Race and the Jewish Community

Makom Shalom is proud to be a diverse community with a range of views in current affairs and matters of faith. The views I present on this blog are my own and not a statement on behalf of the Makom Shalom community. I encourage you to share your views here in the comment section on this blog. I welcome respectful and engaged dialog.                                                                                                            Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis 


This past Shabbat service Lesley Williams presented an informative, thought-provoking talk about race in the Jewish community and beyond. Her words got me thinking about my own experience as an Ashkenazi (European) Jew. As Lesley pointed out, most synagogues - like most churches - are highly segregated. 

Indeed 90% of the U.S. Jewish community is Ashkenazi, that is, of European heritage. Today, as Karen Brodkin among others have shown: Ashkenazi Jews are White. Most Jewish communities are predominantly White.

So how do we, as predominantly White Jews, reach past racial lines to create a more diverse world?

I remember my Uncle David in my hometown of Manchester in the north of England. Uncle David spoke with an accent. It was not the accent of the Holocaust survivors in the community but a completely different one. His speech was quite exotic. He was from Tangiers, a former British territory in Morocco, on the westernmost edge of North Africa. Uncle David married my father's sister, my Aunt Esther. His brother, Uncle Itzhak, married my father's other sister. David and Itzhak are Moroccan Jews. They are non-Ashkenazim known sometimes as Sephardim, Mizrahim or Arab Jews. Together with my father's sisters they formed two half-Moroccan, half-Ashkenazi families.

Uncle Yitzhak moved to Montreal, Canada with its large French-speaking and Sephardic community. But Uncle David settled in Manchester, in England's second largest Jewish community. He served a number of religious functions. He was a mohel (without going into any unnecessary details, I'll just add that he was the family mohel), a shochet (slaughterer of kosher meat) and a sofer (a calligrapher who writes Torah scrolls and other sacred texts on parchment).

In our suburb, just outside Manchester, the Moroccan Jews had their own little prayer hall tucked behind the main synagogue building. Every so often, Uncle David would attend our Ashkenazi services in the large sanctuary. He would sit next to my dad, displacing me to the row behind. He wore the standard narrow-rimmed dark fedora of the day and a dark suit just like everyone else. In my memory, Uncle David, a jocular, outgoing man never looked quite relaxed in our shul. Even though he attended our services we never visited him in his prayer space. I don't even know what the Moroccan chapel looked like.

Years later, I was a member of the choir in the magnificent Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. Prime Ministers and Presidents of the State of Israel were regular attendees. The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel routinely presided there. The way from the main entrance of the synagogue building to the sanctuary leads through a grand, marble-clad atrium. Off to one side of the atrium is a very small chapel. This was the prayer space of the other Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi serving over half of Israel's Jews who are not Ashkenazi.

The arrangement at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem is a spatial representation of the relative standing of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in the State of Israel. The Ashkenazim pray upstairs in the grand sanctuary with its lofty ceiling and gleaming chandeliers. The Sephardim are packed into a small, side room downstairs. 

European and Arab Jews. Separate, and quite unequal.

Here in the U.S., we weren't always an Ashkenazi community. The earliest Jewish settlers in the New World were Sephardim originating in Spain and Portugal (Sepharad is the Hebrew name of the Iberian peninsula when it was a Muslim territory). The Sephardim fled Spain in 1492. Some of them traveled as far as Brazil in South America. But the Catholic Inquisition followed the European Jews to the New World. In the middle of the 17th century Jews escaped Brazil to New Amsterdam (New York) starting the first Jewish community in what was to become the United States. These Sephardi immigrants went on to build communities throughout the colonies. It was not until some hundred and eighty years after the arrival of the first Sephardim that German Jews started immigrating to the U.S. in large numbers. When millions of Jewish immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we were transformed into an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi community.

As Lesley pointed out, Makom Shalom - like almost all synagogues - is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. We are overwhelmingly White. How do we navigate our Ashkenazi Jewishness -  our Whiteness - with those among us, and beyond, who are non-European?

Over the last year at Makom, we engaged in various projects connecting with people of faith who are not predominantly White. On Yom Kippur, we prayed with African-American Jews in Englewood.  After the election, we held a Jewish-Christian rally in support of Muslims.  We have studied with African-American Jews, including one who is soon to be ordained as a rabbi. This is just a beginning of reaching outside our Whiteness and seeing ourselves from without.

I shared with you my earliest connection to race in my Jewish community.

What is your story of race and Jewishness? When did you become aware of racial lines in the Jewish community? If you are not Ashkenazi or have Sephardi ancestry, what do the Ashkenazi Jews need to know about you?

If you like, send me you thoughts. It can be a paragraph or a couple of pages. And please let me know if we can publish your story.

I'd like us to get to know each other as Jews through our relationship to race.

I am looking forward to reading your story about race and Jewishness. 

Makom Shalom is proud to be a diverse community with a range of views in current affairs and matters of faith. The views I present on this blog are my own and not a statement on behalf of the Makom Shalom community. I encourage you to share your views here in the comment section on this blog. I welcome respectful and engaged dialog.