Session 5

The complexity of Jewish identity and race in America

This session examines ways we discuss race, racism, color, and diversity within the Jewish community. We will explore different ways to consider race, color, and Jewish ethnic identity in both an American and a larger Jewish context. 


How Jack Became Black movie? Trailer:



Participants will know:

Participants will be able to:

  • Discuss diversity in the Jewish community: complications and solutions 


Enduring Understanding

  • Some American Jews have accepted a single view of race and racism. However, there is more than one way of understanding Jewish diversity and examining race and racism in a Jewish context. 
  • Color-based racial categories, commonly used in the United States, do not capture the full complexity of Jewish identity and ignore the ethno-religious character of Jewish identity. 

Essential Questions

  • What does Judaism say about race and diversity? 
  • Is the common anti-racist/DEI framework the right approach for addressing diversity within the Jewish community? What are other ways of thinking about it?
  • Should American Jews be considered white and/or consider themselves white? How should/are Jews defined in terms of race/ethnicity?
  • Does assimilation into the dominant “white” culture impact racial identity in the American Jewish community? If so, how?
  • How do we address racial diversity within the Jewish community?
  • What does it mean to be a “Jew of Color”? 
    • What are some implications for the Jewish community of identity terminology like “Jews of Color,” and “White Jews” are used? 
    • If there are “Jews of Color” does that mean that there are “White Jews”?
  • Do the experiences of Jews of Color parallel the experiences of People of Color in the larger American society.

Watch in-session as a large group: Campus argument goes viral as Evergreen State is caught in racial turmoil – HBO Vice News

Discuss how/if the pre-session materials address the following: 

  • Do Critical Race ideologies fuel antisemitism and anti-Zionism? If so, how?  
  • Should Jews participate in social justice movements? What are the potential tradeoffs of being involved or not being involved? Does Tikkun Olam belong to one ideological camp? If not, how might we think about the various ways Jews can express a commitment to making the world a better place?
  • Activity 1A:

    Divide participants into 4 groups. Have each group read and discuss 1 case study and answer the questions below (10 minutes). Afterwards, have each group report back to the larger group and discuss their answers (15 minutes).  

    Jillian is the great-granddaughter of Spanish Jews who fled the Spanish Civil War in the early 20th century. She moved to San Diego, California with her parents and siblings when she was 14 years old. During high school she became increasingly active in her school’s diversity club, embracing her identity as a Jew of Color. 

    Hedy is in her first-year in college. Her parents are Persian Jews who immigrated to the United States before Hedy was born. As part of her university’s diversity commitment, all incoming students have to attend DEI training as a part of orientation. Hedy was instructed to attend the Students of Color group. She has always been proud of her Persian Jewish heritage, but has never identified as a Jew of Color and feels out of place attending an affinity group for students of color. 

    Rachael is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and refugees from the former Soviet Union. Like her grandparents and parents before her, Rachael grew up experiencing antisemitism. She has been vocal in her community about the threats facing the Jewish community from White supremacy, and objects to the idea that she’s considered White and benefits from White privilege.

    Zachary’s mother is a Black Jewish American and his father is a Russian Jewish American. He’s always been comfortable with his mixed heritage and proudly identifies as a Black Russian Jew. However, has been uncomfortable being lumped together with other Jews from different backgrounds because Zach sees his heritage as unique. He identifies as a Black Jew rather than a Jew of Color because JOC is not specific.   

    • How does the current American Jewish category of JOC view each? How should it? 
    • How does the Jewish community create a narrative of being one people given these classifications?
    • Can the Jewish community dispense with American-centric color-based racial categories and still acknowledge cultural differences within the Jewish community? If so, how? 

    Activity 1B:

    College application case studies (15 minutes)

    Have participants put example cards in one of the categories listed below and provide a brief explanation on why they chose that category. (need: pictures of individual people on small cards and larger cards w/one of the categories below on each)

    White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

    Black or African American – A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.

    American Indian or Alaska Native – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.

    Asian – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.

    Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.

    Activity 2:

    Divide participants into 2 groups. Each group will discuss their case study and answer the questions below and then discuss with the larger group. (20 minutes) 

    Affinity group case studies

    Synagogue DEI committee OR

    Kids’ school system

    Faride Hoffman has a Persian Jewish mother and an Ashkenazi Jewish father. She is interested in becoming more involved in her synagogue’s DEI committee. They have affinity groups(listed below), where members meet to discuss various social and cultural issues. Which group do you believe Faride should attend? Why? Is this a helpful way for the DEI committee to group members? Why? Why not?

    • Jews of Color
    • White Allies 

    Tamar Bernstein’s two children attend the local public high school. Her daughter, an 11th grader, identifies as bisexual. The school’s DEI committee is desperate for participation from parents of LGBTQ+ students of color. Tamar emails the committee chair, expressing her interest in participating. However, she is told that the committee is only looking for parents of students of color and since she is White, she cannot join. Tamar has never identified as White, but as Jewish. What do you recommend Tamar do next? 

    Conclude with the following: 

    Discuss How should the American Jewish teach, learn about, and discuss Jewish diversity?