If someone asked you to name the most urgent crisis facing the Jewish community, “anti-blackness” or “intra-community racism” might not be among your first thoughts.
But it should be. That’s because anti-blackness in the Jewish community is pushing black Jews out. Countless black Jews have made the difficult decision to leave Judaism completely, no longer identifying as Jewish.
Why did they leave those identities behind? They could no longer deal with the constant racism.
Every person that I interviewed for this article spoke of being exhausted of existing in white Jewish spaces. They told me how that exhaustion greatly altered their participation in Jewish community and their own Jewish identities. They spoke of feeling drained, mentally scarred, and depressed when they leave synagogues.
People cannot thrive in communities that intrinsically sees them as outsiders. So they leave.
I, too, am struggling with anti-black racism in the Jewish community, struggling to stay part of a community that all too often I feel doesn’t want me. Many times, I’ve considered giving up. Conducting these interviews was in a way validating, showing me I wasn’t alone in my experiences or feelings.
Validating — and tragic.
One of the reasons I love black gospel music so much is that I can think of no holier sound that the voices of black folks rising in unison. And in having these interviews, I got the privilege of listening to a chorus of black voices telling me their stories about being Jewish in spaces that do not want or respect black people.
Everyone in the Jewish community needs to listen to this chorus. It’s an urgent song of an imminent crisis.
When black Jews consistently feel exhausted and devalued no matter what Jewish space they’re in, it’s a crisis. When people grow up hearing their rabbi and their own grandfather use racial slurs, it’s a crisis. When people are called “fake Jews” or threatened with bodily harm for speaking out against racism, it’s a crisis. When Jewishness is lost through generations because of racism, it’s a crisis. When black people with Jewish ancestry become anti-Semitic because they’ve grown to hate the community that hates them, it’s a crisis.
It’s time for the white Jewish community to stop avoiding this issue, to stop blaming black people for experiencing racism, and to stop playing hot-potato with whiteness to avoid having these conversations. The stakes are too high to continue on this path.
Here are just a few of the stories the Jewish community must start listening to. Some names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Monique, 33, from Borough Park, Brooklyn
One of the things Monique finds most unnerving is the staring.
She lives in the same ultra-Orthodox community where she lived during her conversion, and the staring has been a constant from the beginning.
Of course, it’s not just staring. She remembers one Pesach Seder when her mentors were out of town and they had arranged for her to go to a rabbi’s house. As a prerequisite for attending this Sender, the rabbi interrogated Monique.
“Why do you want to be Jewish? You know how hard it going to be to find a husband for you? No one will marry you because you’re black,” he told her.
Monique held back her tears, determined not to let the rabbi see that he had cut her so deeply. It’s a strength that black women are expected to have, to face the world fearlessly, never letting anyone see that they’ve been wounded.
But it’s not the adults who wound her the most; it’s the kids, because they vocalize what their parents say behind her back. “Why are you black?” They ask. “Did you do something wrong?”
And their parents laugh.
The kids also call her “darkie” and other slurs in Yiddish.
At first, Monique didn’t understand what they were saying. But someone was always eager to translate for her, even though she would have felt better not knowing.
Shabbat is supposed to be a time of relaxation and community. But Monique has to arm herself for battle every Friday.
At the Shabbat table, she would get into arguments with guests who would say that black people were “ghetto” or uncultured, or dirty. Monique always heard comments like these with a caveat: She was a “good one.”
Throughout her conversion process Monique felt exhausted, and at times she wanted to quit. “There were many times where I went home after shul or Shabbos lunch and cried,” she told me.
She considered not converting in an ultra-Orthodox community. But she gathered up that strength and pushed through, because she wanted to do it “the right way.”
And maybe, just maybe, she felt that she could pave the way for other black women who might live in Borough Park after her. Maybe one of those women would be a convert, just like her, someone who felt that she needed to convert “the right way.”
Joe, a 34-year-old black Jew from New York
Joe was heavily involved in Chabad for ten years, but the exhaustion of “begging people to acknowledge” him proved to be too much and he left.
The racism he experienced and witnessed in Chabad caused him deep “mental anguish” and he found that he could no longer surround himself with racists and the enablers of racists. His trust in the Jewish community has been eroded.
