The frustration, hope and diversity of Minneapolis Black Jews – Forward

Posted By on August 16, 2020

White Minnesotans liked to think their state was a progressive paradise until it became the birthplace of Americas most powerful reckoning over racism since the Civil Rights era.

Having been born and raised there myself, I grew up with the myth of Minnesotan exceptionalism: The state has welcomed immigrant communities from around the world. Median incomes are higher there; it has half the rest of the countrys percentage of uninsured citizens. Minneapolis has more miles of protected bike lanes than any other American city. Great public schools, lots of Fortune 500 companies.

But as the states Black citizens knew well before the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, those achievements hid the systemic racism that plagued Minnesota. From 2008 to 2020, Black people as a group faced nearly twice as much police use of force than every other ethnicity or racial group combined. The median Black family income is less than half that of white families. In 2018, Minnesota had the second-largest gap between white and Black high school graduation rates of any state.

Minnesotas white Jews are now waking up to problems that Black congregants have been trying to tell them about for decades.

When faced with instances of racism and lack of empathy, some Black Jews have stood their ground while others stepped away to take stock. They have demanded to be heard and expected to be ignored. Not all have faced racism in the synagogue but they are demanding that their communities make sure no one does again.

Below are excerpts from six interviews with Black Minnesotan Jews, on their personal identities, their struggles with being Black in white spaces, and on their wish to hold the Jewish community accountable for the values it claims to hold.

The interviews have been edited and condensed.

Image by Courtesy of Jesse Kingsto...

Kingston speaking at her synagogue.

Kingston, 47, is a consultant and human rights advocate. She is a member of Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in Minneapolis.

Im on my sixth year now on my Temples board, and I started this conversation with them about the use of police officers, how uncomfortable it can be. I dont think people fully understood what was happening right away, in terms of why that would be.

At the time, when the conversations started, I was working for the city of St. Paul and I was Director for the Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity. I was given the responsibility to lead a new police civilian internal affairs review commission. The commission made some huge changes. That was so fraught I ended up filing a charge of discrimination against the city, the chief of police, and his supporting officers. (To read more about Kingstons fight for oversight of the St. Paul police force, click here.)

And to then have to walk into our synagogue past police officers was tough at times, especially at the High Holy Days. I dont think people truly understood the nuance until I sat down with the board president and really shared with him what I had been experiencing, that the presence of uniformed police officers, especially Minneapolis police officers, how tough that was for people of color, how tough it was for me.

The murder of George Floyd just hit in so many different ways that because of the work that weve been doing. he conversation and the reaction and response today is different than what it wouldve been probably five or 10 years ago.

Im not comfortable coming back to the synagogue and walking in the door with a Minneapolis police officer there. They just cant be there anymore. Its too traumatic. I dont feel safe, and Im not the only one.

Image by Courtesy of Enzi Tanner

Enzi Tanner, wearing his Shir Tikvah shirt.

Tanner, 36, is a social worker with families in unstable housing situations. He is a member of Shir Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Minneapolis.

I was at the synagogue when we heard that Jamar Clark was murdered. (In 2015, Clark, a 24-year-old Black man, was shot in the head by a police officer. The killing ignited protests and led to an encampment outside the precinct of the officers involved in the killing.) I was in a racial justice task force meeting. There wasnt much of anything that happened. I remember that very clearly. Afterwards, I did a lot of cooking and stuff for the encampment, and for organizers. So the synagogue was involved. But it was not the immediate reaction that I needed at the time to feel as if my life mattered in the community.

Im not throwing them under the bus. They did what they could at that time it was what they knew. We couldnt have the same conversations then. It took four years of this crap for the Jewish community to finally see and be willing to do the necessary work that is needed.

