Multicultural chavurah seeks to blend the Jewish color wheel
By Adam Kredo
The Washington Jewish Week
Published: November 4, 2009
Like all mothers, Lynn Zuckerman wants her daughters to feel comfortable in their own skin, although that is sometimes easier said than done.
Zuckerman, a 40-year-old Kensington resident, has two biracial daughters whom the family has chosen to raise Jewish.
"I want them to drink the Kool-Aid and be Jewish," Zuckerman, whose husband is African American, said. "I want [them] to be around other kids that look [similar], who are Jewish" to ensure that they grow up feeling "comfortable around the table."
Hoping to add a few more seats around that metaphorical Jewish table, Zuckerman recently teamed up with the District's Sixth & I Historic Synagogue to create a new chavurah that targets the area's multicultural Jewish families. (Her father, Shelton, is one of the synagogue's founders and major supporters.)
With the Ashkenazi model of Judaism predominant in most American shuls — as well as in the general culture — Jews of varying ethnicities can feel marginalized, as though they are "an exotic bird," Zuckerman said.
"As Jews, we've always been a mixed tribe," she added, explaining that mixed marriages hardly account for the preponderance of nonwhite Jews. "I want the truth of that to come out so [multicultural families] feel" comfortable overtly expressing their Jewish roots, rather than feeling that "they're latecomers."
The group, called Chaverim L'Shalom, held its first African-themed Shabbat dinner on Friday of last week, attracting a miniature United Nations of about 80 who feasted on both challah and traditional African dishes, while listening to the rhythms of an African drum circle.
Organizers say it's the first in a series of Shabbat Around the World dinners, open not only to multiracial Jews, but to the entire community.
In fact, says Meredith Jacobs, head of family programming at Sixth & I, it's critical that Ashkenazi Jews attend multicultural gatherings to help boost awareness of Judaism's worldwide color wheel.
Her 10-year-old son, Jacobs pointed out, provided the perfect illustration.
While dining last week on such traditional African foods as fried talapia and peanut soup, he mused to his father: "I didn't know there are African Americans who are Jewish."
Adults, too, can be a bit "curious" when they encounter Jews of other ethnicities, said Charlene Cho, a District resident.
Born to a Christian, Korean American family, Cho, 37, converted to Judaism before marrying her husband in 2006. Their 2-year-old daughter, Olivia Rose Davis, attends the preschool at Adas Israel Congregation in the District.
Cho, who heard about Chaverim L'Shalom through a Sixth & I e-mail, said the Shabbat dinner provided her daughter an "environment to feel comfortable that [while] both of my parents don't look the same," they are still equally Jewish.
While Jews of color and varying ethnicities may feel like outlanders among their Ashkenazi counterparts, surveys indicate their numbers are growing.
About 5.4 percent of America's Jews are non-white or Hispanic, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. A 2004 study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research puts the figure at about 10 percent.
Nevertheless, say multicultural activists, the prevailing assumption is that Jews in the United States are white, and that Jews of other racial or ethnic backgrounds are adoptees or converts. Sometimes they are, but increasingly they are not, as the children of mixed-race couples grow to adulthood and begin raising their own Jewish children.
As their numbers grow, mixed-race Jewish families are also facing the same question often put to interfaith families: Is there a need for separate programming?
Rabbi Eli Aronoff, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emet, a multicultural and multiracial congregation that meets weekly at Sixth & I, mournfully said yes.
"There should never have been a need, theoretically, for these people to break away" from mainstream communities to form their own congregations and chaverim, said Aronoff, who led the candlelighting service at last week's multicultural gathering. "There is something amiss" when Jews of color find no room for themselves in traditional Jewish spheres.
"It's kind of sad that Beth Emet even needs to exist," Aronoff lamented, noting that his congregation has grown to 22 families since it was formed last year.
As for the Chaverim L'Shalom, Sixth & I's Jacobs indicated that those in attendance were pining for more ethnic programs. The group's next meeting will likely focus on Latin American flares, and take place in January, organizers say.
By the end of last week's Shabbat dinner, recalled Zuckerman, children of all colors and races "were all rolling around on the floor and playing."
This is precisely the chavurah's goal — to get Jewish kids thinking less about their differences and more about their common religion.
"They were doing normal kid stuff," Zuckerman said. "But they can look at each other and say, 'Oh, you're Jewish, too.' "
JTA's Sue Fishkoff contributed to this article.
Originally published here: http://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/main.asp?SectionID=4&SubSectionID=4&ArticleID=11751&TM=36365.27