“I’m done,” he told me with a sense of finality.
Now, Joe is spending time recovering from that mental anguish, and figuring out who he is outside of his Jewishness.
He buries himself in graduate school, activism, and hobbies like cooking and riding his bike. “I had to fit into Chabad, so I left a lot of myself behind,” Joe explained.
One of the parts of “fitting in” that he is glad to leave behind is the pressure to support Israel. He finds their anti-Palestinian policies, the support of Trump by many in the government, and the treatment of Africans and Arabs to be “disgusting.” Still he thinks it might be easier to be a Black Jew in Israel than a black man in America, because it’s “set up so that Jewish people have more privilege and protection.” Israel is home to some diverse communities that he describes as “an ingathering of misfits,” like him.
In many ways, Joe is envious of people who don’t have to choose between their two identities, between their community and their mental health. But he’s resigned himself to the fact that even though he is halachically Jewish and has light-skinned privilege, the Jewish community will never accept him.
Michael, a 39 year old black Jew from Baltimore, Maryland
As a child, Michael attended Orthodox schools and went to an Orthodox synagogue. In these spaces, he and his three sisters were the darkest kids in the entire school.
Michael vividly remembers experiencing both and racism and anti-Semitism; he was called a “schvartze” by Jews and had rocks thrown at him for wearing a kippah by non-Jews.
The racism from his Jewish community hurt the most, because it came from a place he thought — mistakenly — was safe.
But Michael wasn’t safe, or protected. Whenever he spoke out against the racism in his school, he was ignored.
Michael says that most of the bigotry he experienced was latent, not overt. But there were times when his community’s disgust for black people was unbearably obvious.
In classes there would be conversations about how “the blacks” were the worst of the goyim. On Purim, rabbis would frequently deliver “whole monologues about the schvartzes,” Michael told me. Michael was once told that at a Purim event, one of his rebbeim got drunk and delved into a racial slur-filled rant about Michael.
Another time, Michael heard an influential leader in the Baltimore Orthodox Jewish community effectively say that South Africa was a much better place when “the blacks knew their place.”
Michael always felt a pang when the kids constantly insulted the mostly black custodial staff in his school. Others would crack jokes about certain janitors being Michael’s dad. That hurt the most, because his father was not only not Jewish; he wasn’t around.
Occasionally, the kids and rabbis would tell him that since he was a Jew, he was a “good” black person. And for a short time, Michael wanted very much to prove that he was not one of “those” black people.
Internalized racism made him want to assimilate into the group. But he soon learned that this did nothing to help him feel less empty. So he began to embrace his position as an “outsider,” and grew to accept that to the people in his community, he would never be “enough.”
“I was angry, frustrated, and fatigued with the [Orthodox] world, so I did stop engaging for a while,” Michael told me.
But stepping back from the community meant that Michael was able to practice Judaism without worrying about racism, or the pressure to be a perfect. For the first time in a long time, Michael felt free.
Sarah, a 29-year-old black Jew from Tuscon, Arizona
Sarah was adopted by her white Jewish mother and her Mexican-American father. Because she’s adopted, many people don’t consider her Jewish. But she was raised Jewish and has been in the community her whole life. But micro-aggressions and the constant assumption that she’s a convert have caused her to retreat.
She feels as though she can only participate in Jewishness comfortably when she’s at home by herself or with her family.
Sarah finds herself driven “crazy” by the idea that white Jewish people are not white. She got into an explosive argument with one of her friends, who claimed that she could not be racist because she was Jewish, all Jews are people of color, and people of color cannot be racist.
Sarah was infuriated by this syllogism, feeling that her friend could not be angry because Sarah called her out for racism, and that experiencing anti-Semitism does not make one a person of color.
At one Freedom Seder — a Passover Seder with a heavy social justice theme — she was asked to sing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” because the song about the lynching of African-Americans in the Deep South was “significant to both the black and Jewish communities.”
After she sang the song, there was no discussion about the meaning or history behind the lyrics. They simply clapped and moved on, which made her feel tokenized.
“I was 20 and didn’t know better, and I wouldn’t do it again,” Sarah told me.
