‘We are not a monolith’: Jewish people of color talk balancing both religious and racial identities

By Olivia Cohen, Editor-in-Chief

Kailey Ryan

If you catch Caroline Spikner out on the street, on her way to work or out with friends, chances are you will notice her wearing a Star of David necklace fastened around her neck.

Spikner, who started being more open about her Jewish identity during high school, said oftentimes when someone looks at her, they don’t see someone who is Jewish; they see someone who is of mixed race.

The first time Spikner met another Jewish person of color – or a JOC – she was at High Holy Days services in the Fall of her senior year of high school.

“That was mind-blowing to me,” Spikner said, whose family is interfaith, with a white Jewish mother and Black father who is not Jewish. “A lot of that was because I hadn’t ever put into words that [JOCs] were missing from my Jewish experience.”

Spikner worked as a springboard fellow and later a Jewish life associate for Metro Chicago Hillel, a division of The Hillel’s of Illinois, which also holds chapters at hundreds of universities globally.

Spikner said during her time with Hillel, she primarily worked with the Loyola University Chicago and DePaul University, meeting other JOCs along the way.

Now living in Cleveland, Spikner is earning her graduate degree in social work at Case Western Reserve University. Since moving, she said she has met only two other Jews of color.

Spikner said she is now connected deeply to her Judaism, but did not always feel this way, especially when she was growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“My brother and I [were] the only people of color [at the synagogue],” Spikner said. “I didn’t have the language to be able to say that I felt weird about being the only Black kid, [when I was little], but I never felt particularly drawn to spending time there and that’s probably a part of that.”

The Jews of Color Initiative is an organization working to build a multiracial, anti-racist Jewish community where JOCs can reach their full potential as leaders and feel belonging as members of the Jewish community. Based in New York, the organization strives to create structural and communal support for Jews of Color all around the country.

Jade Groobman, an advocate of many years for JOCs, has been working as the program associate at the Jews of Color Initiative for about three months.

Groobman, who graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in Womens, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and a triple minor in American Studies, Political Science and Jewish Studies, wrote on the experiences of Jews of color, racism in Jewish spaces and how to create anti-racist Jewish spaces for her senior thesis.

Groobman, who is half Chinese, said she would say that she was white to fit in.

“I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, which is predominantly white,” Groobman said. “And so, I felt really, really out of place, being half Chinese. I really leaned into my Ashkenazi white, Jewish side and just like made that my whole identity.”

Groobman said once she even went to her doctor in Colorado and claimed she was white, admitting she was half Chinese after the doctor asked if she was sure.

“I was like … I am so insistent on being just white that I will go around telling anyone and everyone that I’m not mixed,” Groobman said. “[I would say] I’m just a white, Ashkenazi Jewish girl, but like, physically, I clearly am not.”

Groobman now lives in New York City, which has a large population of JOCs.

Groobman said studies in college got her foot-in-the-door with working in Jewish agencies, focusing on race and anti-racism work.

She said during her time in college as a freshman and sophomore at the University of Kansas, she faced racism herself, especially from a Jewish fraternity on Kansas’ campus.

“At the time, my boyfriend was in [the fraternity] and like, no one, just simply nobody, said anything [about racism targeted toward her], including myself, which is deeply unfortunate,” Groobman said.

Senior photography major Miranda Wood grew up attending religious school at her synagogue in Skokie, Ill., which she described as “not incredibly diverse.”

“I think I’ve only ever had one [religion] class that had two people of color, and that was it,” Wood said. “So growing up I wasn’t used to seeing a lot of Jews who weren’t white.”

Wood added that in general, it’s true that not every Jewish person is white.

“Not every Jew is inherently white … it’s not limited to that,” Wood said. “Judaism is also just in of itself, a minority and when I was growing up, outside of Sunday school, I didn’t know a lot of Jews like outside of my community.”

According to a data study from the Jews of Color Initiative, 80% of survey respondents – who identify as Jewish and people of color – said they had experienced racism in Jewish settings.

Tobin Belzer, an applied sociologist, has worked with predominantly Jewish nonprofit organizations, but some Christian, Catholic and Muslim organizations as well to help design research and research evaluations.

Belzer said historically, researchers who collect census data on Jewish people have done so by asking if they attended Hebrew school or if they went to Jewish camp.

“I think of identity as the story that people tell themselves about who they are, which of course, is informed by larger social structures, and the story that other people tell you about who you are,” Belzer said.

Belzer said some of the traditional questions asked of Jewish people can create a hierarchy of “good Jews or bad Jews,” with the “good Jews” being the ones who tend to be more religious and hold more traditions and rituals.

“I thought ‘maybe there is a way to look at identity that’s not a hierarchical scale that is ultimately a value judgment about what Jewish behaviors are [or are not] important,’” Belzer said.

Belzer said some of her questions to elicit new responses from her interviewees including asking about important chapters of their lives and what it means to be Jewish to them.

“Jewish people are not defined by whiteness … there’s such a vast diversity of the Jewish people. We are not a monolith,” Groobman said. “It’s a beautiful and diverse community.”