The Color of Judaism: A Cultural Reflection and Plea for the New Year

Every year on the High Holy Days there are a number of officers that sit outside my synagogue to protect the community and the building from any harm. I understand why the police are there. I know the risk that comes with openly celebrating Judaism. I appreciate their presence.

Until all of their eyes are on me.

When I arrive, I am dressed for the occasion, including a Kippah on my head. I am greeted with smiles and warm welcomes as I walk through the parking lot. Yet without fail, the officers usually stop what they are doing, get out of their cars, get right up behind me, and follow me as I walk in.

Children lighting a menorah.

Young Rafael Lev and friends lighting a menorah at school. Credit: Marcie Stein Photography (

Where others see police officers as friendly faces that protect and serve, the uniform and badge strike fear into my heart. It doesn’t matter if you are breaking the law or not. We have seen in the news that one wrong move—like reaching too quickly for your license or registration—can be the difference between a routine stop and fatal disaster.

But what if it didn’t even take one wrong move? What if you were treated with an added layer of hostility just because of the way you looked?

The police officers usually don’t stop pursuing me until I have hung up my coat in the coatroom, and the greeter has given the officers a thumbs-up, to let them know that I’m “safe.”

I have been attending the same shul since the early 90s and I have never seen this happen to anyone else. I proudly wear my Star of David necklace, but it does not seem to faze them. I am left to think that the only possible sign of threat would be the color of my skin because 99% of the people who walked into the shul before me were white.

I grew up at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. I was born on December 15, 1985 in a different country.  I was adopted at the age of only six weeks by a white, Conservative Jewish couple.

I started my Jewish education at the St. Paul Talmud Torah Day School as a preschooler and finished in the middle of eighth grade.  I attended Saturday morning programming every weekend.  My family kept Kosher, we celebrated Shabbat every week, and we always went to shul. I was proud to celebrate Judaism with my family and my friends.

But then, something changed. During an away game with the Talmud Torah soccer team, I experienced the sting of being “different” for the first time. I don’t remember who won the game, but we were a very athletic group of kids with a supportive group of Jewish parents who were more competitive than we were. So no matter what the score was, we always felt like winners.

After this particular game, our teams lined up to demonstrate good sportsmanship—each of our hands colliding with one from the opposing team, followed by the standard “good game.” But when I passed through the sea of high-fives I heard, “Good game, burnt toast,” from one of the opposing players.

I felt small, alone, and scared. At that very moment, I realized that I was not the same as my teammates. I was different, and the people around me could tell, just by looking at me. I became outraged; I was ready to fight their prejudice. But when I looked around, my team had already walked away. I was truly alone. I was defeated, and I felt it.

Occasionally, kids from other synagogues and summer camps would ask me, “What are you? Are you an Ethiopian Jew?” I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t even know what that meant, and yet, they made it seem as if that was the only way I could possibly be both Jewish, and a person of color.

Rabbi dances with a child.

What assumptions are made about what Jewish people look like? Rafael Lev writes about how he was not accepted by parts of the Jewish community because of the color of his skin, even though the black and Jewish communities have always intersected. The Jewish community nationwide includes African American congregants and religious leaders such as Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. (pictured here). Credit: Creative Commons/The Jewish Agency for Israel.

The following year, I started to hear comments like that bleed into the very school I attended—my home away from home. But this time, instead of my friends walking away they told me to ignore it. “Just let it go,” they said. “It’s not that big of a deal.” I felt I had no one who understood me, and no one who would even back me up.

A few months later, I left Talmud Torah Day School. To this day, I still feel like I abandoned my closest friends. But at the time I felt like I had overstayed my welcome. I enrolled in the local public middle school, where I had my first true encounter with other people of color. And, boy, was I different from them!

I walked in with an eager smile wearing a nice button-up shirt, leather dress shoes, and a pair of khaki pants that would be considered way too tight and too high at the ankle by my standards today. There I was, dressed for a day at private school.

The white kids accepted me without a hiccup. But the kids of color kept their distance, asking me, “Why you dressin’ like a white boy?”

So I tried it out. I started to experiment and “dress like” a person of color. At school, I became who I thought I was supposed to be, but I needed to know which I really was—Kippah or doo-rag.

After leaving my friends at the Jewish day school, it was a while before I was ready to participate in United Synagogue Youth (USY) events. The first time I went back, I walked in wearing my brand name, baby blue sweat suit, a shiny new pair of white sneakers, and a doo-rag on my head.

I hadn’t even made it past the coatroom before a parent approached me and said something I’ll never forget.

“I like your costume.”

I felt out of place, embarrassed, and shocked that a parent would single me out. My education wasn’t shot out the window; I was the same person, just wearing different clothes and something other than a Kippah to cover my head. I began to feel as if I had to be one person with my Jewish community and another with my friends at school.

Both my sister (who was also adopted from another country) and I had our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I grew up with the Rabbi’s children. I have coached soccer and basketball at Jewish day schools for over 10 years. I have guided my teams of adolescent Jews through wins, losses, and anti-Semitism. I care for Israel, and pray for peace every day.

