealth gap between white and Black families has widened dramatically.) Here in Minnesota, the science museum’s race exhibit, which opened in 2007 and went all over the world, showed the same thing with stacks of actual money. This is not new.
But you know, what’s part of “Minnesota nice” is, they may be floundering, and not sounding like they really know what they’re doing, but they want to do the right thing. If you point them in the right direction, I feel optimistic they’ll go there.