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Black Jewish leaders work to increase community, inclusiveness

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The Associated Press

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Deepa Bharath

Los Angeles (AP) —Naturney is a black man who grew up in Los Angeles, a descendant of those who were enslaved many generations ago. He is also an observant, Kippa-wearing Jew.

But he is not always welcome in the Jewish space. His skin color can cause suspicious gaze, suspicion, and traumatic beliefs. Once he was told to step into a cinnagog dressed for Shabat service in a slacks and buttoned shirt and go to the kitchen.

"The last thing I want to do when I go to the synagog to attend worship is to be treated as if I didn't belong," Rooney said.

Looney has been appointed to a new role as a community, security director, and after joining the Jewish Jewish Fairness Diversity and Inclusion Team, something about it. The North American Federation (JFNA) in April. He can direct his painful personal experience to healing divisions and changing perceptions, helping to travel to spiritual synagogs rather than traumatic encounters for color Jews. believe.

In this new role, Looney has cinnagogs and community centers in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. The concern is that such enhanced security increases the likelihood of racial profiling incidents affecting the color congregation.

Although it is relatively small, the population is increasing. A 2021 Pew Center survey identified only 8% of U.S. Jews as Hispanic, Black, or Asian, but nearly doubled to 15% among respondents aged 18-29. It has become. The survey also reports that 17% live in non-white or multi-ethnic families. ..

Rooney, 37, has lived a few turns. He served in military police as part of the Louisiana National Guard and trained Iraqi police abroad for nine months. He worked in real estate, did urban farming, and sold microgreens in the local market.

His spiritual journey began at 13:00 when his friend asked Looney (his father Baptist, his mother Episcoparian) about his religion. Rooney said that despite his family's Christian beliefs, he never felt connected to it.

"I stuck to the fact that (Christian) wasn't for me," he said. "When considering the enslavement of Africa in the United States and how the religion was enforced, I believed that the religion I was practicing did not apply to who my ancestors were."

Looney embraced Jewish religion when he was still a teenager. Because he did not formally convert until the age of 26, but he regarded it as a belief that gave his followers permission to ask difficult and offensive questions.

It was after George Floyd's police killing and racial calculations in the summer of 2020, Looney began working with the organization to raise his awareness of the Jewish color. He also started JFNA's diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at that time.

Rooney said that color Jews are often exposed to questions about their Jewish origin. He said those questions could be painful, as they quickly questioned their identities, even with good intentions, implying that they didn't belong. ..

In addition, the security of the synagog is enhanced, further increasing the likelihood that people will feel unwelcome to others.

"How do you balance? I don't want to get rid of anyone, but I want to see who comes to the door," Rooney said. "Cultural ability is important. The fact that blacks are coming in should not give a warning."

He knows from his personal experience. On the morning of the Tree of Life synagog mass shooting in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, Looney was unaware that it had happened because he wasn't using his phone to protect Shabat. When he entered the synagog, he received more questions and "experienced a deeper scrutiny" from the guards, and it was a pain.

"If it joins the community for the first time, I'll never come back," he said.

The guidelines he is working on are shared with the Jewish Federations across North America, and Looney hopes to be implemented at the local level by synagogues and community centers. Only two months after his work, they are an ongoing task, but he says it will continue to evolve over time.

One goal is to give guards a better understanding of the diversity of the Jewish community. "We are starting this kind of conversation and it's a great start."

Rabbi Isaya Rothstein, founding the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative and JFNA spokeswoman, Rooney With his professional experience as a military police officer and his living experience as a Jewish colored person, he enhances inclusiveness while recognizing the sensitive relationship between law enforcement agencies and colored races. ..

"Safety and attribution do not have to be mutually exclusive," says a white father and a black mother's son, with dark-skinned relatives. Rothstein, who saw him, said. It is treated differently in the synagog. "Nate has a fair lens for us to ensure that all our institutions are safe and secure, while creating a culture that belongs to all Jews and our loved ones. Helping to come. "

Sabrina Sojourner, an African-American Jewish pastor at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, who met Looney at a leadership seminar five years ago, is of color. "Professed consciously and unknowingly by whites," Rooney's role is important to help JFNA change assumptions about "who is a threat and who is not."

"Looking at the attacks on Jews and synagogs, there are no attacks by colored races," Sojourner said. "Nate's work is very important because JFNA tells us that if the most vulnerable people in our community aren't safe, our community isn't."

Rooney said another challenge is that anti-semismism and racial discrimination tend to be separated.

"Many of us have multiple identities and fall into both categories, it's a difficult task to get people to understand that we are all fighting white supremacy." He said.

Placing colored Jews in the decision-making role in the Jewish space helps to build solidarity and bring about the perception that "strong when the marginalized communities come together". increase.

Rossstein believes that Looney makes a big difference because "he is also a healer". As an example, he commemorates Martin Luther King Day in 2021, when Looney prayed and sang the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing" written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900. I quoted a virtual JFNA event to do. Black national anthem.

"These three minutes felt like three hours, like three seconds," Rothstein said. "It's a way Nate holds herself. He's very accessible to people thanks to his heart. It's brought about throughout the life he's lived in."


Associate Press's religious coverage is funded by Lily Endowment Inc. and is supported through a collaboration between AP and The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.