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Network Strives to Embrace Jews of All Races, Ethnicities

December 2002

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA and may not be reproduced without its permission. Visit www.jta.org.

NEW YORK, Nov. 20 (JTA)--Marla Brettschneider has an enthusiastically Jewish home in the Bronx--with a little twist.

Brettschneider's partner, Rabbi Dawn Rose, is a woman, and their two adopted young children--Toni and Paris--are African American.

For the Jewish Multiracial Network, Brettschneider's family reflects the changing face of the Jewish community.

According to some estimates, more than 250,000 Jews in the U.S. are living in multiracial families. Data about multiracial families from the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 has not yet been released, but according to the 1990 study, 2.4 percent of American Jews identified as black.

That's a group the network wants to embrace, along with Jews from other parts of the world and Sephardic Jews, who often are overlooked. And with an increasing number of Jewish families adopting children internationally, the Jewish Multiracial Network says ideas about Jewish families have to be re-evaluated.

"Implicit in the Jewish community is in-marriage; and by in-marriage I mean white with white, Jew with Jew and male with female," says Yosef Abramowitz, the CEO of Jewish Family & Life and the father of three children--including an adopted Ethiopian son named Adar.

As the keynote speaker at a Nov. 12 conference in New York, network member Abramowitz said that the Jewish emphasis on in-marriage carries with it "a hint--or maybe more--of racism, tribalism and exclusivity."

The network was started six years ago to combat this very problem, Abramowitz says. He believes accepting multiracial families is the only reasonable antidote to the reality of a shrinking Jewish community, which according to the new NJPS has decreased by 5 percent in the past 10 years.

The idea for the network originated with two women, mothers of adopted children from different races who met at a Jewish retreat. Jean Weinberg and Martha Gray wanted, for themselves and for their children, a space to interact with other families in similar situations.

Until recently, members were connected only informally through e-mail. In June of this year, Amy Posner, the director of the multiracial network, and Yolanda Thomas, the outreach coordinator, launched a formal membership drive.

The official number of members stands at 126--all connected to one another by a listserve and occasional newsletter updates. About 85 percent of members are parents with adopted children from different ethnic backgrounds. There are a few interracial couples, perhaps 10 percent. The remaining 5 percent is made up of young adults from various backgrounds, says Thomas, herself an African American convert to Judaism.

The recent conference, held at the UJA-Federation of New York, was part of a new campaign for advocacy and outreach to educate the Jewish community about the diversity in its midst. Other groups interested in advancing a multiracial Jewish agenda participated. Among them were members of a largely Latin American synagogue in New York called El Centro de Estudios Judios Torat Emet, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which Brettschneider heads.

The latter group and the multiracial network are planning a joint Chanukah party in New York that will celebrate Jewish traditions from around the world.

Susan Chevlow, of the Jewish Museum in New York, spoke at the conference about a new exhibit she is curating that will open in the fall of 2004. The show, "Common Ground," will attempt to "illustrate the diverse face of Jewish life in the U.S."

The museum plans to commission eight to 10 photographers from different ethnic and religious backgrounds to work with community organizations and schools to create photo projects about America's diverse Jewish population.

Abramowitz and Reena Bernards, the network's advocacy campaign director, believe more education is needed.

Most of the "images in our children's books and in the Jewish media are not inclusive," says Abramowitz.

His own organization, Jewish Family & Life, is a leading educational non-profit and one of the larger producers of Jewish content on the Web. Abramowitz is attempting to make his childrens publication "Babaganewz"-- www.babaganewz.com--multiracial and multiethnic. "When any kind of ethnicity in Jewish life becomes normative, it becomes not an ideal but an idol, and our job as Jews is to smash all idols," he says.

Another educational initiative endorsed by the network is the Jewish Multicultural Curriculum Project--www.jmcponline.org --a pioneering new vision for Jewish community programming, representation, and leadership development.

The project's goal is to spread awareness in America about the diversity of international Jewish heritage--whether in Africa, the Middle East, Central and East Asia, Latin America and Southern Europe.

Vivienne Roumani-Denn, from the American Sephardi Foundation, highlights this internationalism. Born into a Jewish home in Libya, she organizes events, exhibits and curriculum at the foundation to educate people about Sephardic Jews from a myriad of cultures. "I used to tell my daughter when she was dating: 'I can get you a Jew from any country, in any color,'" she said.

For Roumani-Denn, who grew up going to Italian Catholic schools in Libya and who witnessed the Islamic Sabbath being celebrated every Friday, diversity is familiar. But for many Jews, expanding their conceptions of what is Jewish is still a challenge.

"We live in our well-meaning, liberal Jewish ghettos, and need to be reminded of the rest of the world," Abramowitz says. As Jews, "we have ceded the concept of love to Christianity," he continues. "Love of all people and all Jews has broken through cultural, racial, American, and Jewish taboos" and with love, "we get to see a new face of God."

Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. 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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. 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.
Mica Rosenberg

Mica Rosenberg writes for JTA.

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