There are at least one million Jews of Color in the United States. That’s what the Jews of Color Initiative’s study, Counting Inconsistencies, found. From social media users to other Jewish population researchers, this number has been restructuring perceptions about Jews of Color. We asked members of our Grant Advisory Committee to reflect on what this study has meant to them personally and as JoC leaders in the community.
Although various voices have responded to our study’s findings, and not always with kindness, it is of utmost importance that we share the voices and reflections from our JoC family, and hearing from some of our community’s leadership is a key place to begin.
Each leader spoke to a theme that has also been reflected across social media in response to our study—validation that we are not just a few in number.
“It’s extremely validating. And it’s also really nice to know that, even though JoCs sometimes feel isolated, that there are a lot more of us out there,” Nate Looney shared. Looney is a diversity strategist with Avodah, and was part of the Bend the Arc Selah JOC Cohort and is currently a Jeremiah fellow with the same organization. His sentiment of validation was echoed by the other three JoC leaders as well.
“It validated that I was not alone,” Amanda Ryan said. Ryan is the Program Director of Tri-Faith Initiative, and is working on her Master’s degree in Sociology, where she is studying religion, race, human rights, and social change, and she was a fellow in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Jew v’Nation Fellowship in 2018. “It showed me that there are more Jews of Color and we aren’t just within liberal and progressive Jewish spaces, but Jews of Color are in our entire community. Jews of Color are both Jews by birth and by conversion, Jews of Color have always been in our community.”
Yoshi Silverstein, Executive Director of Mitsui Collective, also discussed feeling validated and resisting feelings of isolation. “The knowledge of what statistically we should see, generally speaking, in any Jewish group versus what we typically see helps to counter the narratives that, one, JoC are highly rare, and two, they must not really exist in our community because we’d see them. So, in those ways the statistics both help to counter the invisibility of JoC and to create a sense of a larger collective that helps counter the isolation that many JoC feel.”
That sense of isolation is not unique to JoC leaders; it is all too common among Jews of Color. This is amplified by the fact that many formal Jewish institutions and communities have not had welcoming spaces where Jews of Color can comfortably remain active, or even present, members. From structural barriers to racist interactions among community members, predominantly white Jewish spaces have often driven Jews of Color away or impeded involvement to begin with. Constant questions about the identities or “backgrounds” of Jews of Color commodify and fetishize the existence of JoCs, and unveiled remarks about how rare Jews of Color are can contribute to feelings of loneliness and lack of belonging.
This is a major reason why knowing there are at least one million Jews of Color in the U.S. is so reassuring to many JoCs. Even through those feelings of isolation, loneliness, or exclusion in your particular community, you are not alone. And whether through the next generation of children from JoC families, interracial relationships, conversion, or adoption, the number of Jews of Color will continue to increase. In fact, younger generations of Jews are already more diverse than the generations ahead of them.
When it came to the sense of validation provided by our study, one leader, Danielle Natelson, a Design Strategist at UpStart who has been working in Jewish community and advocating for diverse and inclusive Jewish environments for over a decade, spoke about the “bittersweetness” she experienced in seeing research on Jews of Color. “I think it’s validating,” she said with a somewhat hesitant tone, “and yet at the same time, it feels weird to need data to validate the experiences that so many people have had. And so there’s a bittersweetness to it that pushes and helps to shape a communal conversation…it feels a little painful to know that for some that’s what’s needed in order to care, or for whom that’s not enough. As a community, we can and should be better than that.”
Part of doing better requires that white Jewish communities own up to the harm they are inflicting on the Jewish people by perpetuating racism within. Natelson believes the best way to understand the harm of racism within the Jewish community is shanda, the Yiddish word for shame. “I perceive that which impacts the collective Jewish world through the lens of shanda, or that which brings us collective shame…When Jews act in the public eye in a way that is not in accordance with what we as Jews deem to be right, that feels not just embarrassing but shameful to us as a people.”
Natelson also saw the resistance to engaging justly with the findings of our study, which would have required centering Jews of Color, as an example of shanda. In previous research, failure to account for Jews of Color, or to do so consistently, has established an underlying disbelief regarding the size of the JoC population. Caught up in that disbelief, some have tried to dismiss our study since the time of commission.
Ryan, who is a researcher herself, spoke to issues in the methodology of previous studies. “As both a Latina Jew that is also a researcher of Jewish communities and race, I found it hard to believe that a basic demographic question around race and ethnicity was not tracked. By [previous studies] eliminating that question, I was erased,” Ryan explained. She added that “there should be consistency of questions and methodology that ensures we have accurate measurements of our community.”
As leaders in the Jewish community, each one of the committee members is applying the knowledge gleaned from Counting Inconsistencies in practice. Looney described how seeing that Jews of Color make up 12-15% of the U.S. Jewish population has lit a new fire behind his leadership and his hopes for JoC community support.
“As a JoC leader, it creates a sense of urgency…It would be important to have that urgency even if there were only 2,000 of us. But knowing there are so many means that as leaders we really need to be doing the work and knocking on doors and making sure that opportunities are available to all of these JoCs, because there’s a large number of us.”
For Ryan, a similar sense of urgency comes from wanting to maintain the Jewish people. “I believe that we hear a lot about how intermarriage is the ‘downfall’ of our people. However, I would argue that the marginalization of People of Color within our Jewish spaces, and lack of understanding of our community’s complicated history with race, will lead to further drops in our numbers and fewer people engaging with formal Jewish spaces. We can do better, and research like the Counting Inconsistencies study helps us to move forward.”
The Jews of Color Initiative is proud that our study has been making such an impact on the lives of JoCs, including leaders among our community. But we know there is even more work to be done. Two of these JoC leaders, Natelson and Looney, captured this perfectly, illustrating how much more we have left to uncover.
Discussing how the results of our study have impacted her role as a JoC leader, Natelson explained, “when I talk about JoC needs, JoC experiences, I can do so confidently, knowing I am speaking about a significant number of people with a robust and diverse set of experiences. Given that there are at least a million Jews of Color, I know when I walk into Jewish spaces and walk through the world as a JoC leader, I have a responsibility to convey an understanding that not all one million of those people have the same experience.”
Looney similarly reflected on how the size of the Jews of Color population informs a more complex understanding of diversity within. “One million Jews of Color. That’s a lot of people,” Looney asserted. “And it feels like just isolating that number is just scratching the surface. Because we don’t understand the demographics of what’s within that number, and what the differences are within economics, educational levels, age ranges, religious observances. There is a whole picture that has yet to be painted. And so the fact that that number is one million, should point people in the direction that there’s a lot more to be uncovered in this community.”
Looney gave an example of how seeing nuance among the JoC community can restructure the leadership or resource-granting choices leaders make, providing an example of the intersection of queer and JoC identities. “If 7% of the population is queer, then that means that there’s 70,000 queer JoCs out there that aren’t tapped into community in a way.”
There is much more to be done to adequately research and represent Jews of Color. At the Jews of Color Initiative, we know this research is just a starting point. But perhaps a starting point that can motivate an ongoing effort to center our community. Looney emphasized that this is the first step in the right direction, saying we need to develop an “understanding that this is a multigenerational thing.” He continued to explain how this study gives us a window to the previously undercounted and underrepresented.
“The work that we’re doing right now is important for future generations as the JoC community continues to grow. So, I’m so glad we have this! And now that we know what we don’t know, let’s reach the people that we didn’t know were out there.”