Daniel, a 39-year-old black Jew from Prince George’s County, Maryland
When Daniel moved to a Jewish community in South Florida, the only other people of color he saw were housekeepers, nannies, or athletes. A lot of the white Jewish people he was acquainted with felt free to stereotype all black people based on that fact. Once, he remembers going to the house of a white Jewish man who was constantly berating his black housekeeper with verbal abuse.
He was often questioned about his conversion, with many people refusing to accept it. A few people thought he was an undercover Muslim, lying so he could infiltrate their community to do harm.
Daniel decided to convert to Judaism because through his studies, he came to the realization that through creolization and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Judaism was a big part of black history, just like Christianity and Islam. For him, it’s simply a part of black history that people refuse to acknowledge because they want to believe that the only real Jews can be white or Middle Eastern.
But his journey has been hard, and after several racist incidents he and his family have retreated from the community and the practice. Two of the worst incidents happened in synagogue.
Someone said in services that the reason black men were being killed by police was because black men were uneducated. Michael’s wife was the only one who “exercised her white privilege” and spoke out when that happened. Michael was in shock.
The other incident was when someone refused to allow the prayer for the government to be said because Obama had just been elected.
When their exhaustion with the racism reached a breaking point, Daniel and his family found a Sephardi synagogue that seemed more diverse and accepting. There were Yemeni, Egyptian, and Ethiopian members. But they didn’t stay long. They were too traumatized from their last synagogue, which while Sephardi, was still very white.
“Things might have been different if we had found that one first. But we didn’t,” Daniel said with a shrug.
Leila, a 26 year old black Jew from Ottowa, Canada
Leila has been going through the conversion process in a Reform temple for four years in the same synagogue, where she says people still ask her, “Why are you here?” They forget her name, they call her a “goy” (non-Jew), they touch her hair and her black partner’s skin, and they constantly shower her with micro-aggressions. Her rabbi just brushes off the racism, telling her that it’s inevitable because she’s an “outsider.”
Leila struggles in this environment, where most people are staunchly pro-Israel. With her knowledge of the black struggle in the Americas, her conscience will not allow her to show that support. She gets up and leaves during the prayer for the State of Israel, and she wishes that she didn’t feel so alone in her moral conviction about the issue.
Like many people, Leila has mental health problems. But conversion, she says, actively makes it worse. So she’s going at a slower pace, because she can’t attend services or classes when she’s not “riding high.” One experience of racism can make her extremely depressed, and unable to face the synagogue again for a long time.
Davina, a 26-year-old graduate of Howard University
Davina is not Jewish doesn’t consider herself to be Jewish, although she has a white Jewish father. She refuses to be part of a community that she feels will never be inclusive.
Her journey away from Jewishness was an evolution that began the day her aunt told her that she wasn’t Jewish. After that, things got worse. Distant family would refer to her as “the half-colored girl” and she would witness her grandfather using Yiddish racial slurs for black people.
Being admitted to Howard University was a major milestone for her, but her white Jewish family told her that they would never pay for her to attend a black school. Davina also credits her trips to Israel for her detachment from the Jewish community. When she went on her Birthright trip, she was uneasy. Much of the educational content felt like propaganda designed to make the state of Israel seem “innocent” in its implementation of anti-Arab policies.
After learning that the Israeli government gave Ethiopian women birth control without their consent, Davina removed her Star of David from her neck. She hasn’t worn it since.
Miryam, a 31-year-old black Jewish woman from the Washington DC area
Miryam has always been acutely aware that her presence in Jewish spaces made people uncomfortable. They often projected their discomfort onto her, asking probing questions about her family, her conversion, her life.
Miryam is not light-skinned, and she is not mixed-race. She and the members of other Jewish communities, like ones in Ghana or Jamaica, are proof that the Jewish community is not homogenous and that entire communities can arise out of conversion, or that people can have non-white or non-Middle Eastern parents and still be born Jewish.
Although she is a convert, the assumption that she converted irritates her because “people assume you converted because your boyfriend or husband wanted you to, like as a black woman, you don’t have any agency in your own religion.”
For a long time, it was exhausting and draining for Miryam to practice Judaism, and she pulled away from the Jewish community.
“It didn’t feel like I could claim Judaism because I felt no connection,” she explained. “I felt dissociated from the community and it’s such a communal religion, so that just left me isolated.”
