Accounting for Jews of Color

Critics say a new article challenging the number of Jews of color undermines the slow progress Jews of color have made in securing communal funding for inclusivity efforts.

Mairav Zonszein
May 26, 2020
Jewish women of color demonstrating at the 2019 Women’s March in Washington, DC, January 19th, 2019. Photo: Phil Pasquini via Shutterstock

NEARLY 200 AMERICAN JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS, including day schools, federations, and synagogues, have signed on to a letter expressing support for Jews of color, in response to an article published earlier this month by two veteran Jewish scholars that questions the latest estimates of how many nonwhite Jews there are in the United States. The “Jews of Color Count” letter, organized by four Jewish women of color who hold leadership positions at Jewish social justice organizations, criticizes the article for placing “a stronger emphasis on numerical calculations than on communal values” and using “cherry-picked data to build a case for why supporting Jews of Color depends upon a numeric threshold.”

In their article, “How Many Jews of Color Are There?” published in eJewish Philanthropy, a website that caters to Jewish professionals (and republished in The Forward with the clicky headline addition, “Fewer than you think”), Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky dispute recent estimates, widely accepted by the Reform movement, that Jews of color represent at least 12–15% of the American Jewish population, arguing that the percentage “is almost certainly closer to 6 percent.” The article is drawing heightened attention because it is based on a chapter on Jews of color that will be published next month in the American Jewish Year Book (AJYB), a canonical record of major topics of concern to North American Jewish society—including demography, Jewish institutions, and media—which has been published annually since 1899. Sheskin and Dashefsky are also the co-editors of the AJYB, a post they assumed in 2012.

April Baskin—a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and racial justice director of the Jews of Color Roundtable—told me that the focus on numbers carries a particular sting, as often the first questions Jews of color face when entering new Jewish spaces are “Are you Jewish?” and “How many of you are there?” In addition to the article conjuring a familiar feeling of objectification and the need to justify one’s existence, Baskin says it undermines the practical inroads Jews of color have been making in the organized Jewish world. “When I read this article, it was equivalent to someone lighting a match in the middle of a field of high grass,” she said. “Our funding and fundamental belonging was put in jeopardy.” 

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), which approved a resolution last December to support the development of proposals for reparations for American slavery, also took issue with the article. Its president, Rick Jacobs, and Chris Harrison, an editor of a URJ diversity and inclusion initiative, condemned Sheskin and Dashefsky in a scathing piece in eJewish Philanthropy entitled “The Reform Jewish Movement Stands with Jews of Color – Period.” “[W]e will not tolerate white intellectualism intended to diminish research conducted by and about Jews of Color,” they wrote. Even eJewish Philanthropy’s editor Dan Brown felt compelled to issue an apology “to anyone who was hurt by the essay’s publication.”

Sheskin, a demographer of the Jewish community who was involved in the 1990 and 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Surveys, told me, “I don’t think I have anything to apologize for—we followed the facts,” adding that he and Dashefsky decided to write a chapter on Jews of color “with the hopes that bringing attention to it would help the people who want to make certain that Jews of color feel welcome in the community.” Sheskin—who noted that he has two grandchildren who are Jews of color—insisted that the 12–15% estimate is way too high.

This higher figure is based on a report published last year by researchers at Stanford and the University of San Francisco analyzing 25 different population studies of American Jews from various years that found that Jews of color were being undercounted, primarily due to inconsistencies in how questions of race and ethnicity were asked, if they were asked at all. The report, “Counting Inconsistencies,” was commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative—“a national effort focused on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color”—to try and make up for the lack of reliable data. Sheskin and Dashefsky’s challenge to this report is based not on new findings, but rather on previous polls—primarily the 2013 Pew survey, which put the percentage of Jews of color at 6%. Sheskin said the Pew study is “the best study out there, hands down” and pointed out that no one argued with the survey’s findings when they were published in 2013. He said that this 6% figure may have increased one or two percentage points since 2013, but that any further increase would be unlikely. “If the 15% is correct, then one out of six Jews in this country is a Jew of color. That’s a million Jews. My experience is not that,” he said.

But as Baskin and others note, while it is clear the Jewish community needs more research to better understand its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, the article leaves out key data from a 2019 Brandeis study, the American Jewish Population Project, which put the percentage of Jews of color—defined as “Black, Hispanic, or Other non-Hispanic”—at 11.3%. As Ilana Kaufman, who directs the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, told me: “While the crux of the authors’ argument was about methodology, the authors didn’t tightly focus their piece on methodology, nor focus their criticism at the researchers whose work they criticize”—a choice that Kaufman said shifted the focus from the problem of how to quantify Jews of color to the operational implications that might result from lower numbers.  

