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For real affirmative action, recruit Israelites for Jewish seminaries

A serious effort would help counter antisemitism among Black Americans

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision dismantling affirmative action in education, the mainstream liberal denomination-affiliated rabbinical seminaries — such as Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Jewish Theological Seminary — have an opportunity to increase racial diversity in their ranks: Actively recruit and graduate Hebrew Israelite candidates.

It begins with an understanding of who Israelites are and are not, and that there are many different types. Generally speaking, Israelites are communities of Jews who practice one or more indigenous forms of Judaism found throughout the African diaspora. Although most have African roots, Israelites are as religiously and culturally diverse as rabbinic Jewry. They may be of any race. For example, some American communities have Jewish roots that date back to colonial-era slavery. Some sub-Saharan African groups, however, have roots in Ethiopia or other ancient populations. And besides being of Hebrew ancestry, there is no singular unifying theology or doctrine that all Israelites share. 

Israelites are often not considered Jews by Halachic Jews, and yet many like myself are dually affiliated in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, or other majority-white Jewish denominations. For example, I have a semicha from the Jewish Spiritual Leadership Institute, a non-Israelite organization, and yet my ordination helps me serve Jews of all backgrounds. By recruiting more Israelites like me, liberal Jewish seminaries would be taking positive steps forward in the revitalization of American Jewish religious life. Here are 10 reasons why.

If the biggest criticism of Israelites is that they don’t practice “real” or Halachic Judaism, then this is clearly the best way for them to learn.

1. It is the strongest investment Jews can make in the fight against antisemitism. The Kanye West affair last fall shows the danger of unchecked Jewish stereotypes in the Black community. Israelite clergy who become versed in rabbinic Judaism can help dispel these notions far more effectively than high-profile rebukes of public figures by Jewish organizations. This knowledge could be brought to the African American community interpersonally to counter internet-based antisemitism.

There is a historical basis to this. Decades ago, Israelite leaders didn’t hesitate to publicly denounce antisemitism, such as in public statements in the early 20th century against pogroms in Eastern Europe and the rise of Nazism in Germany.

2. The Supreme Court’s decision incentivizes interest in Jewish seminaries. Facing barriers to rabbinic education, Israelites have traditionally attended secular universities for religious and/or chaplaincy training. I am an example of that, having studied at Yale and Temple. But the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action has now made this option less likely, thereby incentivizing Israelites to embrace the kind of education Jewish seminaries offer. Israelites are the largest non-white Jewish demographic, and yet progressive Jewish seminaries have produced almost no Israelite graduates, despite a high need for more rabbis overall. Admitting more Israelite students through proactive, targeted outreach will address this disparity.

3. It promotes the goals of Jewish rabbinic education. There are many different types of Israelites, and every majority-white liberal Jewish movement has a philosophical equivalent group of practitioners in Israelite spaces. If a progressive rabbinate’s purpose is to serve all Jews, then ordaining students that hail from hundreds of majority-minority Israelite congregations is the best place to start.

4. It makes financial sense. American Jews have a long history of providing economic and scholarly support to largely non-Jewish historically Black colleges and universities.

If the Jewish community has funded the academic success of non-Jewish African Americans, then it makes no sense for its leading seminaries not to recruit African Americans of Israelite heritage.

5. It fulfills the principles of social justice. The 20th-century racism experienced by Israelite communities was never systematically addressed. Despite the calls for Israelites to convert, many synagogues still shun Israelite rabbis and even Jewish diversity organizations routinely treat Israelites as pariahs or illegitimate.

6. It’s entirely legal, despite the recent Supreme Court decision. Unlike secular institutions, seminaries can require students to adhere to a specific religion. Admitting Israelites, a mostly but not exclusively Black population, is an extension of that principle.

7. It’s practical. Scholarship on the African Hebrew diaspora has dramatically expanded in recent decades. Unlike 50 years ago, many organizations, such as the Obadya Alliance and the Afro-Jewish Studies Association, have produced literature that helps recruiters and admissions committees vet Israelites whose background is compatible with each seminary’s particular religious philosophy.

8. It reduces racial stereotypes of Israelite communities. Israelites are extremely diverse in religious expression. If the seminaries maintain and analyze detailed records of their recruitment efforts, they will be able to document and analyze the impact of stereotypes on Israelite students and communities.

9. It will revitalize American Jewish congregational life. Compared to other groups, African Americans are becoming secular far more slowly than white Jewish communities.

This means that culturally informed Israelite leaders can serve younger multiethnic populations who are more, not less, interested in congregational life.

10. It is a cultural investment in the future of post-global Jewry. Let’s not mince words about this one. If the biggest criticism of Israelites is that they don’t practice “real” or Halachic Judaism, then this is clearly the best way for them to learn. The goal of this article is not to suggest that once admitted to a Jewish seminary, an Israelite student may interpret the studies any way they want to; the institution’s course of study would remain its course of study. Yet nothing could be a more powerful demonstration of an Israelite student’s religious intent. Having a multiracial and multicultural rabbinate that includes Halachic Jews of color is admirable, but if that rabbinate shuns indigenous traditions of African diaspora Judaism, it will only strengthen antisemitism, not prevent it. Thus Jewish seminaries could advance the work of tikkun olam by producing graduates who not only serve the “recognized” Jewish diaspora, but also the global Jewish diaspora.

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