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December 3, 2022

I’m no longer avoiding synagogues as a Black Jew for the High Holy Days

I’m no longer avoiding synagogues as a Black Jew for the High Holy Days

I’m a 31-year-old Black woman who’s also Jewish. In fact, I’ve been Jewish most of my life after my mother, sister and I converted in 1995. We were the first Black family to join Temple Emanu-El, a synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island. Our mother made sure that we entrenched ourselves in the community. I grew up in the synagogue. Up until high school, I was enrolled at one of the top private Jewish schools in Providence, and I traveled to different states to meet up with those in Jewish youth programs, which meant developing friendships and enhancing leadership skills. And according to my teachers, I was the best Hebrew reader in my class. 

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins Sunday evening and ends Tuesday at sundown. As this year’s festivities drew closer, I reflected more on my Jewish upbringing. 

My bat mitzvah was probably the first time I experienced that being Black and Jewish in America was a rarity.

When I had my bat mitzvah at 12, I remember all of the seats in the synagogue’s lower and upper levels being filled with my family, classmates and other people I’d invited. However, a large portion of members from the synagogue who I didn’t recognize were standing and appeared happy and amazed to see my journey as a Black Jew. According to a Pew Research Center study, more than 90% of Jews in the U.S. described themselves as white in 2020. My bat mitzvah was probably the first time I experienced that being Black and Jewish in America was a rarity — and that this type of reaction would probably never go away. 

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how fortunate I was to have had the safety and comfort of my mother, sister and such a great Jewish community where my classmates and their parents were accepting and didn’t make a big deal that a Black family was Jewish. Because of this exceptional experience and environment that I became accustomed to, I assumed all Jews in the U.S. must think and act the same way as my tribe had. I was wrong. 

Brennan Nevada Johnson at her bat mitzvah.Courtesy Brennan Nevada Johnson

It’s disheartening to admit that it’s been almost 10 years since I’ve attended synagogue in person to observe Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days. As I got older and left the nest of my family and synagogue in Rhode Island, I moved to New York. Here, I noticed that with Jews and non-Jews there was a shift in my conversations about my faith, which were uncomfortable and flat-out disrespectful — something I was not prepared for. 

As a Black woman, when I would tell people that I’m Jewish, the reactions I would get were, “Seriously? You’re actually Jewish?” “Can you read Hebrew?” “Can I ask how you are Jewish?” When this happened, and it still does, I wanted to scream. Even when I don’t get this type of response, I constantly feel that I have to prove my Jewish faith to anyone who asks me about it, since it’s been doubted so many times. I saw each conversation as a chance to check off what I call my “Jewish résumé,” which included comparing Hebrew names, talking about Passover Seders, Purim spiels (or theatrical plays about the Book of Esther), tzedakah (it signifies charitable giving), you name it, anything to show and ultimately convince them that I really was Jewish. 

On one occasion, which was the last time I attended a synagogue for the High Holidays, I was told upon entering that “this is a private event” after purchasing a ticket for services observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews on which we atone for our sins and repent. I ended up staying for the service even though I desperately wanted to leave. 

As I sat in the seats with the other members, I received glares and even someone pointing at me as I read from the siddur, the Jewish prayer book. I don’t know if they meant any harm by it, but it was an uncomfortable situation for me. After this, I decided to protect my mental well-being and stay away from my Jewish community. Ultimately, I deprived myself of the religion that had been such a big part of my upbringing — only to avoid subjecting myself to ignorant and hurtful comments that were made just because I was Black. 

Brennan Nevada Johnson at her bat mitzvah.Courtesy Brennan Nevada Johnson

Being a Black woman who grew up Jewish, it hasn’t been unusual for me to be in places or around people where I don’t look as if I belong. I missed the synagogue of my childhood and being embraced and celebrated for my family’s perspective on diversity and inclusion in Judaism. I couldn’t accept anything else. 

My mother, who served on the board of our synagogue in Providence and was the first Black person to do so, had navigated this complex environment successfully for years. I couldn’t help but wonder how she did it. She explained that the Jewish faith meant so much to her and that it would be ridiculous to stop participating in it just because someone else was uncomfortable. And she was right. 

Over the past few years, I have been yearning for that connection with my Jewish community more than ever. I can’t credit it to anything in particular other than missing a part of my childhood that I wanted to carry with me into adulthood. And these past few months, I have been on the search to find a synagogue that could be my home away from home. 

Remembering my mother’s grit, determination and perseverance was just the encouragement I needed to follow through and finally book my in-person tickets to attend both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services this year. 

With the start of the Jewish New Year, I figured New York City is just going to have to make space for this Black Jew and other ones too! I honestly can’t wait to recite the prayers, rejoice spiritually, and if my Jewish faith does come up, I have no problem giving a crash course on how the Jewish identity has nothing to do with the color of your skin and everything to do with common faith and values. 

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