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New study: 1 in 5 American Jews Not Ashkenazi

Reprinted with permission from j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Visit www.jewishsf.com.

Look at the Jew on your left. Look at the Jew on your right. OK, now look at two more Jews. Odds are, one of you is "ethnically diverse."

That's the claim Gary Tobin makes in a new book exploring racial and ethnic diversity within America's Jewish population, In Every Tongue. The San Francisco demographer maintains that perhaps 20 percent of the nation's Jews are Sephardi, Mizrachi, racial minorities or of mixed race.

"It's a big deal when you start translating it into the number of human beings," said Tobin, who co-wrote the book with his wife, Diane Tobin, and Scott Rubin.

Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, has always been one of the most vocal critics of the massive 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, claiming it systematically undercounted West Coast Jews and Israelis. In doing so, he added, the United Jewish Communities' survey missed vast numbers of ethnic Jews.

Tobin makes a conservative estimate of 200,000 Israelis in the United States, and believes as many as half of them might be all or part Sephardi or Mizrachi. He also believes many Jews of partially Sephardi heritage have been identified as solely Ashkenazi in past polls.

"You add it up and it's a surprisingly huge proportion. The difference between 10 or 12 percent and 20 percent is hundreds of thousands of people. In a Jewish community of only 6 million, that's a big deal."

So, where are these vast numbers of ethnic Jews hiding? Tobin laughs at that query, as it's "the same question federations and JCCs and other Jewish organizations ask about unaffiliated Jews out there--where are they hiding? The answer is, they aren't hiding at all."

Tobin evokes a comparison between ethnic (or unaffiliated) Jews and Ralph Ellison's classic novel on black life in America, The Invisible Man.

"Nobody sees them because they operate outside the mainstream Jewish community," he said. Within In Every Tongue are numerous interviews with mixed-race Jews, many of whom feel marginalized in both the Jewish and other ethnic communities. Tobin feels their experiences can be used to illustrate much of what needs to be improved within the Jewish community.

"The vast majority of the Jews in the Bay Area don't belong to synagogue and don't contribute to the federation, so making the Jewish community more open and welcoming in general is a key question," he said.

"The Jewish community spends a lot of time trying to figure out who's not a Jew rather than spending time reinforcing people who want to live as Jews and be part of the Jewish world."

Tobin sees the surprising diversity of the American Jewish community as a strength. Certainly, it's a conversation starter in relating to other minority communities. It's also a counter to pro-Palestinian claims that Jews are a monolithic race of white colonizers.

"In all of our personal interviews, we picked up a tremendous interest in what Judaism is about," he said.

"As a community, we're not ready to handle that. We're still making people knock on the door three times before we talk to them. If we wanted to grow, we could grow. The qualitative data tells us there's a lot of interest out there."

In Every Tongue by Diane Tobin, Gary Tobin and Scott Rubin (251 pages, Institute For Jewish & Community Research, $25).

Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. 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." Hebrew for "eastern," the term refers to Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries. Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew.
Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

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