Jewish Diversity in the United States
Diversity characterizes the American Jewish community, partially through historical antecedents and partially through contemporary social forces at work. The Jewish community is growing and changing through intermarriage, conversion, and adoption. Some of the individuals entering the community via these avenues are people of color.
As Jews become more integrated into the overall American society, it should hardly come as a surprise that growing numbers of African Americans, Asians, Latinos and mixed-race individuals are becoming part of the Jewish community. However, this growth augments a diverse Jewish population that has existed in America for hundreds of years. The first American Jews were Sephardic and African, before Ashkenazi Jews came to the New World.
Ironically, Jews, as a group, were defined as non-white by the American majority well into the 1950s and early 1960s. Jews were considered by others to be “black” or “Oriental.” It is no coincidence that racially-restrictive covenants and housing laws in America, prior to the late 1940s, targeted African Americans, Asians, and Jews, all considered to be foreign, non-white racial groups.
On the timeline of Jewish existence, the white status of Jews is something of a novelty. For some Jews, it is difficult to absorb that all Jews were recently considered to be non-white. Still others, oddly enough, will never think of themselves as white at all. Some Jews still consider themselves to be part of a minority that exists outside the white mainstream of America. They feel that they are strangers in the land, still. Yet, as they relate to people of color, most Jews in the United States are clearly white, even if they can sometimes empathize or identify with people of color.
There are many racially and ethnically diverse Jews who are born Jewish. These individuals are not necessarily of mixed-race. Around the world, including within the United States, there are long-established families and communities of color who have been Jewish for generations. Additionally, significant numbers of Jews marry someone who is not born Jewish. Even when the non-Jewish partner does not convert, their children may grow up with a Jewish identity, with multiple religious identities, or with no religious identity at all. Some people of color become Jews through formal conversion, and still others live as Jews transforming their identity psychologically and functionally without undertaking rites of conversion. An increasing number of children of color become Jewish when they are adopted by Jewish parents. Many, but not all, of these adopted children undergo a formal conversion while they are still minors and grow up just like other Jewish kids in America.
Race in America
The definitions of racial categories are changing for sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers, as well as the public. Conventional categories are muddled and have been for a long time as a result of hundreds of years of racial mixing. We have outgrown the definitions we created. They were artificial and problematic from their inception. Moreover, language does not exist to talk about the complex combinations of race, religion, ethnicity and nationality.
Diversity in Jewish families has been part of changing racial boundaries in the American landscape. As they have always been, Jewish Americans are African-American, Caribbean, African, Asian, Latino, and a myriad of different combinations of racial and ethnic groups-as other Americans have been as well.
Like many Americans with mixed heritage, Jews of diverse backgrounds have multiple identities that are sometimes conflicting, complicated and difficult to resolve. Others embrace and are comfortable with their multiple identities. Diverse Jews who do not feel welcomed by the Jewish community may find it less complicated to identify with his or her racial community than to identify as a Jew. At the same time, they may face discrimination from their racial group for their identification with Judaism. Jews of color may have bifurcated identities; culturally relating to their respective racial communities and religiously to Judaism. Others navigate multiple identities with ease, and feel privileged to be part of so many different cultures.