Sheskin told me that he agreed with criticism that “questions have not been asked in a consistent manner where they have been asked,” but took umbrage at the implication that he is not committed to evaluating racial identity in his research, nor aware of its importance. He explained that the failure to ask about race and ethnicity in local surveys he has conducted—he’s done 53 such surveys, by his own count—was not ultimately his decision, stressing that he does not have the final say on what questions get asked, but that commissioning bodies often help set the agenda, and that each survey has competing question priorities, framed by local contexts and constrained by a 20-minute time frame. He provided the example of a 2014 population study of the Miami Jewish community, which was commissioned by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. When he consulted with community leaders involved in preparing the survey about whether to include a question on race—which he recommended—they declined. “They said, ‘Nah, we don’t need race, we don’t have any black Jews here.’” (A question about Hispanic identity was included.)

Ironically, this admission about the fallibility of past surveys seems to echo criticism leveled at Sheskin and Dashefsky in eJewish Philanthropy by Ari Kelman, a professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford and a co-author of the “Counting Inconsistencies” report. Kelman lamented the fact that the researchers present the 2013 Pew number as straightforward despite the ongoing inconsistencies in the available research. Kelman notes that “only 41% of Jewish community studies conducted since 2000 even included any questions about race and ethnicity in the first place” and stresses that those who ask the questions have “an inordinate power to include and exclude populations not only on the basis of sampling approaches but on the basis of questions they ask”—language that calls to mind Sheskin’s description of the Miami federation survey.  “According to Pew, Orthodox Jews are 10% of the population. You would never have anyone say 10% of Orthodox Jews is a small minority that doesn’t count. So it’s not ultimately about the numbers. It’s a matter of what the entrenched conceptions, and the biases of those conceptions, lead us to ask,” Kelman told me. 

A new Pew study on the Jewish community, the first since 2013, is due out later this year, and will almost certainly affect and inform this debate. When asked why they didn’t wait for these new results to publish their chapter on Jews of color, Sheskin told me, “You go with the best number available when you write,” adding that he and Dashefsky wanted to ensure that the topic was adequately covered in the AJYB. “We were anxious to support Jews of color, as we both feel strongly about the issue.”  

This controversy over flawed and inconclusive surveys—and disputed numbers—speaks to the ongoing and unmistakable exclusion from the organized American Jewish community that many Jews of color say is at the heart of their experience. “JoC-led and -focused organizations have been historically underfunded, and JoC leaders are not around most of the decision-making tables that help shape the communal approach to funding,” Kaufman says. In the last two years, the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative has created its own parallel track for funding, disbursing more than $500,000 in grants to create new spaces led by and focused on Jews of color, including Ammud: JoC Torah Academy, EDOT Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative, the Jewish Multiracial Network, Dimensions, and Jews in All Hues. 

These dynamics around community funding priorities have been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, which is disproportionately impacting people of color, and has led to layoffs and budget cuts across the Jewish communal ecosystem. At the end of March, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco (JCFSF) suspended new grant rounds as a result of the financial constraints of the pandemic and the need to prioritize those most acutely impacted. One of these suspended grants was a first-ever proposal of up to $25,000 for “Organizational Change for Inclusion of Jews of Color” that would fund internal organizational capacity work, including new approaches, policies, and trainings aimed at inclusivity. This followed a community study that the San Francisco federation conducted in 2018, which found that 25% of Bay Area Jewish households include a respondent or spouse who identifies as nonwhite.

“When Covid hit, we realized pretty clearly that organizations were in crisis mode, and the idea of developing plans for new programs was just not realistic,” said Roxanne Cohen, managing director of community impact at the JCFSF. “We really see the importance of JoC organizational change and hope to bring back these various grant opportunities.” Despite the pause in new grants, the federation has recently reopened a short-term grant opportunity for summer teen programs. They have also approved $13 million in grants as part of an emergency Covid-19 response to meet the needs of organizations and facilities whose revenue has been most acutely impacted, in order to “stabilize the Jewish ecosystem and maintain access to Jewish life,” as Cohen explained. But none of these grants have been specifically earmarked for Jews of color. “It could be that they fall into those categories and it could be that they fall into the cracks—there is more work to be done,” Cohen said. 

When asked whether the JCFSF has Jews of color on staff, to match the diversity of its constituency, Kerry Philp, senior director of strategic marketing and communications told me, “I believe we do, and we had embarked upon looking across the organization at our policies, our values, our hiring practices when the pandemic hit.” Philp said the federation has signed on to the Jews of Color Count letter and that they, too, were troubled by Sheskin and Dashefsky’s article, but that they are grateful that it’s opening up the dialogue. “This crisis is an opportunity for us to do things better. I hope this is an opportunity for us to do a reckoning,” she said.

But with the exigencies of the pandemic taking precedence, it looks like efforts aimed at fundamentally restructuring Jewish communal life as it regards Jews of color are being put on hold. Baskin noted that in moments of crisis, such as when there are spikes in antisemitic incidents, the Jewish community tends to “circle their wagons,” which for most organizations means “protecting white Ashkenazi Jews in their resource allocation.” “The fear of Covid has led people to revert back to their factory settings,” she said.

A quote by Ari Kelman was added post-publication, when he was reached for comment.

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist and commentator who has covered Israeli politics and US foreign policy for over a decade. She is a founding editor of +972 Magazine, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Columbia Journalism Review, and more. She is currently senior analyst on Israel/Palestine with the International Crisis Group.