These days, she lights candles, but she doesn’t go to services and she barely celebrates any holidays, because she just can’t handle the constant feeling of being an outsider.
Although Miryam has never stopped considering herself to be Jewish, she admits that it’s much easier to be in the black community.
“No black people question my blackness,” she told me. “People question your authenticity in your religion because of your skin color, but at no point is your blackness ever questioned. You are fully two things but only one of those things actively acknowledges you consistently.”
Jewish media is a huge source of frustration for her, as she comes across articles like “12 Ways You Grew Up Jewish,” or “12 Jewish Foods You Have to Try,” that perpetuate non-convert, white Ashkenazi experiences as representative of the entire Jewish community.
Miryam told me that she believed most black Jews gravitated towards Orthodoxy, because when you’re black there is a pressure to prove that you’re a “perfect Jew… and follow all 613 commandments.”
Racism in the Jewish community even impacts her dating life, as a lot of white Jewish men treat her like an experiment, and she finds that black Jewish men often want to be with white Jewish women to continue to prove their Jewishness.
Miryam constantly worries about raising black Jewish children in a community that is supposed to give them solace, but is unfriendly towards black and brown people.
“Do I want to take them [to synagogue] at all? Should I put this burden on them without them asking for it? It’s hard being a black adult in Jewish spaces,” she said. “I can’t imagine being a black child here.”
Liyah, an 18-year-old from North Carolina
Liyah is a college student from North Carolina who’s currently converting, and is the co-president of her college Hillel. But even within that space, she’s often assumed to not be Jewish or to be ignorant about Judaism.
“I may not have been born Jewish, but I’m still Jewish, and people act like I’m stupid, even though I’m constantly taking classes and learning,” she told me.
Being in Jewish spaces chips away at the happy part of herself. When she sees racism directed at outspoken black Jewish women that she admires, Liyah feels gripped with fear that if she spoke out about racism, she too would get racially attacked. When she speaks out against racism online, she is sometimes called “fake Jew.”
Her deep commitment to Judaism empowers her to not abandon her conversion or give up on the Jewish community. Still, it’s hard, and Liyah fears not only for her present, but for her future.
At first, she wanted to have an Orthodox conversion because she never wanted her future children to be called “fake Jews” because their mother had a Reform or Conservative conversion. Now, she’s decided against that route. Sometimes, she worries she will come to regret her decision to stay in the Jewish community.
“If my kids ever experience racism, it would feel like it was my fault for ‘choosing’ to be part of a community that I knew had a huge problem with racism,” Liyah told me.
Liyah fears that she will be silenced and tokenized, or even attacked in the Jewish community. Most of all, she fears that if she experiences these things, white Jewish people will blame her for it, invalidating her Judaism because she’s a black convert.
But she remains hopeful that the Jewish community will one day become truly inclusive.
While I was writing this piece, as I wrapped up my interviews for the day, I was reminded of the time my friend (who I’ve come to call my sister) taught me to wear a tichel, a traditional Jewish head-covering.
We only had a few minutes for her to teach me, because I had to catch my flight back home soon. She pulled me into the bathroom and showed me how to arrange the tichel, using her own head of curly black hair as an example. “Now you try,” she told me, handing me the soft blue fabric. I twisted and folded and pinned until it looked decent, and my friend straightened my Star of David necklace and gave me a parting hug.
It was a pure moment for me, of Jewish family and friendship, of life and light.
The next day, I was at a Jewish event, wearing the tichel and my necklace. I was talking with a woman and throughout the conversation I mentioned my Jewish journalism, my college Hillel and Hebrew class, a bit of Talmud I had learned recently, and the “Srugim” binge session my friend and I had that weekend.
The conversation seemed to be going great, when all of a sudden, long after I had mentioned all these parts of my Jewish life, the woman stared at me in wide-eyed bewilderment.
“Wait, are you Jewish?” she asked me disbelievingly.
The room and the air in it seemed stagnant. I felt a lump in my throat. And for the first time in a long time, I just didn’t know how to answer that question.
She had made me feel so terrible, like such an outsider, that an insidious question of my own had unexpectedly snuck into the recesses of my mind.
Did I want to be Jewish?
Nylah Burton is a sexual assault survivor advocate and a student from Howard University. Follow her on Twitter, @yumcoconutmilk.