To be young, gifted, and black…and Jewish

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As a child Tamar Manasseh’s favorite prayer was the Sh’ma (pronounced sha-mahh) because she had to cover her eyes to recite it. But as she left home every morning to go to school Manasseh, now 31, had to lose the Star of David pendant on her necklace because it was identical to a gang sign in the painfully impoverished Englewood neighborhood in Chicago where she was raised.

Manasseh, a rabbinical student who is on track to become the first female graduate of the New York based Israelite Rabbinical Academy (I.R.A), says that she stood out as a young girl with beads in her braided hair while attending Hebrew school in Chicago’s Hyde Park because most of her classmates had never seen a Black or African-American Jew. Yet the culture shock went both ways. “I always knew that there were White Jews, but [I] never interacted with them until I went to school,” Manasseh recalls. “Being Black is not something to overcome. My mother really wanted me to learn about other Jewish communities.”

Manasseh remembers dodging bullets in her neighborhood but at Hebrew school she found a melting pot of mainstream Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Jewish denominations. It was also a world away from Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a predominately Black Jewish synagogue where she worshipped a traditional form of Judaism (outside of mainstream practices) under the leadership of Chief Rabbi Capers Funnye.

Manasseh, a second generation Jew, genuinely believes that seeing and interacting with Jews from both worlds enabled her to work towards achieving a potential milestone. The I.R.A., which was established in 1925 as a training seminary for African-American Rabbis has never ordained a woman . In fact, because of the current policy within the Black Jewish movement even Manasseh can’t say for sure whether she’ll be ordained when she completes her studies in 2011. So why would she enroll?

“In my community girls were encouraged to cook, I wasn’t really good at that, but I was good at Torah” says Manasseh, referring to the Hebrew Bible. “I know it sounds cliché,” adds the 31year-old, “but I received the calling, I’m anticipating that they will ordain me.”

Most estimates pointing to the numbers of Black Jews worshipping in synagogues across the U.S. reveal less about actual counting and more about a highly fragmented narrative. Diane Tobin, the founder of Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an Intercultural affiliate of the San-Francisco based Institute for Jewish and Community Research (ICJR) says it might be approximately 150,000. On the East coast, Dr. Lewis R. Gordon, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia puts the number at possibly 400,000 including approximately 20-30,000 Jewish converts. Dr. Gordon’s larger number also includes those who may align themselves with other Jewish denominations (i.e. Sephardic Jews and Jews from Ethiopia) as well as adoptees into Jewish families and offspring from intercultural marriages.

“It’s still not clear to me that we have an accurate story of how race and Judaism connect in American history,” says Gordon who also works in conjunction with ICJR.

To get underneath the data and to help sustain an infrastructure for scholarship on the subject, in 2004 Gordon established the Center for Afro-Jewish studies (CJAS) at the university. Gordon has traced Jewish records at a Black synagogue in Rhode Island dating as far back as 1901. Gordon, a Jewish immigrant from Jamaica, was an adult when he first met Blacks who had converted to Judaism.

The reasons for conversion among African-Americans stem from a wide range of beliefs, oral traditions, and the parallels drawn between enslaved Jews in Egypt and Black slavery in America. “Some [Blacks] see Judaism as a more authentic spirituality,” says Gordon. “They see the Hebrew Bible (Torah) as more foundational and real, politics might also be a reason, for some Judaism is an African religion.”

Funnye, Manasseh’s Rabbi, (a first cousin once removed to Michelle Obama) believes that people have been embracing Judaism as a result of shifting attitudes towards spirituality. “Throughout the last thirty years people have been on spiritual journeys,” says Funnye. “People have come into contact with people of other faiths,” adds Funnye who also serves as the Cantor, or lead singer for his congregation. “Sometimes they develop an interest or they already have questions about their spirituality. Judaism affords the capacity for us to question without interfering with one’s spirituality.”

Currently, Funnye is learning Spanish to communicate with the growing Latino population of his approximately 225 member congregation. He is also the driving force behind Manasseh’s quest to become a Rabbi.

“He’s a real egalitarian type of guy,” says Manasseh about her Rabbi. “He believes that to move forward we have to accept women in different positions of leadership.”

Manasseh concedes that there are mixed feelings regarding her presence as a woman among the male students at the Israelite Rabbinical Academy. But she already imagines the day when she will be able to lead a congregation as a Rabbi.

“If I didn’t come from my neighborhood, I probably wouldn’t be as open-minded as I am,” says Manasseh, a real-estate broker and single mother of two. “Studying to be a rabbi has been like a spiritual makeover. Things are very personal when you’ve had to fight for them. You remake yourself in the process of becoming someone who serves God’s people. The face of Judaism is changing.”