Bay Area Be’chol Lashon
Bay Area Be’chol Lashon Model
The Institute for Jewish & Community Research has sponsored San Francisco Bay Area events for African Americans, Asian, Latino, and mixed-race Jews as well as their families and friends since 1999.
Programming for diverse Jews in the Bay Area serves as a model that can be adapted in other communities. We are working with other communities and organizations to share what we learn.
The initial programming in the San Francisco Bay Area was an outcome of research-a questionnaire and a series of focus groups that brought diverse Jews together for the first time. Program participants, volunteers, and leaders emerged from these initial sessions.
Our research found that diverse Jews are often isolated. Some had never seen another Jew who looked like them before Be’chol Lashon programs were initiated. Therefore, Be’chol Lashon events are powerful purely on a visual level—an opportunity for Jews of color to see and interact with many different kinds of Jews, including those like themselves. Visual reinforcement is crucial for a positive sense of self.
Community Building Philosophy
Be’chol Lashon programming fosters a safe environment where individuals can express their Judaism. An atmosphere of inclusiveness while celebrating holidays or special events helps everyone feel part of the Jewish community. Be’chol Lashon activities are community-building, infused with teaching about Judaism, including the history of diversity of the Jewish people.
Local programming requires local planning, since no two communities are exactly alike. Research at the local level can facilitate the creation of more targeted and successful programs. Research is essential to identify the demographic and religious character of the population, and the programmatic needs of the community. It is important to build a database from which to recruit and invite diverse and disconnected Jews.
The Bay Area Be’chol Lashon programs were launched with a speaker series at the San Francisco Public Library. The speaker series began the process of educating the general Jewish and non-Jewish communities about Jews of color. Community-wide holiday celebrations followed, such as Chanukah, Shavuot and Purim, attracting over 400 participants. Almost half are children.
Overtime, the Bay Area participants requested more intensive community interaction. Therefore, the Bay Area program include an annual Shabbaton Retreat to provide more in-depth opportunities to learn about and celebrate Judaism together.
People of all ages attend, ranging from infants to grandparents. Participants include young adults, single and divorced parents, interracial couples, gay and lesbian families, transracial adoptive families, and interfaith families all celebrating together as a community. They also represent the different paths to Judaism including Jews by birth, conversion, adoption and marriage. Jewish ritual practice ranges from Orthodox to “cultural” Judaism.
Community Sponsors and Partners
The entire Bay Area community is invited to holiday celebrations. They garner a variety of organizational supporters, attracting over 50 co-sponsors, including federations, synagogues, day schools, Jewish community centers, and others. Sponsors are asked to help promote the events to their constituents.
Be’chol Lashon promotes partnerships with a wide array of Jewish organizations, including the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), The Contemporary Jewish Museum (TCJM), the Jewish Community Library and others. Co-sponsoring a variety of programs and events makes mainstream organizations more accessible to diverse Jews and educates the Jewish community and the general public about Jewish diversity. We also co-sponsor events with cultural organizations such as the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) to build relationships with racial and ethnic communities.
Variety of Participants
Our research shows that some diverse Jews desire events where diversity is the norm, and not the exception. Some Bay Area Be’chol Lashon events are “by invitation only” for diverse Jews and their families and friends. Such events are attended by a majority of Jews of color. After a strong sense of community is achieved, some events are also open to the general public. These Be’chol Lashon programs cast a wide net.
We remove economic disincentives to participation in Bay Area Be’chol Lashon events. Admission charges of any kind, no matter how small, are often a deterrent to attendance. Therefore, all holiday events are free.
Many unaffiliated and disaffected Jews feel uncomfortable in synagogues and other Jewish organizational settings. This includes some diverse Jews. Therefore, programs are typically held in non-Jewish venues to remove this barrier to participation. Venues tend to be familiar public buildings such as libraries, public park buildings, museums, universities and community centers.
Programs have been held at the African American Arts and Culture Complex and the Mission Cultural Center in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. These buildings accommodate 300-500 people with both a large meeting space where the whole community can gather together, and small breakout rooms for workshops or special activities.
Marketing Be'chol Lashon events appropriately is important, especially when trying to compete for the time and attention of busy people.
