Jews Come In All Colors

I spent this past weekend in San Francisco at the third annual Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) Think Tank, organized by Diane and Gary Tobin’s Institute for Jewish and Community Research, and returned to New York thoroughly energized by the incredible diversity of people representing Jews from all corners of the world: India, Yemen, Mexico, Spain, China, and at least five countries in Africa, not to mention African-American and multiracial Jews from here in the US. And while I had many memorable conversations, there was one clear highlight from the weekend…

On Sunday, Be’chol Lashon sponsored the first-ever “African and African-American Jewish Music Concert,” which was open to the public and sold out a packed auditorium at the historic Fairmont Hotel.

The 45-member Congregation Temple Beth’El Choir from Philadelphia (of which this photo shows only a part) simply brought the house down with their spirited, soulful renditions of Hebrew and English gospel-influenced Jewish music. I was stunned. Why are these folks not being flown all over the country to sing in every single Jewish community? As an outreach professional always on the hunt for new “doorways” in, new ways for the unaffiliated to connect to Judaism, this is an amazingly powerful experience that all Jews should see and hear.

I don’t think anyone in the audience doubted that these singers genuinely experience a higher spirituality through their music. And spirituality is something that’s often sorely missing from Jewish worship. The next morning, while gushing about the performance to the Congregation’s spiritual leader Debra Bowen, I asked whether this is what every Shabbat looks like at her synagogue. She assured me that “nobody ever falls asleep during our services.” And I believe her.

Also performing that night was a group of Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. Their recent album was actually nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of “Best Traditional World Music Album.”

The conference itself focused primarily on different aspects of community building: helping individual far-flung communities of diverse Jews grow, but also working together to provide a louder voice for all diverse Jews. It was exciting to witness history in the making. The issues around Jews of color globally — and non-white, non-Ashkenazi Judaism nationally — are only going to become more important as we create a more diverse and inclusive Jewish community. Be’chol Lashon has positioned itself as the central organizing address for issues of racial diversity in the Jewish community.

The New York Jewish Week covered the conference, here.

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