Christianity is by far the dominant force in African American religious life. However, a growing number of blacks are choosing a less common path to salvation. There are roughly 200,000 Jews of African descent in the United States. While some are directly from the continent, a surprising number are African American. For women who identify as black and Orthodox Jewish, bridging the two worlds can be a challenge.
Yavilah McCoy is the New England director of The Curriculum Initiative, an organization that works with Jewish students. She is married to an African- American Jewish man and their four children attend Jewish Day schools. McCoy spent her childhood years in Brooklyn, the granddaughter of a woman who renounced Christianity and become a member of a group known as the ‘Black Israelites’. Later, McCoy converted to Orthodox Judaism. In 2007, she and her mother told their story to Religion and Ethics Newsweekly - “I don’t think it’s a simple thing to try to navigate both Jewish and black identity simultaneously in the context of raising a family. It’s hard. It involves a lot of sacrifice. It involves a lot of joy”.
In her book, Journey to the Land of My Soul, ex-minister Ahuvah Gray speaks movingly of her transformation from born again to Orthodox Jew. Minister Gray was living a quiet middle class life in a San Diego suburb. She owned a nice condo, presided over a close-knit congregation, and had a lucrative career as a travel agent. But something did not feel quite right. She began reviewing religious texts and decided to convert. She changed her name from Delores to Ahuvah, and moved to Israel. Sixteen years later, she still lives in Jerusalem.
In June of 2009 Alysa Stanton made national headlines by becoming the first black woman to be officially ordained a rabbi. Stanton, a single mother who grew up in a Pentecostal home, completed seven years of rabbinical training at the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. She now presides over Congregation Bayt Shalom, an all white congregation in Greenville, North Carolina.
The reactions these women receive from their communities range from indifference to suspicion. While the response from other blacks is usually shock and curiosity, some of the women have been surprised to face strong hostility, even racism from other Jews.
Journalist Sheree Curry’s first forays into Jewish society were difficult. In her 1998 essay Who’s a Jew? She spoke frankly of her naïveté.
I did not think about the prejudice I would face from other Jews as this black in a predominantly white religion. I did not fathom the depression and loneliness I would feel being among my newly acquired family. I did not know I would have days when on the inside I would cry, while trying to maintain a Herculean front.
More than a decade later, widespread recognition of Jews of color (or J.O.C) is increasing, and tolerance is increasing along with it. There are several websites and organizations geared towards J.O.C – the late Ayecha, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded by Yavilah McCoy; the Jewish Multiracial Network , and The National Alliance of Black Jews. Online communities like blackjews.org and manishtana.net help people stay connected.
The truth is, brown skin and kinky hair doesn’t alter the day-to-day religious practices of these women. McCoy said it best -“ It doesn’t change the fact that we’re Jews. Like it, lump it, or indifferent, that’s who we are. We’re Jews.”