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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.

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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.

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"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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