What does it mean to be black and Jewish in America? We talk to Evan Traylor, a University of Kansas political science and Jewish studies major who has a strong identity as both black and Jewish about his experience. He actively participates in KU Hillel as an intern, sits on the Hillel International Board of Directors and writes for the Jewish Multiracial Network. He hopes to eventually attend rabbinical school, and plans to work in the Jewish community. He also hopes to create a recognized space for Jews of color and start the conversation: “How do we make sure that everyone who is Jewish actually feels a part of the community?”
He will talk about his experience at Shir Tikvah tomorrow, Friday at 6:30 p.m. in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He gives us a sneak peek at his talk, “Snapshots of Freedom” that examines how both sides of his family overcame oppression.
TCJ: What does MLK Day mean to you, personally?
Evan: I think that it’s a day of remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and everything that he stood for, but it’s also a reminder that we shouldn’t just relegate these values for one day. MLK was not just a preacher who did a few things on particular days. For me, it’s always a reminder that we can take the lessons that he taught us and we can extend them into our everyday lives. It’s a great reminder at the beginning of the year that social justice can be a daily part of our lives.
TCJ: Do you do anything special on MLK Day to honor Martin Luther King Jr.?
Evan: Growing up in my temple, Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK, we did a program where we’d partner with several black churches. It was called the “Dialogue Continued.” It happened the Sunday before MLK Day and it was a great program. The choirs sang, the synagogue would bring in someone to give a sermon and it served as an opportunity to just have dialogue between different groups. There was always some type of Jewish component as well.
TCJ: How did you get involved with Shir Tikvah?
Evan: I got connected with their senior rabbi, Michael Latz, through social media. Both of us are very social justice-minded. I think we first got connected over Twitter of Facebook, and one of my really great friends, Forrest Yesnes, is the youth director there so he connected me and Michael. We had a really great conversation at a conference in Orlando in November. That’s where we got to finally sit down and talk social justice a bit, and he gave me the invitation to come out.
TCJ: What do you plan to address in your sermon Friday?
Evan: My sermon is titled “Snapshots of Freedom” and most of it focuses on my family history. My dad is black and my mom is white and Jewish, so I focus on kind of two different snapshots of freedom. My great-great-great grandfather was born into slavery, and he was the generation on my dad’s side that first saw freedom. He made his way from North Carolina to Oklahoma, and my family still owns the land he settled on, to this day. My other grandpa, on my mom’s side, was part of Kinder Transport, where kids were taken from Nazi-occupied areas to Great Britain. I also incorporate a bit of MLK and the Torah portion, and talk about being half-black and half-white, growing up in Oklahoma. While the country is being more progressive and understanding and accepting, there are still all of these things that continue to oppress people, so this sermon is kind of making a call that there are steps each and every one of us can take in this country to be a social justice advocate.
TCJ: How has your status as a Jew of color influenced your experience in the Jewish community?
Evan: It’s always provided me with a unique perspective on everything. Growing up I wasn’t super conscious of race or religion a whole lot. For my school friends, I was always the Jewish kid, because there weren’t many Jewish people at my school, and at summer camp or at Hebrew school I got to teach them about what black culture is like and what it means to truly be welcoming to Jews of color. Around 10 percent of Jews in the United States identify as something other than just white, and it serves as a challenge to some people because they’re used to being able to make assumptions. Now, we’re seeing Jewish people who don’t look white or don’t have Jewish last names, and it’s been really cool to be a part of the conversation, “How do we make sure that everyone who is Jewish actually feels a part of the community?”
TCJ: What are some unique challenges or issues Jews of color face?
Evan: A lot of them go back to assumption. I’ve heart stories of Jews of color going into a synagogue and being followed by the police, or that one person’s black father was cleaning flowers after his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, and someone thought he was stealing. In a lot of areas where assumptions happen, it’s alienating.
TCJ: Can you tell us a bit about the Jewish Multiracial Network?
Evan: It’s a small organization that started 10 or so years ago, and it mainly serves as a resource to families that have a member of their family that is of color. There’s blog posts, ideas on how to celebrate holidays and how to have conversations around race or diversity with the people around you. It’s based out of New York. They host several events and retreats every year. For a lot of people who are struggling with finding their connection to Judaism, I think it’s a great support network.
TCJ: Is there anything you hope to influence, as a Jew of color, in the Jewish population as a whole?
Evan: I think that over the last year or two we’ve seen heighted conversation around race and privilege, and I think Jews of color are in a position to work with the Jewish community. I’m exciting about looking forward to making sure Jews don’t cite racism as something not connected to Jews. A big part of our community has suffered from racism, and we are a part of the conversation and of addressing challenges.
TCJ: What does being Jewish mean to you?
Evan: I think being Jewish means to me being a part of a legacy that is inspired to inspire other people.
In addition to Evan’s talk on Friday, Shir Tikvah has weekend events commemorating MLK day including a Saturday evening discussion for Jews of color and Monday community-wide programming surrounding race-related conversation,