New lecture series in Oakland hopes to generate a better acceptance of Jews of color

Dawn Kepler tells the story as a cautionary tale.

It’s about a little girl of Chinese-Jewish ancestry, raised Jewish in the Bay Area. One day an older woman approaches the child in synagogue and tells her, with every good intention, “You’re always welcome here.”

As if she wouldn’t be?

That sort of subtle insensitivity to Jews of color bothers Kepler a great deal. That’s why she has organized a free lecture series on the subject of Jewish diversity, “What Color are Jews?” Sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica, the once-a-month series will start Oct. 23 and run through March 2012 at Temple Sinai in Oakland.

 

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai, who is of Chinese descent, will join a discussion on Asian Jews.

The first panel will be on Asian Jews, and by that Kepler doesn’t mean Jews living in Shanghai or Mumbai. She’s means Oakland, San Francisco and Palo Alto.

 

“If you think of Jews of color, you think exotic foreign Jews, not the person sitting next to you in shul,” Kepler said. “Since I started on this project, many people suggested a lecture on Jews of Uganda. I said no. I want to talk about the Jew sitting next to you who is black and Jewish.”

That, too, will be the topic for one of the series’ panel discussions. The list of other topics includes: Jews from Argentina (led by Argentine- born Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah); how multi-racial Jews develop their Jewish identity; and the demographics of the Jewish community of the future.

Founder of Building Jewish Bridges, a Berkeley nonprofit that reaches out to interfaith families, Kepler says the impetus for the series came out of personal experience.

“I have my own relatives and friends who are multi-racial,” Kepler said. “You can hear one too many stories about people being checked at the door for their Jewish identity.”

Kepler noted that the local Jewish community is more diverse than some realize. She cited a recent demographic study that found 13 percent of East Bay Jewish families are multiracial.

“That means at least every 10th Jew is a Jew of color or in a family with a Jew in color,” she added. “So how can we be more welcoming, more sensitive?”

She hopes the series will provide some answers.

The panel on Asian Jews will feature Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai. She is of Chinese ancestry and understands the challenges of feeling part of the Jewish community when one looks different.

“I’ve had people ask if I was adopted,” the San Francisco native said. “In rabbinical school, one  woman said to me ‘You’re a nice Chinese girl. You can be just as Jewish as the rest of us.’ ”

Mates-Muchin will return to the series Nov. 13 to deliver a lecture titled “Diversity from a Biblical Perspective.”

“Some of it is pretty direct,” she said. “It is said we left Egypt ‘in a mixed multitude.’ So right from the start, the early laws talk about the stranger in the community. We were already mixing.”

At the same time, she concedes that there are mixed messages in the text, as well as in Jewish culture.

“We have been able to be inclusive and adapt, become new people, incorporate new ideas,” she said. “That’s how we survive. Yet there’s a feeling within the text that we are hesitant to want to change. It’s a constant tension.”

Kepler wants to see some of that tension surface in the series’ panel discussions. She wants the sessions to be safe places for attendees to ask what she calls “awkward questions.”

The conversations, she hopes, will help move the Jewish community toward being 100 percent accepting.

“We’re all flawed,” she said. “We’re all on this journey together. Generally in the Bay Area we all embrace the idea that the Jewish community is very diverse. Now let’s do a better job of it.”


“What Color are Jews? Exploring the Diversity of Our Community Locally and Globally”
starts Oct. 23 and ends March 28, 2012 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. Seven sessions. Free. Information: (510) 845-6420 or www.bit.ly/odnLhx.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.