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More blacks explore Judaism

Conversions to Judaism among African-Americans are growing in a way that could affect the presidential election.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2008

Race and religion: Lacey Schwartz is exploring her black and Jewish roots with her film, 'Outside the Box.'

Courtesy of Lacey Schwartz



Like many of the growing numbers of Protestant blacks in America and Africa converting to Judaism, Elisheva Chaim grew up believing she had a "Jewish soul."

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As a black woman and a Baptist in the South, that was a peculiar, somewhat troubling realization. But when she turned her doubts about Christianity into a search for answers, the truth became evident: She had to go deeper than the Old Testament. She had to convert.

"It's odd to see black people convert to Judaism, and even Jewish people look at me strangely, I'm not going to lie," says Ms. Chaim "But once everybody sees that I can recite the prayers in Hebrew, their attitudes change."

Though primarily an intensely personal journey, the black conversion movement comes at an important time for Afro-Judaic relations in the US.

Sen. Barack Obama is lighting up connections to the black-Jewish alliance of the 1960s while at the same time trying to calm Jewish fears over his Muslim middle name and ties to pro-Palestinian activists. This could have critical implications in key states with large Jewish populations such as Florida and Pennsylvania.

Yet more than anything, experts say, black exploration of Judaism is part of an increasingly complex faith puzzle in America. Among other things, it's testing a growing interest among some Jews in expanding a religion that doesn't proselytize.

"We're in a kind of make-your-own-faith world now, and the fact that blacks may be moving to Judaism is actually less surprising than it might otherwise appear," says Bruce Feiler, author of "Walking the Bible."

Numbers are hard to pin down. Besides well-known conversions such as that of the late entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., black Jews remain an unfamiliar part of the American religious landscape. Yet Lewis Gordon, director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, estimates there are as many as 1 million blacks with Jewish blood in the US.

Another recent study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco estimates that there are as many as 150,000 practicing black Jews in the US today, with synagogues across the country reporting increasing numbers of blacks either exploring or converting to Judaism.

"Obama's candidacy, African-Americans choosing to be Jews, Jews marrying people who weren't born Jewish ... is all part of the great American story of freedom and choice," says Gary Tobin, president of the IJCR in San Francisco.

The reasons are complex, experts say. Americans in general are looking outside their own denominations for answers, with 40 percent of Americans switching from the faith of their upbringing, according to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.