Newsletter   /   March 2024
Dr. Bruce Haynes Reflects on His Research and Recent Webinar Panel

Leader Feature: Dr. Bruce Haynes

Dr. Bruce Haynes, esteemed author of The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America, says his life journey was shaped by influential mentors and unexpected connections. Raised in Harlem, a series of friendships, opportunities, and curiosities led him to become a prominent figure in the study of race, ethnicity, and sociology.

Haynes’ academic journey began with a serendipitous introduction to a Jewish leftist intellectual and sociologist. During a pickup soccer game in Central Park, Haynes met graduate student Cathy Curry who introduced him to his future mentor, Jay Schulman. After working in jury selection with Schulman in NY, Schulman expressed confidence in Haynes’ ability to succeed in graduate school and steered him toward higher education. Encouraged by Schulman, Haynes embarked on a graduate degree at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1989, where he found himself amidst a rather large community of Jewish scholars and intellectuals.

Mentored by scholars like Steve Steinberg, author of The Ethnic Myth, and CUNY demographer Andrew Beverage, Haynes delved into groundbreaking research, challenging prevailing narratives on race and ethnicity. Haynes began publishing texts that deconstructed racial conflicts, offering fresh perspectives on issues often framed through simplistic binaries that assumed Blacks and Jews to be mutually exclusive groups. Graduating with a Ph.D. in Sociology in 1995, Haynes’ academic pursuits and support from Beverage took him to Yale University, where he encountered a stark contrast in the demographic landscape compared to his graduate years: very few Jews were part of his Sociology department.

In 1996, Bruce Haynes found himself at a crossroads, both personally and professionally, as key experiences encouraged him to deconstruct common assumptions about Blackness and Jewishness. Haynes co-authored an article with Phil Kasinitz titled “The Fire at Freddy’s,” [1] which interrogated presumptions about racial tensions among Blacks and Jews in New York. Around the same time, Haynes and his wife joined a synagogue in New Haven, where he was teaching about race at Yale University; Haynes found himself contemplating the complex dynamics between Blacks and Jews, particularly within the context of his newfound synagogue community.

“In 1996, I’m in a synagogue, in a Conserva-dox synagogue, and teaching about race at Yale University. Interesting place to be,” Haynes reflects. During this time, Black-Jewish relations were also making headlines in the news as communities grappled with statements from Farakhan that magnified divisions between Blacks and Jews. 

“So I start thinking about relationships between Blacks and Jews, and I’m thinking, well, here I am in a synagogue, a Black guy, and there are other Black people here who are Jewish. I’m like, no one’s talking to these Black people who happen to be Jewish! And whoever thought about Black people as Jewish? Because in the newspaper they said there’s Blacks and there’s Jews and never the two shall meet.”

Motivated by the absence of discourse surrounding Black Jews and their unique experiences, Haynes felt compelled to amplify their voices. “I started meeting people with Jewish and Black identities and I thought, well, maybe I should interview them because no one’s talking to them and everybody says Blacks and Jews can’t be in the same room together anymore,” Haynes recalls, alluding to the heightened tensions of the time.

In his exploration, Haynes encountered various manifestations of Jewish and Jewish-adjacent  identity within the Black community, including encounters with Hebrew Israelites and individuals like Walter Isaac, a young man at Yale Divinity School. These encounters broadened Haynes’ perspective and inspired him to redefine the boundaries of his research to include groups that fell outside of the typical definition of the Jewish community.

“It took me [20 years] to map out the kind of broad boundaries of the different people who said that they were both Black and Jewish, and that long to decode what I was looking at,” Haynes explains. “I spent a lot of time trying to piece together the historical context that shaped the categories of Black and Jewish in the United States.”

Twenty years later, Haynes’ journey culminated in the publication of his seminal work, The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America, a testament to his dedication to unraveling the complexities of race, religion, and identity in American society.

“It’s a book that looks at the different ways that people who self-identify as Jewish and African…bring those identities together in the United States. And by looking at this community, I uproot notions of Jewish whiteness and raise questions about how Jews have navigated race in the modern world.”

On February 29, 2024, Haynes moderated an enlightening panel discussion on “Black Jewish Perspectives on This Historical Moment.” The panel, which featured Ilana Kaufman, Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, Robin Washington, and Yolanda Savage-Narva, covered the social construction of identity, positionality of American Jews in relation to whiteness and DEI initiatives, the emergence of the term “Jews of Color,” colorism, and limitations and possibilities of data and demography. 

“One of the things I liked about the webinar that we did was that I felt we managed to go beyond the surface. Usually at these events, you really can’t get beyond a sort of surface conversation. I thought it was impressive how we managed to show the relevance of topics and their connection to broader issues. I thought it was one of the most comprehensive conversations I have been a part of, and I thought it was done in a way, given how complicated the topic was, that was pretty digestible and very informative.” Haynes also stated that he “thought the panelists complimented each other really well,” which “created this very holistic webinar that showed that this is a dynamic conversation. It’s not something where you can say, okay, here are the boxes and here’s where everybody fits in and here’s an explanation that you can walk away with…I think conversations that ask more questions than they answer are the conversations that really have to be had.”

Whether through panel discussions with other communal leaders, teaching at UC Davis, or through continued research, Haynes hopes that his scholarship and efforts in the community will have one important impact on Jews of African descent: “Build community. And when I say build community, that means build community within Black spaces, and that means build community within Jewish spaces, and that means deconstructing the idea that these communities are mutually exclusive,” he said.

Haynes believes that the more we come to understand variation within identity categories, the closer we get to understanding their social constructedness. “I think that’s exactly what Black Jews bring to the table. As a society, we talk in very totalizing ways about groups—”the Jews”, “the Blacks”—but there are vast differences within, and intersections among, groups. And when we fixate on categorization, we often fail to see the humanity that unites them all, and we emphasize differences as opposed to similarities.” 




  1. Haynes, Bruce. 1996. “The Fire at Freddy’s,” Common Quest volume 1, no. 2 (Fall), p. 25-35.

    *This article is currently not available online and is out of print.


Date Posted

March 2024


Jews of Color Initiative