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For Those Who "Don't Look Jewish," the Search for Acceptance Is No Joke

January 2005

This article is reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Jewish News.

With an adopted son from Latin America, Benita Fishbein would like to participate in events sponsored by the local arm of Latin American Parents Association, a nonprofit for parents of Latin American children.

"But there's such a huge disconnect," she said. "In the Latin culture there's a big emphasis on Christianity. Events focus on Easter and Christmas, and we end up not participating often. It's not very fulfilling."

It's a common complaint from Jewish parents who adopt non-Caucasian children. Michael and Susan Frank, who have two adopted children from Korea, have had slightly better luck with a local group for parents of Korean children. Still they are the only Jews who belong, and some times, said Susan, the others "just don't get it."

Meanwhile, Rabbi Steven Kushner, religious leader of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, where both the Franks and Fishbeins are members, grew concerned that the synagogue--and the entire local Jewish community--might not be meeting the needs of its many member families who are trans-racial or simply non-Caucasian. That's a grouping that includes not only people who have adopted non-Caucasian children, but also interracial couples with natural children, adult Jews of color who were either born Jewish or became Jews-by-choice, and Caucasian senior members of the community with children or grandchildren in any of these categories.

Although Kushner said there are many families at Ner Tamid who fall into these categories, numbers were not available. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, 6.5 percent of the Jewish population, or 3.2 million households, comprise non-white Jews.

Kushner suggested that the Franks start a group to offer support to Montclair-area families, and they agreed.

Sunday, Jan. 25, marked the opening of the group at Ner Tamid, with three families attending. After airing their concerns, the group came to the conclusion that what they need is a hevra--a collective group in which they feel comfortable, and not conspicuous. The group would offer opportunities for interracial families to build their identities and just to relax together. "It's exciting to be with other families who are interracial and Jewish," said Fishbein.

The group will look first for participation from members of the five Montclair-area synagogues: Ner Tamid, Congregation Shomrei Emunah and B'nai Keshet in Montclair, Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, and Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex in Verona. It will also be open to any trans-racial families in the area who are raising Jewish children.

One of the group's first events will be a Passover seder. Also under discussion are Shabbat dinners and speakers.

This is not the first group dedicated to issues of trans-racial Jewish families. Ayecha, an Orthodox resource group for Jews of color, began in 2001 to raise awareness and appreciation for diversity in Jewish life. Many local Jewish Family Service organizations offer support groups. And Stars of David International Inc. is a national group working specifically on issues of Jewish adoption including trans-racial adoption. The Jewish Multi-Racial Network began in 1999 through the efforts of local Jewish educator Linda C. Jum, who sits on the board of the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest and is also vice president of communications for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. The Jewish Multi-Racial Network is now under the auspices of Camp Isabella Freedman and hosts summer family camps; it also spawned Mosaic Multi-Racial Jewish Family Camp in San Francisco.

Jum, who happened to be teaching a religious-school class at Ner Tamid on Sunday, joined the group to listen in and offer her own insight. She suggested that the idea of Jews as a uniformly Caucasian people is tied to the status Jews have achieved in North America. "Jews have always been a multi-racial people," she said. "I always ask people who think Jews should be Caucasian, 'What part of Poland did Abraham come from?'" Her views were echoed by Kushner, who said, "The idea that Jews are only Caucasian is cultural arrogance. There are Jews not only in countries like Ethiopia but also in India and Asia."

For more information about the group, contact the Temple Ner Tamid office at 973-338-1500.

 

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Johanna Ginsberg

Johanna Ginsberg is a staff writer for The New Jersey Jewish News. She can be reached at jginsberg@njjewishnews.com.

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