Be’chol Lashon is part of a research institute that combines the creativity of original research with the rigor of social science models of inquiry. We utilize research to create, implement, and evaluate programming.
Be’chol Lashon helps conceptualize and design programs and initiatives-even envisioning new organizational structures-to address the needs uncovered in the research. Successful components are replicated; others are redesigned and improved.
Our initial research surveyed a sample of diverse Jews. Demographic, social and cultural data on diversity in the Jewish community were collected and analyzed. The Institute for Jewish and Community Research survey allowed us to estimate the diverse Jewish population in the United States. We constructed a composite picture of Jewish diversity that includes race, ethnicity and religious ancestry: Black, Asian, Latino, mixed race for example, or Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi backgrounds.
Because these categories are overlapping, they present the complicated national and cultural history of the Jews. Ashkenazi Jews can be both from Sephardic (Iberia) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) backgrounds.
Skin color, national origin, ethnic background and language have all been blended, reconstituted and redefined as the Jewish people have evolved over the centuries. Our research reflects these complexities and the classification difficulties that arise from millennia of mobility and blending.
We also studied paths to Judaism: birth, marriage, and conversion. Family structure was also analyzed, including adoption.
We also looked at religious identity and behavior including communal affiliation patterns such as belonging to Jewish organizations and volunteerism.
Be’chol Lashon researchers have also been deeply involved in qualitative research. We have conducted over 300 personal interviews and conducted 20 focus groups. Focus groups have been conducted with African American Jews-by-choice, Latino Jews, mixed-race Jews, biracial Jews (Jews with one Black parent and one Jewish parent) and transracially adopted Jews, among others.
We also have facilitated over 50 workshops, which also provide vital qualitative information. These data helped us understand how to design programs to serve diverse populations of Jews.
Be’chol Lashon researchers are active participant observers. Community-building activities allow scholars to interact with Jews of color through programs and conferences, as well as working in different communities.
As with all participant-observation research, one learns a great deal by being part of a community and first-hand interactions. Much of what we learn comes through this myriad of encounters and personal relationships.
Community Building: Research Leads Directly to Program Development
Survey respondents and interviewees overwhelmingly express the need for community building events and programs. The population of Jews of color splits along a number of lines: by race, region, practices and many others.
Some of these divisions are typical of the Jewish community as a whole.
Although they may share some issues in common, Jews of color have different backgrounds, life experiences, and different perspectives on their relationship to Judaism. Therefore, they often have different programming needs, specific to their own Jewish sub-culture. Jews of color are interested in networks with other Jews of color through Havurot, support groups, websites, list serves, retreats, and a host of other programs and venues.
They are interested in participating in several types of programming: 1) with their own Jewish ethnic or racial group only; 2) with all kinds of diverse Jews; 3) programs with the general Jewish community; and 4) programs with other racial and ethnic groups.
The survey data, personal interviews, and focus groups indicate that being around other Jews of color is the most important factor in the choice to attend or not to attend programs.
The quality and the nature of the program is also important. This includes the venue, the quality of the speakers or leaders, activities for children, opportunities to interact with other participants, and the feeling of being in a safe and nurturing environment.
A Bay Area model for community building began in 1999, with a speaker series and holiday events. We had to insure an open environment, with a focus on issues of interest to Jews of color. We spent much effort on high-quality, persistent marketing and recruitment. The events were also free of charge to eliminate financial barriers to participation. Diverse leadership and role models were also key. In some instances, it was important that Jews of color constituted the majority of participants.
As a result of the community-building efforts, our evaluations revealed that as diverse Jews feel more comfortable in the Jewish community. They are generally more inclined to participate in synagogues, Jewish community centers, and day schools.
International Community Building
Beginning with a seminal Think Tank in 2002, Be'chol Lashon sponsors an annual meeting for leaders of diverse Jewish communities around the world. The Think Tank is a forum for conversation, creative thinking, and developing new approaches. We help build bridges among the many Jewish communities that exist in isolation, separated from one another by history, geography, knowledge, culture and experience. Some of the critical issues we explore are how to nurture and grow established and emerging Jewish communities around the world.
As our networks of leaders grows, so do the scope of community building efforts. A wide variety of international projects emerged. We began to develop projects that focused on building Jewish communal infrastructure in Jewish communities in Uganda, Southern Africa and Nigeria. We are involved in projects to help reclaim Anusim in Spain and Latin America. Information gathering and dissemination spark new projects and partners.
Research and community building are inextricably linked. Information guides project development and community building efforts provide on-going information that helps re-formulate and re-design new initiatives. All of Be’chol Lashon community building efforts are studied and evaluated to create models that can be adopted and adapted in multiple settings.