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NEW YORK, April 14 (JTA)--Fifty years ago, Joshua Nelson's grandmother would not have walked up to a synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood, entered and prayed. That's because she was black, Nelson says--and black Jews didn't generally pray at shuls dominated by white, Eastern European Jews.
"It was unheard of," Nelson says. "A lot of the Jersey people went to New York for shul. The black Jewish community, although it was small, they tended to worship with other black Jews."
Fast forward half a century.
Today Nelson, a 28-year-old musical virtuoso who says his family's been Jewish for centuries, teaches in the Hebrew school at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, N.J.--a Reform congregation--and spends the high holidays davening in one of the Garden State's Orthodox shuls. In his spare time, he tours synagogues, JCCs and the occasional church performing his unique brand of soul music. He calls it kosher gospel--it's a rollicking hybrid of church tunes, Motown and Jewish-themed lyrics.
His muscular voice, commanding stage presence and flamboyant performance garb have won him plaudits from Jewish leaders to such black luminaries as Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey, on whose show he performed his energetic "Elijah Rock" last October.
With Passover approaching, Nelson says his family's journey feels especially poignant. The Haggadah's injunction instructing Jews to feel as if they themselves were freed from bondage, he says, hits home when you're from a long line of black Jews.
"For some people, slavery happened thousands of years ago. But just 140 years ago, there was slavery in America," he says, waiting backstage before a performance Tuesday night at a "Liberation Seder" at the JCC of Manhattan. "For some people, religion is myth and fable, but for us, observing Passover is about slaves being freed. It's reality."
"When we celebrate Passover," he adds, "we REALLY celebrate Passover." Nelson is one of a growing number of Jews of color in the United States. The San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research estimates that there are about 400,000 Jews of color in the United States today, including converts, those adopted by Jews, the children of interracial couples and the descendants of Jews of color. Still, many of these Jews say that despite some improvements, fitting into the American Jewish community remains a challenge.
"People were kind, but there definitely was a feeling of dissonance around race," says Yavilah McCoy, an African American Jew who studied in a yeshiva in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, known for its large population of fervently Orthodox Jews. "I didn't see people of color as Jews in the way I was being taught," she continues. "I didn't feel that people of color had a place in the Jewish community."
This feeling of isolation, says Gary Tobin, director of the research institute, flies in the face of centuries of Jewish history. "Jews are the most racially and ethnically diverse people in the history of the world," he says. "The notion that Jews are white is a recent phenomenon, post-World War II."
Indeed, Tobin adds, "The majority of the Jewish community in the history of the world originated out of the Middle East and the Arab world." He cites Jewish communities that have immigrated to the United States from Latin America, Iran, Iraq and Syria. If you add all the Asian, Latino, black, mixed-race and Sephardi Jews in America together, he says, they make up about 20 percent of the U.S. Jewish community.
This might surprise many Americans.
"Most people think Jews are white," Nelson says. "I have friends that are Iranian Jews who go through the same thing. You get tired of people saying, 'How'd you become Jewish?' "
It's a problem, Tobin says, that Jews would do well to overcome.
"I think it's really important that the Jewish community embrace diversity," Tobin says. "African American Jews are the best bridge builders to the African American community. Latino Jews are the best bridge builders to the Latino community. Arab Jews are the best bridge builders to the Arab community."
Tobin's institute runs Be'chol Lashon, a program that assists Jews of color like Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of Uganda's Jewish community, who is now studying for rabbinic ordination at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, a Conservative seminary; Rabbi Capers Funnye, the senior rabbi at the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago; and Rabbi Manny Vinas, a Cuban Jew who works on issues relating to the B'nei Anusim, whose Jewish ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity.
The Liberation Seder was imbued with the music and liturgies of several ethnicities. The Four Questions were asked in both Ladino, a Spanish-Hebrew fusion, and Judeo-Arabic; Nelson rocked the house with several spirited gospel numbers, and Yoel Ben-Simhon, an Israeli of Moroccan descent, added a tinge of Middle Eastern musical flavor with his Sultana Trio.
McCoy, who studied in the Brooklyn yeshiva, is the founder and director of Ayecha, a New York-based group that offers resources on Jewish diversity to the Jewish community and provides advocacy and support for Jews of color. Ayecha joined forces with the JCC of Manhattan to organize the seder, which drew about 150 people--and drew a link between racism and anti-Semitism.
"Anti-Semitism is the oldest form of racism," McCoy said during the portion of the seder where a matzah is broken in half. "Anti-Semitism and racism have a lot in common, and when you look at your two matzahs, I want you to think" of the two scourges as two sides of the same matzah.