After Jamar Clark, the congregation as a whole was having those conversations, right? But its hard to be in a space where folks are having conversations about whether or not my life matters. Whether or not Black lives matter. Whether or not we could say that. I needed the community to grow, but I didnt know if I was going to be able to hold my tongue. Im not from Minnesota. Im not passive-aggressive. I dont hold anything back and Minnesotans could not handle that four years ago.

I still attend Shir Tikvah, Im going to be clear about that. I actually am more involved now than I have been in a long time. Now, I think more about how weve changed. How far weve come. We have a lot of work to do. Im not going to mistake that.

And I do feel like because of the time I took away from that, it allows for me to re-engage during this time in a refreshed type way. Because if I had been doing this work for the last four years in the congregation, I would be completely burnt out right now.

Image by Courtesy of Michelle Witt...

Michelle Wittcoff-Kuhl, with her cousin, left, and her stepmother, right.

Wittfcoff-Kuhl, 45, lives in Minneapolis and is an educational consultant and coach for students.

I was born here in Minnesota and I am of mixed racial ancestry. My mother is white, and I grew up thinking that I was half-white and half-black, and only later learned that my biological father was actually mixed himself: He was born of an Orthodox Jewish mother and a black father. His moms Orthodox family basically kicked her out because she married a black guy. This was in North Minneapolis, which was predominantly Jewish back then.

My Black father, my biological father, was born there and grew up there, and then my adopted father, the person I call my father, is white and was adopted there by a Jewish family. But I very much grew up with the understanding that at one time, North Minneapolis was a great place to live and now, its not. And the reason that it wasnt, even though no one ever said it, was because now, its a Black place.

There are lots of stories that I am told from older Jews all the time about how they loved Black people just as they loved anyone else, how they marched in the Civil Rights movement, and how they certainly didnt treat people differently because of the color of their skin. But I would say that whether or not thats actual, the reality is different.

I lived in North Minneapolis with my husband and my children for 10 years. And certainly, there were still some Jews who lived there, but by and large, most of them had left for St. Louis Park, Golden Valley or other suburban areas. That always made me feel, I think, like, Oh, OK. I dont know where I fit in there.

When I was in Chabad, in my thirties, I met this other Black woman, Leah. She had a white husband and she had converted with her husband. They had converted together to Judaism, to Chabad specifically. They knew I hadnt grown up observant, and that I had a non-Jewish husband, and they never treated my kids or myself different. Nobody looked at me strangely. Nobody doubled-flinched me. Those years that I spent there, not feeling like my color even mattered, it was like, Oh, there are Jewish people who dont hate black people.

Image by Courtesy of Akilu Dunlap

Dunlap on the beach in Ashkelon, Israel, after finishing a bike ride.

Dunlap, 54, is a real estate agent and a member of Temple Beth El in Minneapolis.

I am Eritrean, and Im adopted, but I knew that I was from a Jewish Eritrean family. It wasnt a practicing family that I had. But, Jewish values have permeated throughout my entire life. And they have defined the choices that Ive made, and the paths that I have taken.

I believe the greatest freedom that we can achieve is the freedom to just be Aklilu, and not Aklilu who is Eritrean in America, Aklilu who is Jewish. Im always Aklilu until people remind me that Im not. Because they see me as an immigrant, as African, Black.

But I have not felt ostracized. I have not felt unwelcome by the Jewish community at all. But lets just face it. I mean, I hear the word Black again and again and again, almost every day like you do. I hear it at shul Im on the board and I am involved in other volunteer capacities. We say it because I guess we have to say it. So its said in the right context, but it has a dehumanization effect, I think.

When I was younger, I raged against the machine, wanting change, and I took on that mantle. And then later on in life, when I acquired economic position, job security, and that sort of thing, I said Im tired. Im not doing that anymore. But the fact is we now live in a more racist society than Ive ever experienced in my life. And so I have to take on that mantle. Because I think as a responsible member of society, one who bears this pigment, I just got to do it, because the alternative just isnt possible.

Image by Courtesy of Sheree Curry

Sheree Curry, with her sons.

