Multiracial celebration draws 200 in S.F. Party paints Judaism in many colors

Four years ago, the president of the S.F.-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research and his wife, Diane — with five adult children between them from previous marriages — decided they wanted to have a baby in the house.

They adopted Jonah, who is black.

But they didn't know many other Jewish couples who had done the same thing. So Tobin set out to find them.

As was evident Sunday, the first night of Chanukah, he did a good job. Some 200 people attended a party, sponsored by Tobin's institute, in the Mission District of San Francisco.

But they weren't only couples like the Tobins. They were blacks, Latinos or Asian Americans who had converted to Judaism. They were interracial couples, with one Jewish partner and one not. They were the children of such marriages.

They were of all skin tones and hair colors. Many men and women sported dreadlocks under their colorful kippot. Several women were in festive African dresses, and one woman wore a traditional black Bedouin gown with vibrant red embroidery. Jonah Tobin wore a blue shirt with sparkly dreidels on it.

Guests of honor were Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr., who is a black Jew-by-choice and leads Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, and Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas, founder of a New York-based Beit Midrash (House of Study) for Spanish-speaking Jews. Vinas is the son of Jewish immigrants from Cuba.

But if those in attendance looked somewhat different from those at a Chanukah party, all the other trappings were the same. There were Chanukah-inspired crafts for the kids, and latkes and Israeli folk dancing for everyone.

"Here we had a room filled with hundreds of Jews who don't look what we expect Jews to look like," said Tobin. "But they are caring and dedicated Jews."

The Tobins didn't set out to deliberately adopt a black child. But when filling out the paperwork, they had to respond to a question asking which races they found acceptable.

"You check off races you'll take," said Tobin. "And if you find yourself checking off Caucasian, Latino, Asian and mixed race, and then you get to African-American, are you willing to say you're willing to take any child but that one? We couldn't make that moral decision."

And given that people are less inclined to adopt a black child than a Latino or Asian, he said, chances are high that the adoptive parents will indeed receive a black child.

"It was certainly having Jonah enter our lives that was the inspiration for this work.

"Understanding that he would have black friends and he would have Jewish friends, we didn't want his life to be bifurcated, that he would have no black-Jewish friends, so we began on this research journey that will lead to community-building for Jews of color."

Tobin said the results of his three-year-study, which will be released in the spring, will be "shocking" to many people. And while he did not want to release specific statistics yet, he said he knew just from speaking to people that many of those who came to the party do not feel comfortable at more mainstream Jewish events.

The fact that 50 people came to such a Chanukah party last year and 200 came this year shows that multiracial Jews are yearning for community, he said. And he hopes the results of the study will propel Jewish institutions to offer more programs for the multiracial Jewish community.

"Many Jews in this community feel somewhat on the outside," said Tobin. "This goes to the heart of an issue in the Jewish community, which is how welcoming it is to people. I think we say we welcome converts, but I don't think we do so wholeheartedly. If you're a convert and you're black or Asian, I don't think the welcome mat is all the way out."

Marelyn Shapiro of Berkeley confirmed what Tobin said. A single Jewish mom, she came to the party with her six children, three white and three black. Describing herself as mostly "estranged from the Jewish community," she adopted three children six years ago and is waiting for the adoption process to be completed for the other three.

None of the six was Jewish by birth. Although not very observant, Shapiro gave her first three children kippot when their adoption was finalized, and one boy wears his to school every day. "They definitely have a Jewish identity," she said, prompting one of her black children to recite the HaMotzi.

Although she doesn't belong to a synagogue, largely because of the price, Shapiro said, "I'd like those that want to, to have a bar mitzvah."

Patricia Lin, who works for the institute, is a perfect example of those the study is trying to reach. Lin, who was wearing a white knit kippah, is of Taiwanese descent. She converted to Judaism in 1996.

The Berkeley resident sometimes leads services at San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

"After I finished converting, I felt I was coming home," she said. Noting the large numbers of mixed Jewish-Asian couples, she said there were many similarities between the two cultures.

In a Jewish environment where she isn't known, Lin often feels as if she has to prove herself.

"People look at me with curiosity, but then when the service starts, I know everything, and they see that I know more than they do," she said.

Lin is hopeful the study will open Jews' eyes to the diversity that exists within their ranks. The adoption of so many Asian baby girls by Jewish couples will have a dramatic impact in the years ahead, she said.

"It's going to be a huge area."

Anthony Stewart, who is black and is one month away from his conversion to Judaism, said that for some time before he began studying, he felt Jewish but didn't tell anyone.

Then, when the Bolinas resident attended a forum on Judaism offered by the institute, he met "a group of blacks that were doing the same, searching and wanting answers," he said.

Stewart's fiancée is Jewish, and, although her father is Polish-born, the family is very secular. "He says that I'm the only real Jew in the family," said Stewart.

Wearing a knit kippah over his shoulder-length skinny dreadlocks and a ring with a Magen David, Stewart said he would have converted to Judaism whether or not he had a Jewish partner.

The only black person to attend Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael, he said that the feeling of otherness is there, but "I'm there to connect with God, which is what everyone is there to do."

Speaking of his impending conversion, he said, "I'm so ready. It's such a joy when I think about it. It's the last thing I've found in my life that completes me."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."