Indian Jews around table of food breaking their fast.

Jews in Mumbai, India break their Yom Kippur fast. Credit: Creative Commons/Senia L.

No matter what clothes I am wearing, what is covering my head, or what color my skin is, I am still Jewish. But being Jewish does not take away the fact that I am a person of color either.

I’m speaking up for the young people of color who might run into this situation in the future. There were lessons that I needed to learn, that my parents couldn’t possibly teach me.

Like many Jews, when I attend High Holy Day services, I walk through the parking lot wearing a Kippah on my head. Only, I consciously keep my hands fully visible, knowing that I might get stopped by the very officers that are there to protect me and the rest of my community.

Here are some safety tips that every person of color should follow when stopped by an officer of the law:

  1. Place both hands where they are clearly visible. Do not reach in your pockets or purse. Do not reach into your jacket. And do not move without informing the officer first.
  2. If you’re in a car, take the keys out of the ignition and place them on the dashboard so that they are clearly visible.
  3. Leave your seatbelt on, and slowly turn on your interior lights so that you are fully visible. This proves that you pose no threat.
  4. Speak clearly and respectfully, and stick to these four phrases “Yes, officer,” “No, officer,” “Thank you, officer,” and “I would like to call a lawyer.”

Even after you follow these instructions please be prepared for the possibility that you’ll be searched because as a person of color, you are more likely to be asked. You may know your rights, but that doesn’t mean that you will be able to exercise them in the moment.

I recently watched a video showing the arrest of a black man who had been waiting to pick up his kids at a daycare located in the skyway of downtown St. Paul. The police repeatedly asked the man to identify himself. He declined because in Minnesota, one is not legally required to show identification unless under arrest.

The situation quickly escalated. The man was shouted at, brought to the ground, and tazed by the officers within a matter of seconds, all while begging the officers to stop; his children were less than a hundred feet away. When the video cut out, the audio of his heartbreaking pleas for mercy kept playing. I couldn’t help but think, “That could be me.”

Since I am no longer a child, I don’t walk down the street holding onto my mother’s white hand. Now, people know me without seeing the race or religion of my parents. I am no longer afforded that implied aura of protection or privilege.

When I see police, I feel my blood go cold, regardless of whether or not I’ve done something wrong. My legs start shaking—as if everything below my kneecaps have disappeared. I get a knot in my stomach the size of a cantaloupe.

When the police follow me into synagogue, I don’t feel protected, or served.

So as I walk into shul on the holiest of days with police cars in the corner of my eye, my mind is racing with nervous energy and “What ifs.”

What if the officer stops me before I walk into the building?

Will they know that I won’t have my wallet on me for immediate identification?

What if my friends and family try to intervene and it falls on deaf ears? Or worse, threats of arrest?

What if I didn’t have a community of white people waiting to greet me at the front door, and give the officer that thumbs up?

I am not trying to attack the police by any means. The police have a very difficult and honorable duty to uphold, and I respect what they do. But how can we encourage police officers—and all people—to extend the benefit of the doubt to people of different backgrounds? Who is going to lay down the first brick to start building trust?

Sailors celebrating Rosh Hashanah.

Sailors stationed in the Persian Gulf celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holy Days. Credit: Creative Commons/Official U.S. Navy Page.

We, as a nation, have been here before. We Jews have been here before, but for some reason history is repeating itself around the world. We face persecution and discrimination in our own backyards.

The questions remain the same, and those questions remain unanswered. What do we have to change to fix these problems? What can we do to recognize our own privileges and become allies to those who don’t share them? What can each of us do to make this change possible?

As Jews, we need to start from the inside out, and challenge our assumptions. We need to educate our children, and remind ourselves that not all Jews are white. It is time for us to demonstrate even more kindness, strength, and compassion to the world—not only to our own communities, but also the ones that we are unfamiliar with and, therefore, afraid of.

We are like so many other communities of people, each with our own set of prejudices and stereotypes. Jews share the struggle of being globally misunderstood with people of color, the LGBT community, and migrant populations. We have been victims of persecution, we have worked to overcome the barriers of prejudice, and yet our people remain rich in culture despite centuries of diaspora.

We have an opportunity here. I have fear in my blood, but hope in my heart.

We must find ways to live with one another in peace. If we come to a point that we can’t see eye-to-eye, we must kindly agree to disagree and move forward with at least an effort to understand.

We must stand together now, more than ever. Because when the world turns its back on one of us, it turns its back on all of us. If you have ever been a victim of prejudice or bigotry, or been bullied, or teased, this is your fight too.

We need to change this reality of prejudice, bigotry and racism for future generations.

History is in the books.  Let’s tell the story, and not relive it.

Rafael Lev is an entrepreneur and active member of the Twin Cities Jewish community, serving as a coach and mentor for Jewish youth. He also creates awareness for issues related to race, religion, and the intersection of the two, through his work as a public speaker and multimedia producer. He is a member of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights, MN.
tags: Judaism, Politics & Society, Race, Rethinking Religion   
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