Instead of apples and honey, maybe your Rosh Hashanah is sweetened by bright orange squares of halwa, your Passover table might be incomplete without a charoset made with guava paste and coconut, or your memories of Shabbat afternoons tied to the smell of hot oshi sabo stew.

The panel of speakers that kicked off the conference, from left to right: Lacey Schwartz, moderator; Tamara Fish; Siona Benjamin; and Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas.

These foods eaten by some Indian, Cuban, and Bukharian Jews, respectively, are just a small window into the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity of world Jewry. On Friday June 13, people from the Jewish community got a larger glimpse through that window as they gathered at UJA-Federation of New York to learn about making their organizations more welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds.

The conference, called “Racial and Ethnic Diversity: We Talk the Talk, Now Let’s Walk the Walk,” kicked off with welcoming remarks from its chair, David Dworin. “Conversations about diversity and inclusion are really difficult for us to have,” Dworin said. “One of the reasons is … we’re no longer in a world where it’s necessarily laws and signs that are preventing us from being a more inclusive community, it really is looking internally at the actions we take.”

Dworin thanked UJA-Federation for supporting the conversation around diversity, not just through this conference, but through a series of conferences this spring about engaging diverse groups within our community, including Russian-speaking Jews, interfaith families, and LGBTQ Jews.

The attendees also heard about the Yachad Initiative, a request for grant proposals for projects that will promote inclusivity in the New York Jewish community and build connections between culturally and demographically diverse parts of the community.

The morning started with a panel of speakers from diverse backgrounds sharing their personal Jewish journeys. Lacey Schwartz, the New York director of Be’chol Lashon, an organization that advocates for inclusion of Jews from diverse backgrounds, moderated the panel. In her introduction she mentioned the role that UJA-Federation’s “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011” played in the conversation about Jewish diversity.

The study “put on the map in an official way the numbers around diversity in the Jewish community,” Schwartz said. Now it’s up to advocates to use those numbers to “make sure that the attention which is deserved is given to the real diversity of the Jewish community.” The study found that 87,000 households, or 12 percent of the Jewish households in the eight-county area, qualify as nonwhite in some respect.

The panel consisted of Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas, a community leader of Cuban-Jewish heritage who heads Lincoln Park Jewish Center, a synagogue in Yonkers; Siona Benjamin, an artist and painter who grew up in Mumbai in an Indian Jewish family; and Tamara Fish, a scholar, African-American Jew by choice, and member of the Jewish Multiracial Network.

Finding a Spiritual Home

Fish spoke about the challenges of finding a spiritual home in the Jewish community and offered advice to people when meeting someone who’s Jewish but isn’t from their racial or ethnic background. “Please don’t ask me how I’m Jewish, at least not yet … it’s a bit forward if the only thing you know about me is my name,” she said. Making someone feel “welcome means to look someone in the eye as an equal for who they are, and not what they are.”

Viñas spoke about his family fleeing Castro’s Cuba and only discovering in the United States that they were Annussim, or Jews that had been forcibly converted but maintained many customs in secret for generations. He stressed his belief that integrating the growing number of Jews like his parents, who are rediscovering their heritage, can bring energy and spiritual vibrancy to the Jewish community. On a similar note, Benjamin spoke about how some of the art projects she’s been commissioned to create have helped her clients connect with their Jewish identities.

Later in the morning, the attendees broke up into smaller groups at tables around the room, where people who had implemented programs for Jews from diverse populations shared the approaches their organizations had taken.

At one of the tables, Zhanna Beyl, the director of Bukharian youth services at Jewish Child Care Association, a nonprofit in UJA-Federation’s network, talked about how “creating a place that facilitates a sense of belonging is really important.” She’s also found in her work with Bukharian teens the importance of not just fostering their own sense of identity, but of helping them integrate with the larger community.

“Rather than melting down or assimilating to become like everybody else, integrating means you can enrich your surroundings and be enriched by your surroundings,” she said.

The program concluded with a workshop, lead by Schwartz, on opportunities and barriers to inclusivity, and ways to increase awareness of bias and foster appreciation of difference.

For more information, contact Rachel Hodes at hodesr@ujafedny.org.