(RNS) — In the year after she graduated from rabbinical school, Rabbi Sandra Lawson found herself the finalist for two congregational leadership positions.
The boards of both synagogues were enthusiastic about hiring her.
But when they presented Lawson to the entire congregation, the membership backed down, acknowledging that while she was obviously qualified, they were not ready for a Black rabbi.
Lawson now wants to make sure other Black rabbis, and Jews of color generally, don’t have the same painful experience.
As Reconstructing Judaism’s new director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion, she will spearhead an effort to raise awareness of Jews of color and to make sure policies are in place to ensure all races and ethnicities are welcome in the denomination’s 88 U.S. congregations and its flagship Philadelphia seminary.
“If we don’t start to change policy in our congregations, future rabbis will be met with racial bias and racism in the hiring process,” said Lawson, who recently stepped down as Hillel rabbi and associate chaplain for Jewish life at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. “I’m committed to policy so that doesn’t happen.”
The American Jewish community is in the midst of a racial reckoning as robust as any across America. While American Jews are overwhelmingly white, Jews of color represent 12% to 15% of their population, according to a meta-analysis undertaken by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. That means there are an estimated 1 million Jews of color (Black, Hispanic, biracial and others) out of about 7.2 million U.S. Jews.
Over the past few months, the Reform movement — the largest of the Jewish denominational groups — has also named a director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion. And a number of Jewish nonprofits have instituted new policies to diversify their workforces to better reflect the emerging American Jewish demographics.
Across the country, scores of synagogues and Jewish Community Centers are engaging in book clubs, seminars and trainings on how to be anti-racist.
“It’s a very exciting, vibrant, live conversation that’s happening,” said Abby Levine, executive director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
The roundtable, which networks with 70 Jewish organizations, has made racial justice a centerpiece of its work. On its annual recommitment form, it now requires member groups to explain what they’ve done on racial equity and what they plan to do in the coming year.
The new racial awareness has been sometimes slow in coming, in part because many Jews, who see themselves as targets of white supremacists, share with Blacks the experience of oppression and discrimination.
“It’s particularly difficult for Jews because we have a different narrative: We are outsiders and victims of white people,” said Cheryl Greenberg, professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “It’s hard for us to see ourselves in a position of power and control.”
That experience of Jews as victims is real, as the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol showed. The mob of white nationalists that stormed Congress in an effort to overturn the result of November’s election included a range of anti-Semitic symbols and statements — from a shirt emblazoned with “Camp Auschwitz,” to numerous Nazi tattoos.
The challenge for white American Jews is to understand that they can be both targets of white supremacy, and, at the same time, an accessory to it.
“It’s both/and,” said April Baskin, a Black Jewish activist and founder of Joyous Justice, which hosts racial justice convenings. “We can both be targeted by anti-Semitism and also be benefitting from racism at the same time.”
It’s one reason racial awareness in the Jewish community has to be a three-pronged approach, said Yolanda Savage-Narva, director of racial equity, diversity and inclusion for the Union of Reform Judaism. It must tackle individual racism, group racism and at the same time work to eradicate racism in the wider world.
“The way our culture in the U.S. has been defined, it puts groups of people in specific categories,” Savage-Narva said. “It’s hard to separate.”
The Conservative movement, the second-largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., has not appointed a diversity chief but is exploring ways to make the board of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and its 560 synagogues more diverse, said Jacob Blumenthal, the conservative movement’s CEO.
Recently, the San Francisco-based Jews of Color Initiative announced it was undertaking a survey of 1,000 Jews of color to better understand their experiences in Jewish institutional settings and whether systemic racism affects them in those spaces.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism, said she hopes synagogues will not only be more welcoming to people of color but open to transformation.
“It’s not just saying, ‘Come on in and assimilate. There’s space for you here,’” Waxman said. “It’s saying, ‘We’re going to be changed by the encounter and we’re excited about that change and committed to that change.’”
Lawson, who lives in Burlington, North Carolina, said she isn’t waiting any longer. She is starting her own congregation, which will be online-only for now. She said she has already filled out the paperwork to form a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The name of the congregation, she said, will be “Kol HaPanim” Hebrew for “all the faces.”