In rabbinical schools they are sometimes taunted as “monkeys” or with the Yiddish epithet for blacks. At synagogues and kosher restaurants, they engender blank stares. Dating can be awkward: Their numbers are so small, friends will often share at least some romantic history with the same man or woman, and matchmakers always pair them with people with whom they have little in common beyond skin color.
They are black and Orthodox Jews, a rare cross-cultural hybrid that seems quintessentially Brooklyn, New York, but received little notice until last week, after Yoseph Robinson, a Jamaican-born convert, was killed during a robbery attempt at the kosher liquor store where he worked.
At his funeral and in interviews afterward, a portrait emerged of a small, insular but energized community that is proud, but underpinned by a constant tug of race and religiosity.
Nobody keeps track of how many black Orthodox Jews there are in the US, and surely it is a tiny fraction of both populations. Indeed, even the number of black Jews overall is elusive, though a 2005 book about Jewish diversity, In Every Tongue, cited studies suggesting that about 435,000 US Jews, or 7 percent, were black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American.
“Everyone agrees that the numbers have grown, and they should be noticed,” said Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, a historian of US Jewry.
“Once, there was a sense that ‘so-and-so looked Jewish.’ Today, because of conversion and intermarriage and patrilineal descent, that’s less and less true. The average synagogue looks more like America,” Sarna said.
Through the Internet, younger black Orthodox Jews are coming together in ways they never could before.
In Crown Heights, a group has struggled to form a minyan, the quorum of 10 men required for group prayer, though Robinson’s death leaves them one short. On the first Wednesday of each month, about 15 to 20 called “Jews of color” (not all of them Orthodox) meet to trade their experiences and insights. There is also a New York branch of the national group Jews in All Hues.
“They are strengthening their blackness through Judaism,” said Asher Rison, 62, a black Jew who lives in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, said of the younger generation. “They don’t have a place of their own, so they are trying to carve out their own niche.”
Rison converted more than 25 years ago after meeting his wife, who is also black and traces her Orthodox roots to the late 1800s.
The oldest of their five children, Shais, 28, is the founder of Jocflock.org, a dating site for Jews of color.
Shais Rison said it was often other black people who questioned him and his Jewish friends of color, viewing them as suspicious or as sellouts. Not all black Orthodox Jews agree on how to balance their loyalties.
Some, he said, “see being Jewish as not being black anymore.”
“Those are the people who don’t want to associate or get together with other black Jews,” he said. “Everyone wants to play the only one, like ‘I’m a black Jew, and I want my struggle to be unique so people will look at me as a commodity.’”