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Five Things I Learned When Traveling to Brazil with 20 Jews of Color

This past December, I had the privilege of traveling to Brazil with twenty Jews of Color on an eight-day trip hosted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine program in partnership with Be’chol Lashon. It was the first trip sponsored by JDC that specifically focused on Jews of Color, and as I understand, one of the first Jew-of-Color-focused trips to ever be sponsored by a mainstream Jewish organization. Here are some of my key takeaways from the trip:  

1) Brazil is Beautiful

We spent four days in Rio de Janeiro, followed by four days in São Paulo. As a current resident of Los Angeles, I was struck by the similarities I found between Rio and L.A. One of the reasons I love L.A. is that in a relatively small geographic area, you can find beach, mountains, and an urban center. This felt true about Rio as well. São Paulo seemed more similar to New York, except much bigger and the city stretched for miles.

2) Conceptions of race work differently in Brazil than they do in the United States

In speaking with locals in Brazil, race seemed to be much more defined phenotypically than by genetics or cultural heritage. In the United States, conceptions of blackness are often associated with historical doctrines such as the one-drop rule and typically have just as much to do with culture, language, family, and values. In Brazil — likely due to so much historical racial mixing — there were many classifications of race and people who would be defined as black in the U.S. who would not be considered black in Brazil. This heightened the experience of traveling with a group of 20 Jews of Color, about half of whom identify as black.

3) The center of Jewish communal life is changing

Similar to the U.S., past generations of Jewish communal life often revolved around Synagogue life or Jewish Community Centers (JCC). This was even more pronounced in Brazil. The JCC we visited was easily nicer than any one I have seen in my life. It has eight pools, multiple auditoriums and restaurants, an on-site hotel, and boasted a membership fee equivalent to $15,000 USD. While this was beautiful, and it was amazing to see vibrant Jewish life, it also called into question who had access to this version of Jewish life and who was excluded. This seemed to not only reflect a class divide, but with further probing deeply reflected a racial divide. Seeing this in Brazil seemed all too familiar to what I have witnessed in the U.S.

As a juxtaposition, we visited the Moishe House in São Paulo. Moishe House is a global movement that is helping create Jewish community outside of institutional space by encouraging Jews to live together and program Jewish events in their homes. I think that programs like Moishe House lower the barrier to entry for participation in Jewish life and represent promise for a more racially and economically inclusive Jewish community. (Full disclosure, I help operate a Moishe House in Los Angeles for Jews of Color).

4) Traveling with Jews of Color brought up difficult conversations

While we all identified as Jews of Color, we had many different lived experiences. Among the 20 of us, there were Black Jews, Persian Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Asian Jews, Indigenous Jews, Latin Jews, and Mixed Race Jews. There were Jews from transracial adoptions, and Jews who had converted to Judaism. There were Jews who felt completely loved and embraced by the Jewish community, and Jews who felt alienated and excluded from the Jewish community. The most important takeaway is that there is not just one way to be a Jew of Color. 

Being in a space that was entirely occupied by Jews of Color also allowed us to have some important conversations about how our experiences differed. For example, although there are commonalities among us, the experience of Black Jews in the world is very different from that of many Persian Jews. However, because we often have these dialogues within a larger context of whiteness, Jews of Color rarely have the opportunity to dig in to these more nuanced conversations. I found this both difficult and freeing.

5) There is more work to be done

We were only in Brazil for eight days, and there is so much more to see and learn. We were also only able to begin what I hope will be a much longer dialogue about Judaism, race, and identity. But coming out of this trip, one thing is abundantly clear to me: the Jewish community needs more experiences like this one. We need to invest in Jews of Color traveling together, studying together, and serving as cultural ambassadors and representatives of the United States Jewish community. The most heartbreaking and the most promising aspect of this trip is that it was the first of its kind. Let’s work together to ensure that this is the beginning of a much longer story.