(Clockwise from top left) Analucía Lopezrevoredo, Ginna Green, Angel Alvarez-Mapp and Janu Mandel at the Aug. 12 Zoom unveiling of the “Beyond the Count” study.
(Clockwise from top left) Analucía Lopezrevoredo, Ginna Green, Angel Alvarez-Mapp and Janu Mandel at the Aug. 12 Zoom unveiling of the “Beyond the Count” study.

‘We are not alone!’ How a new study validates the feelings of many Jews of color.

Two years ago, the Bay Area–based Jews of Color Initiative rocked the American Jewish community boat when it released a study proposing that 12% to 15% of American Jews are people of color.

“Counting Inconsistencies,” a meta-analysis of previously published local and national Jewish population studies, raised the hackles of some members of the community, including prominent demographers who argued in a May 2020 article that the percentage of Jews of color was actually closer to the 6% reported by the Pew Research Center in 2013. (That figure rose to 8% in a new Pew study that came out earlier this year.)

The pushback from the (white) demographers prompted its own pushback from Jews of color and their allies, who saw an attack on the study’s findings as an attack on Jews of color themselves (since Jewish demographic studies can impact how institutions allocate funds), and an ill-timed one at that. This debate was happening against the backdrop of the racial justice protests following George Floyd’s murder, a time when sensitivities around race were already heightened.

More than a year has passed since then, and while some progress has been made locally to empower Jews of color, much remains the same on the national level.

This week, the Jews of Color Initiative (JOCI) released a new research study that is sure to spark even more conversation about the identities and concerns of ethnically and racially diverse Jews.

“Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color” presents data on 1,118 self-identified Jews of color living in 47 U.S. states and Puerto Rico who filled out an online survey. Among the study’s key findings are that 80% have experienced racism in Jewish settings, 66% have felt disconnected from their Jewish identity and 65% believe Jewish leaders are doing a poor job of meeting their needs.

Other data shed light on the background and values of the participants: 66% identify as biracial, mixed or multiracial; 49% were raised Jewish; 40% converted; 42% identify as Ashkenazi; 67% consider passing on Jewish identity to the next generation to be very important; and 32% say caring about Israel is very important to them, while 18% say it is not important at all. (Read more about the findings here.)

For the first time, Jews of color have a robust, easily accessible and parsable data set that reveals what many have known for generations.

The sense of excitement was palpable in the Zoom room in which JOCI executive director Ilana Kaufman and her staff unveiled “Beyond the Count” on Aug. 12 to nearly 500 people scattered around the country. Fittingly, the event opened with the Shehecheyanu, offered by Rabbi Mira Rivera, the first Filipino American woman to be ordained as a rabbi. As Kaufman delivered her remarks, the chat filled up with “Amen,” “Truth!!” and other expressions of affirmation and joy.

a black woman in glasses and a white shirt with a determined expression
Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color  Initiative. (Photo/Michael Fox)

“We are not alone!” wrote one Jew of color from Minnesota, capturing the feeling of validation that the data seemed to provide to so many. Another wrote: “I never felt so surrounded by others with similar experiences. I am crying.” At different moments, the event felt like a group therapy session, a college seminar on intersectionality and a rally in preparation for battle — against racism and white supremacy — with Kaufman leading the charge.

“We commissioned the study because we needed to get the perspectives and experiences of Jews of color out to the community,” she explained during her presentation. “The study is not in service to just white folks or just Jews of color. The study is in service to the community, hopefully at the intersection of partnership.”

Marc Dollinger
Marc Dollinger

Beyond its intrinsic value to Jews of color, the study represents a boon for scholars, according to Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University who attended the Zoom event.

“This is a once-in-100-years kind of insight into a huge part of American Jewish life, which has been nonexistent in the literature and very much present in actual life,” Dollinger told J. afterward. He said he plans to use the data in shaping the curriculum for his Jewish Social Responsibility course at SFSU this fall.

One of the data points that stood out for Dollinger was that 51% of Jews of color feel a sense of belonging among white Jews. “I was surprised by how many Jews of color continue to be engaged in organized Jewish life, given the systemic racism that exists,” he said.

The survey was conducted by a multiracial team of researchers, including Tobin Belzer of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and Ari Y. Kelman of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, where the study was officially housed. In addition to the 1,118 survey respondents — the team surpassed its goal of reaching at least 1,000 people, Kelman said — an additional 61 people shared their stories in in-depth interviews. (Respondents were recruited through nonrandom methods, specifically through posts on social media and emails sent to Jews of color networks and all Hillels in the U.S.)

While the research team claims in the study’s appendix that this is “the first national survey of Jews of Color,” that is actually not the case. In 1999, demographer Gary Tobin and his wife, Diane, circulated a questionnaire among Jews of color and published the data they compiled as “Study of Ethnic and Racial Diversity of the Jewish Population of the United States.” (The study was later published in book form as “In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People.”) The following year, they founded the S.F.-based nonprofit Be’chol Lashon to address the lack of awareness of and support for Jews of color.

Marcella White Campbell is the new director of Be'chol Lashon, the first Jew of color to hold the position. (Photo/From file)
Marcella White Campbell, executive director of Be’chol Lashon. (Photo/File)

Marcella White Campbell, the executive director of Be’chol Lashon since January, welcomed the new JOCI study. “It’s so exciting to see the field continuing to expand,” she told J. “This conversation will only continue to evolve and grow as the voices of more and more Jews of color are heard.”