Curry, 52, is a communications consultant and journalist. She is a member of Adath Jeshurun, in Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis. In June, Curry reported for USA Today about Minnesotas hidden history of systemic and economic racism.

Ive been a part of the Jewish community, in general, for 30 years. I was well-established as a Jewish person coming in. And there has been nothing strange about that, nothing that has stood out, because my work life and my religious life was always predominantly white. Thats the world we live in as Black Americans.

Ive heard of some other African American Jews, or Latino Jews, experiences, which can be wildly different than my own. Why are sometimes some of our experiences so different? I cant say why that is. Being Jewish is a part of who I am. I would say I havent spent or led my life too different than any other affiliated Jewish person has. Somebody asking you about your Jewish background, of course questions like that occur. But St. Louis, Iowa, Minnesota, theyre not that large of a community. Once youre known, youre known.

What if you, as a white person live the majority of your life in an African-American community? Your bosses, the majority of them were African-American. A majority of your coworkers were African-American. The majority of the people where you worship were African-Americans and not just the majority, the vast majority.

For some people, as they start to imagine that, they might feel uncomfortable thinking about that because theyre not used to it. Now take someone like me This is what youre used to. I cant speak for everybody, but for myself, this is not an uncomfortable feeling. It doesnt mean you dont have some incident here or there, but its ingrained, and it becomes a part of who you are.

Image by Robin Washington

Washington standing at the memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Washington, 63, is a journalist based in Duluth, Minn., where he attends the Reform and Reconstructionist Temple Israel. In 1995 he helped found what would become the Alliance of Black Jews, and has spoken and written about Black Jewish issues for decades, as here on BET in 1991.

In the 1980s I moved up to Minnesota. I lived in Duluth, and I fell into Temple Israel. Id have to say it was the warmest synagogue I ever found, in one of the coldest places in the country. Nobody at the synagogue said, Are you from Israel? Are you from Ethiopia? Except one year, on Hanukkah, but that person was visiting from out of town.

I attributed it to it being a place where there arent many Jews. Back then, there were 600 Jews in Duluth, and 300 belonged to temple Israel. You didnt walk in the building unless you had some affiliation.

I want to bust your stereotype that all Jews of color enter white Jewish spaces terrified and horrified. Thats not true. Either leave it, forget about it, or do something about it. The key is to confront, and to get others to confront you. My whole thing is, I do not tolerate crying in your beer. If somebody treats you badly in a synagogue, I think its appropriate to say, Fuck you, right then and there, and I dont care if youre on the bimah.

A couple years ago, someone posted on Facebook about an incident in the Twin Cities, where someone called the cops on a Black kid at a synagogue. There was an altercation he was extremely pissed. And he posts this, and just complains and cries out loud. Its okay that you need therapy and all that, and that you should want comfort or solace. But I said, wait a minute, this is the rabbi that bar mitzvahd you or whatever, and didnt know? So I picked up the phone and called the rabbi and chewed him out.

The George Floyd stuff is nothing new. Weve been talking about that for 400 years. If people want to wake up, thats great. Some of the stuff among white people, and white Jews, thats going on is more of a need to articulate, Im not racist.

This is my question to white people: What can you do affirmatively, that is actually going to help Black people? The typical white family has something like $220,000 in net worth. Black people, its like $70. Dont tell me, if youve got a net worth of $220,000 someone else has $70, that theres nothing you can do but wear a button. (Since 1968, the wealth gap between white and Black families has widened dramatically.) Here in Minnesota, the science museums race exhibit, which opened in 2007 and went all over the world, showed the same thing with stacks of actual money. This is not new.

But you know, whats part of Minnesota nice is, they may be floundering, and not sounding like they really know what theyre doing, but they want to do the right thing. If you point them in the right direction, I feel optimistic theyll go there.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at feldman@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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The frustration, hope and diversity of Minneapolis Black Jews - Forward

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