A save-the-date postcard is sent by mail and email in advance of the event. An invitation is sent out also by mail and email a number of times. The invitations are professionally designed to convey the inclusiveness of the Jewish people in the context of meaningful, exciting, accessible Jewish activities.
Since relationships are inherently personal, another effective strategy to encourage individuals and families to participate is to make telephone calls to extend invitations to the events. We also make concerted efforts to call regular attendees who do not RSVP. We encourage participants to invite family and friends.
The Bay Area Be’chol Lashon outreach strategy was recognized in the 2005 Jewish Outreach Institute Bay Area Report lauds the model, as quoted below.
Be’chol Lashon’s follow-up is personalized, with program operators able to track newcomers and participants’ engagement in programming, thereby facilitating relationship building. When re-connecting with past participants in order to invite them to the next event, they not only send a mailing but also work the phones to a degree unmatched by any other organization. Thanks to a detailed and well-organized database, they’re able to access each participant’s information while making calls, allowing them to reference personal information (such as children’s names) that greatly strengthens the relationship. In addition, Be’chol Lashon is a prime example of an organization that serves as a gateway into deeper engagement for newcomers.
When participants walk through the front door of a Be'chol Lashon event, they are greeted by advisory committee members and professional staff. Registration is a way to welcome people, and the same time, add newcomers to the database for future invitations.
Attracting diverse groups-differentiated by ritual practice, family structure, ethnic/racial background, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and age-is a major challenge. Building tolerance for others is the coalescing theme. We strive for a patchwork quilt rather than a melting pot. Be’chol Lashon is celebration of many traditions.
Be’chol Lashon incorporates education about Jewish diversity into all programs, whether through Torah study or cultural arts. We try to balance participants’ desires for social networking, formal, and informal Jewish education. We generate an atmosphere that allows people to participate as much or as little in the structured programming as meets their personal interests, intellectual curiosity, and family needs.
Rabbis, Teachers, and Facilitators
Racially and ethnically diverse leaders are a key component of Be'chol Lashon programming. Diverse Jews need to see themselves reflected in their rabbis, teachers, and facilitators. Diverse role models are particularly important for families with transracially-adopted children. Leaders can come from both the local community or from other areas. For example, Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago and a senior research associate of the Institute, has provided strong, positive leadership for over eight years to the Bay Area Be’chol Lashon community. Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the first LGBT synagogue in the world, is also a frequent guest, providing spiritual leadership at services and workshops.
Food is always provided at events, from full meals to snacks, and is as varied as the global Jewish community. The cultures of diverse Jews reflect the regions in which they live. Therefore, Jewish food around the world is similar to indigenous cultures. Just as Ashkenazi cooking reflects its Eastern and Central European, Asian, African and Latino Jewish cooking all represent their cultures. Participants appreciate the variety and quality of different kinds of Jewish foods.
Multicultural Book Fair
One of the popular activities at our events is the Book Fair. Be’chol Lashon partners with Pact: An Adoption Alliance, an organization that provides adoption-related services for children of color, their birthparents, and their adoptive parents. They offer a wide variety of books for all ages dealing with identity, race, transracial adoption, parenting, and different cultures around the world.
The Be’chol Lashon boutique features Judaica from Africa and India, including, kippot, tallit, challah covers, and music. Flyers accompany the items which give educational information about diverse Jewish communities around the world, such as the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, the Sefwi Wiaso of Ghana, the Ibo of Nigeria and the B'nei Israel of India. These items are very popular and provide profound meaning for many. For example, a child with a Nigerian father was proud to be able to wear a tallit from Nigeria for his Bar Mitzvah.
Each event is evaluated by the participants who fill out a mail or on-line questionnaire. The evaluation asks questions about the overall program, as well as assessments of each workshop or activity. We also ask what attendees would like to see in terms of future programming. The evaluation process gives participants a voice in shaping the programs and to incorporate new ideas. We use standardized questions so that we have comparable data over time.
The Bay Area Be'chol Lashon Advisory Committee meets to plan programs. The Advisory Committee members are community leaders who often volunteer at events and facilitate workshops. The members are representative of the various target populations: Black, Asian, Latino and mixed-race Jews, and also the LGBTQ community. The Advisory Committee is also representative of a variety of connections to Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanist, Anusim, Cultural, Just Jewish and others.