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Parashat B'midbar: Whom We Count, Why We Count, and How We Can Better Count Everyone

Parashat B'midbar: Whom We Count, Why We Count, and How We Can Better Count Everyone

Closeup of a hand holding a magnifying glass over a collage of many faces

Parashat B’midbar is an interesting Torah portion because it includes what some might consider one of the drier parts of the Torah, a census – and yet there is a lot to be gleaned from it. It gives us insight into taking stock, assigning responsibility, and the roles that we play in our communities.

When we think of taking a census, we typically think of taking a count of everyone, but God tells Moses to take a census of every Israelite male above the age of 20 who is physically able to bear arms and assign them specific duties. This makes sense; after all, they’re traveling in the wilderness and need to take every security measure possible.

That said, I can’t help but think about who wasn’t counted in this census: women and children. Of course, I know it was imperative, at that moment, to keep a record of every battle-ready male and the tribes and roles with which they were associated, but it reminded me: Sometimes, who’s not being accounted for is more telling than who is.

I think about this a lot in relation to the experiences of Jews of Color, many of whom have not had the most welcoming of experiences in some of our sacred spaces. When we’re asked questions like, “How exactly are you Jewish?” or “How do you so much about Judaism?” or “Why did you convert?” (which assumes that all Jews of Color are converts), we often feel “othered” and made into a spectacle simply for showing up to Shabbat – regardless of the intent of the person asking.

I can’t tell you how many Jewish social gatherings I’ve been to where I’ve been asked if I am Jewish; when I do humor their probing of my identity, I ask why they felt the need to ask. People often respond, “I just never would’ve guessed you were Jewish.”

Jews have existed in all colors and across all parts of the world for centuries, yet people are still perplexed by the mere existence of Jews of Color in their midst. Why? Because we simply aren’t being accounted for.

I recently had the opportunity to attend Consultation on Conscience, an event put together by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., where I attended a presentation headlined by Ilana Kaufman, director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. In her presentation, and in her piece published in the Times of Israel that day, Kaufman explained that of the 7.2 million Jews living in the United States, 1 in 7 is a Jew of Color. Additionally, a local study commissioned by the Jewish Federation of San Francisco found that 25 percent of Jewish households are multiracial.

Those numbers, Kaufman told us, will only continue to grow – but she also told us that many U.S. Jewish community demographic studies never ask about race at all or, when they do, ask poorly worded questions about race. In some cases, she told us, researchers even identify study respondents by looking up “Jewish-sounding” last names in regional phone books (which, of course, doesn’t account for a great many Jews whose last names don’t “sound Jewish”).

Despite this, though – and despite all the times Jews of Color have not been accounted for – I remain hopeful.

Kaufman’s findings have exposed a major problem in the ways we take count of our people – not just Jews of Color, but Jews period. It’s a problem that we, the Jewish community at large, can no longer afford to ignore. The reality is that more people identify as Jews of Color every day, and we can set ourselves up to grow even stronger by doing everything in our power to welcome them, accept them, and treat them equitably.

When we take account of others in our midst, we must remember to do our absolute best, in every circumstance, to acknowledge and respect the identities of every Jew in our community, including and especially Jews of Color, Jews with disabilities, Jews in interfaith partnerships and families, and Jews across the sexual and gender spectrums. Not only should we welcome these members of our family with open arms, we should also be giving them equal seating at our tables.

This major and important shift in collecting Jewish demographic data will lead us further out of our midbar, our wilderness of dangerous nostalgia and erasure, into a Promised Land that celebrates diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Hear more from stories about and from Jews of Color, in their own words, in our podcast Wholly Jewish.

Chris Harrison is the writer and editor for Audacious Hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism and a fellow in the 2018 JewV’Nation Fellowship’s Jews of Color Leadership Cohort. A graduate of Miami University in Oxford, OH, he holds a degree in creative writing and film studies. He grew up at Payne A.M.E. Chapel in Hamilton, OH, and converted to Judaism at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI, to reconnect to his ancestral roots. He is the co-author of an essay, “If Not Now When, If Not Together, then Never,” that appears in Holding Fast: Jews Respond to American Gun Violence. Chris has a passion for writing, Jewish studies, cinema, and staying active while at the gym and exploring New York City.

Chris Harrison
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