Ari Y. Kelman
Ari Y. Kelman

In an interview, Kelman acknowledged that others have conducted smaller surveys of Jews of color, including the Tobins and UC Davis sociology professor Bruce Haynes, who published “The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent” in 2018 and who served on the advisory committee for the new JOCI study.

But “no one has ever fielded a survey of self-identified Jews of color as large as ours, and to our knowledge no one has fielded a collection of interviews as large as ours,” Kelman said.

Haynes told J. he was intrigued by how respondents grappled with the term “Jew of color.”

“You have respondents saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to reify this term Jew of color because it implies whiteness is the norm,’” he said. “There’s a big difference between a category and an identity, and this survey manages to highlight that in a really profound way.”

This is the second study that Kelman has collaborated on with the JOCI, after 2019’s “Counting Inconsistencies,” which put forward the estimate that Jews of color comprise 12% to 15% of the Jewish population.

When asked if he expects the new study to generate as much controversy as the previous one, he replied, “The new study is a different kind of study. We’re not making a demographic argument. We never say that the numbers are nationally representative because we don’t know the size of the population that they’re representing.” Yet 2020 Census results released this week showed that the U.S. population as a whole is becoming more diverse, with more Americans identifying as multiracial than ever before. “American Jews are following that trend,” Kelman said.

He added of the new study: “I do hope that it sparks a lot of community conversation. I also hope that the tone and content of the conversation is more productive than it was the last time around. I would prefer fewer ad hominem attacks and more engagement with the data.”

The study is not in service to just white folks or just Jews of color. The study is in service to the community

For local Jews of color, that engagement has already started with enthusiasm. Ziva Del Rio, a 25-year-old Mexican American Jew, found herself in tears during the Zoom event. Although the East Palo Alto resident did not fill out the survey — she has been involved in Jewish life but didn’t hear about it — she said that many of the findings resonated with her personal experiences.

“When I read that Israel isn’t as important to some Jews of color, that wasn’t shocking to me,” she told J. following the study’s unveiling. “A lot of the [white] Ashkenazi Jews that I know hold a very dear connection to Israel. But to me, the community you’re surrounded by matters more than a group of people in another part of the world.”

Del Rio, who converted at 18 and was a summer intern at S.F.-based Jewish Vocational Service, said she has been hesitant to go on Birthright because she worries she will be the only person of color on her trip. “I always have to fight for my identity,” she said. “I’ve even questioned whether or not I did the right thing in converting.”

Sitting in on the Zoom event, in the virtual company of hundreds of other Jews of color, was deeply validating for her. “It made me feel like I wasn’t totally alone,” she said.

One of the most important takeaways from the study for Analucía Lopezrevoredo of San Francisco is that Jews of color are not a monolith.

Analucía Lopezrevoredo
Analucía Lopezrevoredo

A self-identified Peruvian-Chilean, Quechua-American Jewtina, Lopezrevoredo told J. she was pleasantly surprised that 45% of survey respondents identified as having two or more racial identities. “It reminds us that being a Jew of color is so much more than that for so many people,” she said. “We have different racial identities that inform who we are, and it’s important that when we’re creating space for JOCs, we’re doing it from an intersectional lens.”

She also said she was gratified to learn that 61% of respondents reported that they have found ways to honor both their Jewish identity and their racial or ethnic identities. (Lopezrevoredo is the executive director of Jewtina y Co., a nonprofit she founded in 2019 that celebrates the Latin-Jewish community.) “It’s exciting to see that in the U.S., we’re creating an environment which allows people of color who are Jews to also see themselves as more than just Jews and not erase other elements of who they are,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Lopezrevoredo said she can’t help but see something divine in the timing of the release of “Beyond the Count.”

“It’s the month of Elul, so when it comes to spiritual preparation for the High Holidays, I can’t imagine a better piece of literature to implement, share and engage in conversation about,” she said. “Such a big part of racial equity and inclusion work is listening, and really taking a step back and removing our entitlement of knowing what the solution is without actually centering the voices of the people in our community.”

She added: “This is an opportunity for teshuvah, for taking responsibility for harm we’ve created. I really see every community member as having a role in sharing and engaging with this study, and advocating for more.”

Back in the Zoom room, Kaufman closed her presentation by giving several “strategies for intervention.” They included elevating Jewish leaders of color, supporting organizations led by and serving Jews of color, creating spaces just for them to connect with each other and promoting future research.

“No one who’s [watching] this presentation … can be satisfied with a statistic like 80% of Jews of color experienced racism and silence,” she said. “Eighty percent of Jews of color experience racism inside of our community. Nobody can go home today and be satisfied with that. And it means we have to transform.”

She continued: “Because you also see that Jews of color are deeply committed and deeply engaged and deeply focused in spite of the racism. Imagine who we could be as a U.S. Jewish community if we weren’t dealing with all this racism.”

The survey still does not answer, definitively, how many Jews of color there are in this country. But it at least provides a better understanding of who they are — and, importantly, what they need to truly feel at home in Jewish spaces.

 

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.