American Jewish communities increasingly recognize the moral and strategic need to appropriately represent the full and rich diversity of Jewish Americans. At this moment, there is a heightened focus on projects related to Jewish communal diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This new focus on DEI has prompted a long overdue desire by many Jewish institutions to be more inclusive of those ethnically and racially diverse Jewish Americans who have been rendered invisible in our communal and scholarly self-knowledge and identification, such as Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.
This internal Jewish communal reckoning on issues of DEI includes an awareness that for a long time the American Jewish establishment has been deeply centered on Ashkenazi history and culture. Despite the fact that Sephardic Jews were the first group of Jews to arrive to what would one day become the United States of America, and today comprise the largest ethnically diverse group of Jewish Americans, Sephardic Jews remain marginal, under-represented, and even invisible in organized North American Jewish life.
This invisibility is finally being recognized by many who want to challenge their own ‘Ashkenormativity’ and be more fully inclusive of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. This desire for greater inclusivity, however, is not currently supported by the necessary bedrock of scholarly knowledge, empirical data, and a serious commitment towards the necessary communal engagement of Sephardic Jews that would allow for a truly diverse and inclusive American Jewish community.
There is simultaneously a growing thirst amongst Sephardic leaders for their heritage, voices, and communal needs to be recognized and included in mainstream Jewish communal efforts to create more inclusive communities. However, efforts to create more diverse and inclusive Jewish spaces at best overlook and at worst exclude Sephardic Jews, especially those who are part of immigrant or more conservative-leaning communities. Furthermore, diversity efforts to heighten the visibility of multi-racial Jews have proposed demarcation lines around Sephardic racial identities which have been arbitrarily created without input from Sephardic leaders, scholars, and most importantly data. All of this can be ameliorated with good data and an investment in Sephardic Jewish American leadership and communities.
Need for Research & Data
Simply put, we do not know much about Sephardic Jews in the United States, which makes them invisible. The lack of discussion or consensus over the right categories to study Sephardic Jews and the absence of questions on Sephardic Jews in studies of Jewish Americans are indicators of this problem. This poses a significant challenge in that it reifies the invisibility of Sephardic Jews in the knowledge base of the American Jewish community and scholars of American Jewish life.
The creation and launch of a rigorous study will help push the national field of Jewish DEI work forward with evidence, honest academic-rigor, and the involvement of a network of Sephardic leaders and communities throughout the United States.
Need for Sephardic Communal Infrastructure and Empowerment
From a communal perspective, the lack of knowledge and data has contributed to a long-standing situation where Sephardic leaders and institutions are unable to properly advocate for their communal needs for resources, leadership-development, and mainstream community engagement and education models. Sephardic Jewish leaders lack a strong community infrastructure to support each other and other Sephardic Jewish communal professionals.
This has had repercussions for the ‘Sephardic Jew in the street’ and for the larger Jewish community as a whole. Sephardic students in college campuses, for instance, often struggle with finding the appropriate venue to celebrate their Sephardic heritage and to feel like their Jewish traditions are included. Vulnerable elderly Sephardic Jews may also be less likely to seek out Jewish communal social services due to language and culture barriers. Emergent Sephardic lay leaders are less likely to support and engage with mainstream Jewish American institutions as they seldom see their communities and cultures being represented and served by these institutions.