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

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

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."

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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.

Among Africans, the conversion movement – 100 Ugandans took part in a mass conversion earlier this month – is an attempt to explore the Jewish heritage believed to have trickled down through North Africa and into the continent.

"It's about liberation from slavery," says University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried. "During Passover seders, you're asked to think of it as if you, yourself, were being liberated."

But growing up both black and Jewish can be confounding, and this has sent many searching – not just for spiritual truths but for family secrets. New York filmmaker Lacey Schwartz is currently working on a documentary called "Outside the Box" about her own journey as a mixed-race girl growing up in a white upper middle-class Jewish family in Woodstock, N.Y.

"This is about the changing face of America," says Ms. Schwartz. "But as for myself, I feel more at home in the all-black community than in the all-Jewish community. In the black community, there's a lot of diversity and a lot of understanding of that diversity. In white Jewish communities, the environment is much more mono-cultural."

Since Jews don't proselytize and some rabbis actively discourage conversion, diversifying the religion and the culture is proving difficult.

"The closest Jews gets to outreach tends to be inreach," says Brad Greenberg, the founder of The God Blog at the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. "How people are experiencing Judaism is different today. There's a lot of debate now about whether Jewish converts can help improve the longevity of the religion."

In Brooklyn's heavily Orthodox Jewish communities, New York Assemblyman Dov Hilkind doubts whether conversion trends will affect campaign tactics. He says it's traditional Jewish communities that are giving Senator Obama a hard time while exploring the more hawkish Republican nominee, John McCain, for his position on US and Israeli security concerns.

"A lot of people are nervous about [Obama], and he needs to address this, "says Mr. Hilkind, who predicts that more Jews will vote for McCain than the 37 percent who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980.]

On the other hand, "I think there is a great desire ... to reestablish the very powerful and successful alliance between the African-American community and the Jewish community," says Jennifer Rubin, a freelance writer who blogs about Israel at Commentary.com. "Obama will appeal to that."

Yet for many recent black converts, politics, culture, and history have little to do with their decision. For Sivan Ariel of Atlanta, who grew up in the US Virgin Islands, the spiritual search began with memories of a grandmother she believes was Jewish. The most comfortable place in the world for her today, she says, is a synagogue.

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