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Passover accentuates themes of deliverance for Baltimore’s Jews of color

KeSean Johnson’s involvement with religion has been a long, sometimes troublesome journey.

Raised in a Christian home, he came to question the integrity of that faith. He flirted with Islam and spent years with a Black separatist sect.

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But when Johnson, an African American filmmaker and U.S. military veteran, encountered Judaism, he realized his search was over.

“It was an instantly welcoming community,” he says of the Bolton Street Synagogue, a Reform Jewish congregation in Roland Park, which he visited for the first time last year. “That’s when I knew I was in the right place.”

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Johnson, 42, of Roland Park, is part of a demographic that often escapes widespread attention in the United States: nonwhite members of the Jewish faith.

Often referred to as Jews of Color, this group represents about 8% of Baltimore’s Jewish population — nearly 8,000 people — according to a 2010 survey by the Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore.

The national percentages are higher. The Jews of Color Initiative, a national advocacy group, estimates that at least 12% of America’s Jews are nonwhite — upward of 1 million people.

KeSean Johnson, his wife, Joy, and 7-year-old daughter, Bella Freedom, converted to Judaism this year.
KeSean Johnson, his wife, Joy, and 7-year-old daughter, Bella Freedom, converted to Judaism this year. (Kim Hairston)

With Passover set to begin at sundown Saturday, Jews worldwide are preparing to retell the story of the Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt much as they’ve done annually for more than 3,000 years.

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Some say Jews of Color have special reason to commemorate deliverance — particularly in the U.S., where minorities have historically had to struggle for equal treatment.

“Emancipation is a theme for all Jewish people on Passover, not just Jews of Color, but I do think there’s an added layer of meaning for us, if we choose to connect to that,” says Tikvah Womack, a Modern Orthodox Jew who lives in West Baltimore and who is African American.

In the Bible’s telling, Moses pleaded with Egypt’s Pharaoh to free his fellow Hebrews from slavery, but the ruler turned a deaf ear even after God responded with 10 plagues.

The Israelites escaped the tenth of those — the death of all firstborn sons — by placing lambs’ blood on their doorposts to signal their Jewishness, then quickly fleeing to points unknown.

Their journey to freedom — more than 40 years of wandering and hardship — remains a symbol of the search for identity at the heart of the Jewish experience.

For some Jews of Color, that path overlaps with the broader quest for identity in a culture still confronting its legacy of racial inequality.

Johnson’s began in his hometown, Chicago, where he was raised in a Christian household. As he grew older, he wondered how a nation whose leaders subscribed to that faith could have allowed, much less taken part in, a practice as odious as chattel slavery.

Islam seemed unburdened by such a history, but the faith as he learned it said only Muslims could attain paradise. And after years with the Black Hebrew Israelites, an often controversial sect that borrows themes from Judaism and Christianity, he disavowed his temple’s view that only Blacks can achieve salvation.

“The breath of God controls all life on this planet,” he says. “I want to live a life free of oppression, but no group of people should be denied the glory of God.”

Johnson decided to visit some Jewish temples in his adopted hometown of Baltimore, and his reception at majority-white Bolton Hill Synagogue was “like a family’s embrace.”

Sixteen months of Judaism classes and one ritual immersion, or mikveh, later, he’s a member of the world’s oldest monotheistic religion and an active congregant, and so are his wife, Joy, and his children, including his 7-year-old daughter, Bella Freedom.

“Judaism is literally and figuratively a promised land for us,” he says.

Other Jews of Color also face cultural entanglements.

Sephardic Jews, with their Iberian roots, and Mizrahi Jews, with their Middle Eastern heritage, generally identify as nonwhite. Those groups make up about 10% of the Jewish population worldwide and in America.

In this country, though, Ashkenazi Jews, with their origins in Russia and Eastern Europe, make up more than 80 percent of the Jewish public, giving rise to what some call ashkenormativity — a pervasive sense that the mostly white Ashkenazi culture is the Jewish norm.

Octavia Shulman has been addressing those assumptions for years.

An African American native of Louisiana who was raised Southern Baptist, Shulman came to question whether faith in Jesus Christ was the sole route to salvation.

After meeting her future husband, the son of Soviet Jewish immigrants, she began studying the faith, ultimately deciding that Judaism “was the only religion that felt like the place I was supposed to be.”

Now a member at Beth Am Synagogue, Shulman, a lawyer, keeps kosher, recognizes Jewish holidays, raises her children in the faith and is a recognized leader in the Jewish community.

Yet she finds herself contending with unwelcoming looks in kosher markets and says it’s not unusual to visit other synagogues only to be asked whether she needs help with prayer books or traditions she knows inside and out.

Lessons at one of her children’s schools have included Jewish classmates reading aloud stories containing the “n-word” and history exercises in which some children (not hers) were asked to pretend to be slaves.

She addresses such situations as politely and firmly as possible.

“This is my faith, my god, and my heritage, and my family and I are going to cherish it and live it the way we know how whether it makes others uncomfortable or not,” she says.

Tikvah Nadia Womack, who is Jewish, reads her family's Haggadah, which tells the story of Passover, on her front porch.
Tikvah Nadia Womack, who is Jewish, reads her family's Haggadah, which tells the story of Passover, on her front porch. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

To some, the term “Jews of Color” itself can be problematic, as it can undercut the kind of unity the faith aims to promote.

One result is that gestures from fellow Jews can feel awkward, even belittling, says Womack, a mental health therapist with Jewish Community Services.

It’s not unusual, she says, for strangers to approach and immediately ask her to share her “Jewish story” — but not do the same with white people she also knows to be converts.

That kind of treatment implies “otherness” within Judaism, she says, not the simple recognition as a fellow believer many American Jews can take for granted.

She and her husband, Tzadik, an attorney who is also Black and Jewish, are longtime members at Ner Tamid-Greenpring Valley Synagogue. Their Jewish children, 5 and 2, are part of a significant and growing demographic in the U.S. — individuals of color who know the faith from birth. But the road isn’t always easy.

Classmates have asked the two whether, as African Americans, they’re “allowed” to be at a Jewish school. One friend said he couldn’t play with a child who is Black.

“That hurts, that stings,” Womack says. “Your child comes home and says, ‘Can Black people be Jewish?’ From a 3-year-old! I just said, ‘Well, you go to shul [synagogue] don’t you?’”

Womack responds with bridge building. She has run a diversity series at Ner Tamid, cofounded a conversation series for Orthodox women and women of color in Park Heights, and works with Dimensions, Inc., a nonprofit led by Jewish women of color that provides training in diversity and inclusion.

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“I engage in a lot of this work because I want my children to feel confident in their identity in who they are, to be able to walk into any space and live without any labels other than the ones they choose,” she says.

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With Passover just ahead, a light heart also helps.

The Womacks, whose oldest son is a fan of the Goosebumps book series, plan to hold a home seder featuring a “plague room” with a haunted-house feel. The Shulmans will don Marvel comics attire while experiencing the Haggadah prayers, superhero-style.

Johnson will be experiencing his second Passover as a Jew. He says his family will take part in their synagogue’s Zoom seder Sunday, and the experience should mark another step in their journey.

“We understand the [Passover] story even better than we did back then,” he says. “It should be something special.”

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