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November 23, 2016 by

NPR’s Leah Donnella on Being a Biracial Jew

Photo Credit: Caitlin Sanders

NPR’s Leah Donnella wrote a short personal essay entitled “Black, Jewish And Avoiding the Synagogue On Yom Kippur.” Photo Credit: Caitlin Sanders

Shortly before the world’s Jews welcomed year 5777 earlier this fall, National Public Radio’s Leah Donnella published a short personal essay entitled, “Black, Jewish And Avoiding The Synagogue On Yom Kippur.” In it, she described several unsettling incidents that left her feeling unmoored, a biracial Jew without a place in established Judaism. As the 25-year-old daughter of a white Jewish mother and an African-American Catholic father, Donnella says that she hopes the article will prompt American Jews to take stock of their assumptions and treat Jews of color not as strange, out-of-place, curiosities but as members of an increasingly diverse and vibrant spiritual community.

And although Donnella makes clear that she speaks for no one but herself, the fact that there are approximately 200,000 Asian, Black and Latino/a Jews living in the US further shows that her voice needs to be heeded and taken seriously.

Donnella spoke to Eleanor J. Bader by telephone two days after the Presidential election. Both interviewee and interviewer did their best not to dwell on the upsetting outcome.

EJB: In your article, you reflect on attending Hebrew School as a kid and write about missing the synagogue of your youth, “with the Rabbi who’d pinch my cheeks and say ‘sheyna punim,’ and the opera singer-cum-cantor who would go nuts on the V’Ahavta.” Does this mean that you did not experience racism or racial animosity there?

LD: I grew up in Broomall, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia and as far as I remember, we were the only family of color that belonged to the synagogue.  When we first joined, in 1997 or ’98, I was young enough that I probably missed some of the racial dynamics that were at play. By the time I was older I knew everyone and they knew me, so it was not often an issue. This was a Reform congregation. I do, however, remember a Hebrew School class where the teacher asked us to draw a portrait of God as our homework assignment. I was about nine or 10 years old and everyone but me came to class with a picture of an old white man. That stood out to me.

EJB: Did you have a Bat Mitzvah?

LD: Yes. The lessons were one of my favorite things about growing up Jewish. The classes were led by the cantor and involved a very small group of students. She gave us a chance to really dig into Jewish history. There wasn’t a lot of lecturing. Instead, this was our time to ask questions; the cantor created a great environment to have honest, open conversations.  It was a wonderful way to learn.

EJB: Did you have other positive experiences as you came of age as a Jewish woman?

LD: Yes. I’ve also had mixed experiences. In the summer of 2014, I went on a Birthright trip to Israel. My older brother was also on the trip, and it was one of the few explicitly Jewish spaces we’ve been in together in public since childhood. The experience was very cool. Half the participants were Brazilian, and the Americans included several people of color besides me and my brother. In some ways I felt like I blended in more in Israel than I usually do in the US. One of our hosts was very welcoming to us and spoke about being interested in social justice. At the same time, she made an exception for the Palestinians who she demeaned. I felt like I could ask her questions, but not challenge her more directly since there was something of a language barrier and she was one of our hosts. But I found it upsetting.

Going back to an earlier period, my childhood rabbi was a huge positive influence. He was unusual in the way he engaged with the congregation. He was loving, but he was not overly concerned with making people feel comfortable. He taught us that one of the most important things about being Jewish is taking responsibility for questioning every belief we hold. He also taught us that our lives should be about pursuing justice and fairness for everyone. Even when he said things I did not agree with, he was open to talking about it. When he left the shul I drifted away.

EJB: How about your years as a student at Pomona College? Were you involved in Hillel or other Jewish groups on campus?

LD:  No. I went to services, but I didn’t really get involved in group social activities. I never got the sense that I shouldn’t be there, but it’s always been easier for me to deal with people one-on-one rather than in groups.

EJB: Why do you think this is?

LD: The fact that half my family is not Jewish means I’ve experienced things that some other Jews haven’t and [that] has deeply impacted me. When, for example, my Jewish friends or family members talk about wanting to find a Jewish partner, I can’t identify. I understand wanting to be with someone who shares your beliefs and values. It makes me feel sad sometimes, because my dad isn’t Jewish, but we’re connected to each other and his beliefs have influenced me so much. I think that’s important.

EJB: What was the response to “Black, Jewish And Avoiding The Synagogue On Yom Kippur?”

LD:  After the article was published a huge number of Jews of color reached out to me, shared their experiences, and invited me to join groups like Jews of All Colors United, the National Alliance of Black Jews, and the Jewish Multicultural Network. The outpouring made me think about what I actually want. I’ve had to ask myself if I want to do anti-racist work within the Jewish community or join an organization. 

What I’ve concluded is that I want to be in a place where I can have conversations with other Jewish people about our shared beliefs, as well as the beliefs that we don’t share. Right now my job is to write about race for NPR. That’s my full-time work, so I’m not sure I want to do community organizing about race in other parts of my life. It needs to be done, obviously, but since I’m not particularly good at it, maybe I should leave it to others.

In terms of my day-to-day Jewish life, what I’d like is to go to a synagogue, walk in, and feel anonymous, not be noticed or given special attention. It’s tricky though. I get that folks sometimes walk up to people of color in an effort to make us feel included. But when it’s assumed that I need someone to explain the service to me, it reinforces my feeling of otherness. At the same time, I recognize that there’s a fine line between bringing someone in and making them feel welcome, and bringing them in and making them feel set apart and different.

EJB: Did white Jews also reach out to you after the article ran?

LD: Yes. Dozens of people invited me to attend services at their synagogue—from many different states and even from congregations in Israel. It was overwhelming to see such an outpouring. I never expected anything like it. The responses were also interesting. Some said, ‘Look, most US Jews are white. That’s just how it is so it makes sense that people will assume that a person of color is not Jewish.’ Others said that the type of discrimination I described would never happen in their synagogue. It was wonderful to hear this but I know that if people have not experienced this type of prejudice themselves, they won’t necessarily see it. Still others said that I was out of line to call out what I saw because they felt as if I was accusing an entire religious group of bigotry. Needless to say, this was not my intent. My gut reaction was to tell these people that they missed the point of the essay and do not need to be so defensive. I need to think about this more, though, since the criticism has been hard for me to shake.

EJB: Have you taken anyone up on their offer and gone to services with them?

LD: Not yet. The idea of going as someone trying to prove something bothers me. All I want is to be able to go into a synagogue, sit down, and let a sense of quiet and calm wash over me so that I can pray in peace with other Jews.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.