Camp Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”) in the hills of California’s Marin County about 35 miles north of San Francisco is an ordinary youth camp, “right down to poison oak and bug juice,” according to Samuel Freedman writing for the New York Times.
The camp “caters to an emerging population of Jews of color,” he notes.
“If there’s Christians of all colors and all kinds, and Muslims of all colors and all kinds,” Amalia, 11, said over Shabbat lunch, “then why would Jewishness be any different?”
One of her fellow campers, Josh Rowen-Keran, 14, who was born to black and Korean parents and then adopted by an interracial couple in the Bay Area, sounded similarly nonchalant. “Being Jewish isn’t looking a certain way,” he said. “I could look at anyone and not know if they are or aren’t Jewish. You can’t know till you know the person.”
Yet what strikes these children as the same old same old, an American-Jewish community of multiple hues and heritages, has arrived as a seismic change. Religiously and historically, Judaism has generally placed little emphasis on evangelism and conversion.
While Israel’s law granting instant citizenship to any Jew has brought it a sizable number of Ethiopians and Indians, the American Jewish picture has looked much whiter. As the largest group of Jewish immigrants to the United States, those from Eastern Europe have set the cultural tone since the early 1900s. Their folkways — bagels, Yiddish, New Deal politics, Borsht Belt jokes — became a virtual religion. Which meant that nobody from outside could ever get completely inside.
Entering the new century, however, the demographers Gary and Diane Tobin conducted a survey that estimated that 10 percent of America’s six million Jews were nonwhite. Their route into the community had been through conversion, adoption and interracial parentage, rather than Ellis Island. (Other scholars place the number slightly lower, at roughly 450,000.)