Jewish organizations can do better on diversity

Our community will suffer a loss if mainstream Jewish communal institutions are not able to be more effective in engaging Jews of color.

Pro-Palestinian protesters hold banners reading "Peace and solidarity of Mediterranean people" (L) and "Boycott Israel, Free Palestine" (R) as they demonstrate against Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, in Barcelona June 5, 2010 (photo credit: GUSTAV NACARINO / REUTERS)
Pro-Palestinian protesters hold banners reading "Peace and solidarity of Mediterranean people" (L) and "Boycott Israel, Free Palestine" (R) as they demonstrate against Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, in Barcelona June 5, 2010
(photo credit: GUSTAV NACARINO / REUTERS)
Like most Jewish and pro-Israel professionals, I’ve attended a lot of conferences. These are important events for networking and sharing information about the vital community-building work we do as American Jews. A persistent disappointment is how many times I’ve been to a conference and was able to count the number of Jews of color in attendance on one hand.
The Jewish and pro-Israel communities have tried to be inclusive. But when you look at the leadership of mainstream Jewish organizations and the constituents who engage with them, there is a massive gap between the number of Jews of color across America and our representation in mainstream communal spaces. That’s going to be a problem for us.
American Jewry is shifting demographically. Modern Jewish communal life largely arose from a 1890s-1920s immigration wave of Ashkenazim. But in 2020, more and more American Jews are Jews of color.
According to a 2011 New York Jewish Community Study, 12% of New York Jewish households are “non-white” (black, Hispanic, Asian, or bi- or multi-racial). A 2019 study from the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative found that Jews of color represent approximately 12%-15% of the American Jewish population, based on available data. Demographic trends indicate that younger Jews are much more likely to be Jews of color. Of course, we need better and newer counts.
Our community will suffer a loss if mainstream Jewish communal institutions are not able to be more effective in engaging Jews of color. I’ve learned first-hand that unity is the key to success.
Much of my day-to-day work for Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) focuses on combating antisemitism on college campuses by stopping the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and other anti-Israel activity. ACF is effective because we present a united front of alumni committed to promoting honest and respectful discourse at universities.
Jewish students face real hostilities. Our alumni are on the front lines combating this hate at their alma maters. I see every day how our one, unified alumni voice against antisemitism and bigotry is the core of our strength.
JEWISH AND pro-Israel groups will be more effective by embracing our diverse traditions at a basic level. Our Judaism and our Zionism is stronger when it reflects the wide variety of Jewish backgrounds and histories. One way we can start to move forward is by examining how American Jewish groups are “Ashkenormative” – assuming all Jews relate to Ashkenazi history, beliefs and practices – and by examining how our spaces elevate white voices above others.
A small but persistent incident of this is in the graphics that organizations use to promote Shabbat. If an organization is explicitly Ashkenazi, then of course it would include a braided three-strand challa in the image. But if an organization intends to serve all Jews, this image represents an Ashkenazi tradition (albeit a very delicious one). Challot look different around the world, and it’s not secret knowledge.
A 2015 New York Times article offered details about the diversity of challa: “During the first few thousand years of Jewish life, challa included everything from rich layered breads baked overnight in Yemen, pita pockets in Syria and lepeshka flatbreads in the Caucasus. Later on, as challa traveled with the Jews, the bread took on a Hungarian costume of poppy seeds, soaked up orange blossom water in Libya, and mixed with pumpkin in Spain.”
Many Jews are well-aware of this history, and improving Jewish literacy around the great number of different Diaspora traditions can go a long way in bringing Jews into our communal institutions.
This idea applies to other matters: how we hold community Seders, how we tell the story of Israeli history, where we hold events, and whose stories we tell. It’s up to Jews of all colors and backgrounds to understand that every Jew in America doesn’t look like Larry David and eat matzah-ball soup.
Zionism isn’t just important because of Jews fleeing Russian pogroms or survivors seeking refuge after the Holocaust (which also decimated Sephardi communities in countries including Greece). It’s also no secret that Israel is a place of refuge for Jews from Morocco, Iraq, India, Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and a host of other countries. Our history is complex, and we serve ourselves better when we embrace that.
The search for knowledge through argumentation and debate is at the root of Judaism. We are the people of Israel – he who wrestles with God. Much of our long history is about struggle – with belief, each other and other communities.
There have been a number of well-meaning pushes for our community to be more inclusive. There are also many Jewish activists who have been successful in forming groups to elevate and engage Jews of color. Working to address this gap through fundamental changes will strengthen American Jewry for generations to come.

The writer is the associate director of Alums for Campus Fairness, America’s unified alumni voice on issues of antisemitism, demonization of Israel and bigotry.