On Embracing the Diversity of the Jewish Diaspora

04/15/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

As Jewish people across the United States and throughout the world celebrate Passover an remember their past, this is a perfect time to reflect on diversity and the future of the Jewish diaspora.

In this community, like so many others, everyone does not look, act or think the same. The recent PBS documentary Little White Lie -- the story about Lacey Schwartz, a biracial black-Jewish woman who was raised white -- reminds us about the many hues in the Jewish community.

The organization Be'chol Lashon estimates that at 20 percent of Jewish Americans are of color, which includes Jews of African, Asian and Latino descent, Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, multiracial Jews, those who converted to Judaism, and people who were adopted by Jewish families.

"I have a very, very strong Jewish identity, and it has nothing to do with the Jewish community," said Jared Jackson, the founder and Executive Director of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit, Jews In All Hues (JIAH). "My connection to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood is connected to my mother and my dad's support," he said.

JIAH is an education and advocacy organization that supports multiple-heritage Jews, those whose racial identity lays outside of what some consider "mainstream" Jewish people, and assists Jewish communities and organizations in creating sustainably-diverse communities.

Asserting that Judaism is increasingly diverse -- including not only multiracial Jews and Jews of color, but also the LGBT community -- the organization wants to create a future where a person's heritage is not a barrier to acceptance or integration into the Jewish community.

"We want to preserve and enhance the dignity of the Jewish people for people who are already a part of it and people who are yet to be," Jared said.

Born of a white Ashkenazi mother, and a black father who died when he was a child, Jackson experienced a great deal of intolerance from Jews and blacks in the community of Willingboro, New Jersey, where he was raised. "I grew up with a lot of racism and anti-Semitism from the African-American community.

"Where I grew up there were people trying to stone me, spit in my face, convert my mom. Why would you bring holy water to a supermarket?" Jackson said, also noting that some of his mother's coworkers attempted to convert her to Christianity at the public school where she worked.

In the Jewish community, there were lots of racial epithets being spouted as us. There were rabbis, congregants and board members who didn't think we belonged, and showed us in many ways.

Jackson asserts that he has a strong identity, which he attributes not to the Jewish community, but to his parents. "My connection to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood is connected to my mother and my dad's support." Jackson's late father had planned to convert to Judaism before he died, and his mother instilled in him a strong sense of social activism. "I can't separate human values from Jewish values," he said.

If my mother knew there were people who needed clothes, the basic stuff, she would give them clothes. There would be no second thought about it. They're in need, this isn't a matter of religion or race, but about basic dignity about showing up to school without clothes that weren't tattered.

After a 14-year absence from the Jewish community, Jared reconnected, as president of his college Hillel. And it was a trip to Israel -- where he met other multiracial Jewish Americans and Jews of color -- that this musician found his destiny.

"It is hard to have a strong connection to a community that shows you in words and actions that there is a prescription for how to be Jewish. You have to have this amount of heritage, this amount of knowledge, and there are all these contradictions," Jared said, also noting that he has not felt welcome in some Jewish spaces because he was made to feel his parentage was invalid, and told not to talk about his African-American father.

'If we want to have more people involved in the Jewish community, we have to change," he noted. Change means a shift in leadership, and many people, including black, Latino and Asian Jews, are not finding spaces where they can become leaders in the Jewish community.

Jackson notes that some people need a thoughtful invitation, and must be allowed to be who they are. "An invitation that says you can come in this space if you're just like me, or that you have to change who you are -- I would not accept an invitation like that," Jackson insisted.

"Are our goals just to fill the pews?. Is our goal to see that Jews and the Jewish people continue?" Jared asked.

If that's our goal, we have to recognize there are people who don't identify with a particular denomination. If we're for all Jews, not just Jews who are just like 'us,' whoever the 'us' is, then there needs to be an acknowledgement of that.

One issue facing the Jewish community is the notion that intermarriage is leading to its demise. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, the Jewish intermarriage rate is 58 percent, 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews. But Jackson notes that American Jewry is the product of a melting pot, and multi-heritage Jews, not to mention non-Jewish spouses married to Jews, help enrich the Jewish experience. "We're not living at the final stage of Judaism," Jackson said. "We have to dispel some fears. We are living at a point of departure for the future."

Jackson noted that while he was the product of intermarriage, he is also a product of love. "My father had no question about whether we would be raised Jewish," Jared said.

This conversation, this attitude is also disregarding history. Abraham and Sarah, intermarriage. Moses married someone who wasn't Jewish... Intermarriage has been a part of the Jewish people since the Jewish people began, and in some cases it has saved lives. Purim is a story of intermarriage saving Jews in Persia.

Jackson has participated in #BlackLivesMatter protests, including acts of Jewish support for the black community in light of Ferguson and the killing of black people by law enforcement across the country. And he believes the key to social change is in understanding others.

When you talk about #BlackLivesMatter and social change movements, when you understand people in those cultures, it moves beyond solidarity. When I stand in a rally with a bunch of Jews and they say there is solidarity between blacks and Jews, they're missing me.

Ultimately, Jews In All Hues believes change through the power of connectedness, and shifting mentalities and culture by reaching out and creating support systems for people, and new ways to welcome them into the community. The organization is conducting training for Jewish organizations and professionals, and is planning a certification program for synagogues and institutions who connect to make people a part of the community. JIAH also plans to branch out to other cities. The goal, Jackson said, is not to become a multicultural JCC (Jewish Community Center), or an organization that is separate from the Jewish community.

"I grew up with a very strong sense of peoplehood and humanity and justice, and being in a process that helps everyone along -- that's the life I live; that's how I want to approach every encounter," Jared said. "Every encounter is a treasure trove."