As Jews, we are a tapestry of multiracial people, and Marcella White Campbell, Be’Chol Lashon’s Executive Director wants us to see ourselves collectively, and to understand that instead of fearing a loss of identity we will be richer as a more integrated community.
Having previously served as Director of Marketing and Communications, Campbell took the helm of Be’Chol Lashon on Martin Luther King Day, 2021, at a pivotal time for our country. “For twenty years Be’Chol Lashon advocated for diversity for the Jewish people, but this has been the first year that reckoning with racism in and outside the Jewish community truly has taken center stage,” states Campbell. “Jews of color bravely and openly shared their pain, and more Jewish institutions than ever vowed to bring change into Jewish schools, camps and Federations. We cannot be truly effective in impacting social and racial justice until we address race inside the Jewish community.”
Campbell is an African American Jew and her husband is an Ashkenazi Jew. As a parent of two young adults, her family is her inspiration for making space for voices of ethnically and racially diverse Jews. Her work to create more supportive welcoming Jewish communities is both imperative and personal. She strives to help heal the wounds of past and present with innovative, culturally enriching and joyful programs. “I feel fortunate to do the work that I do, to work for an organization where the mission is my life. I not only work for the global Jewish community. I’m working also for my family, for the people I come home to.”
Campbell, whose family regularly enjoys Shabbat dinner with her sister’s family, was drawn to Be’Chol Lashon Family Shabbaton when her family was young. This, and later Family Camp, she explains, created a welcoming environment where activities celebrated Jewish diversity.
Later, her children attended Be’Chol Lashon’s overnight camp, a multi-cultural camp that explores the diversity of global Jewish life. The camp, open to all children ages 8 – 18, seeks to inspire a love of Judaism through dance, hiking, history, sports, visual arts, cooking and the experience of a Shabbat of rest, reflection and joy.
The daughter of a teacher, Campbell learned early that everything, especially change, begins with education. Campbell is a Stanford graduate with an M.A. in Literature. Her studies focused on the memoirs of early 20th century Jewish American immigrant women writers. She was touched by the difficult choices they needed to make when coming to the United States. Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 classic The Breadmakers was the inspiration for her thesis. “Many of these immigrant women had known hunger, and they wrote about food—it came up all the time”, she noted.
Campbell is drawn to the idea that food is a rich expression of culture. This is evidenced by the numerous Be’Chol Lashon food-related events and programs, which she sees as a bridge to understanding and respecting our individual stories and traditions. “A really big part of discovering Judaism for me was food,” she says. Reading Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, a history of the Jewish Diaspora told through cuisine, was pivotal for Campbell.
The Be’Chol Lashon website shares a book list for children, and adults. It offers cookbooks, as well as non-fiction, fiction, poetry and photography that explore the intersection of race, ethnicity and Judaism. Among those on the list are some of Campbell’s favorites, including the renowned culinary historian Michael Twitty’s books (whose new book, Kosher Soul, is about to be released), and Julius Lester’s children’s books, including Let’s Talk About Race.
She is heartened by the tremendous response of Jewish organizations, including small congregations, that have reached out to Be’Chol Lashon for information, speakers, programming for children and families, diversity training and support in the last year. “This gives me hope,” Campbell says. “What is more Jewish than education, leaning into that strength that we have as a people – to ask questions and learn new ideas?” A small organization, staffed by six people, Be’Chol Lashon has partners throughout the United States, and in Uganda and Colombia. They have done training sessions throughout the world, including Germany and Israel. “We go where we are needed. We talk to communities about what they need, and how we can bring that to them. We keep doing the work we always have.”
The January 6 storming of our Capitol has heightened awareness of racism within the Jewish community and in the nation. This, with the seemingly sudden appearance of COVID-19, has moved many Jews from a place of feeling relatively secure to a sharp ache of grief for the loss of so many, due both to the viral pandemic, and the American pandemic of hate crimes and of senseless killings. Many of us are yearning for increased understanding, and for justice.
This last year, since the tragic murder of George Floyd, I see the Jewish community responding to this moment in a way that indicates to me that people are beginning to discuss this, and to realize what their roles should be. It gives me hope to see this willingness to learn, willingness to grow, willingness to change.” Working on racial justice, she explains, “isn’t about helping out Jews of color, but rather making our community better for all of us.”
Be’Chol Lashon was launched in 2000 in Northern California. Dr. Gary Tobin, z’l and Diane Tobin, Ashkenazi parents of Jonah, their then 3-year-old African American son, initiated a study of ethnic and racial diversity of Jews in the United States through the Institute For Jewish Community Research. One of the findings of the study was that multiracial and multicultural Jews often feel a sense of isolation within the American Jewish community. Focus groups in the Bay Area who participated in the study requested to meet again, and the Tobins hosted a Chanukah Celebration. From this seed, Be’Chol Lashon was born. Since then, Be’Chol Lashon has advocated for Jewish diversity with a mission to strengthen Jewish identity by raising awareness of the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience.
The Pew Research census of American Jews in 2020 reports American Jewish adults under 30 as “the most diverse of any living generation,” states Campbell in her May 2021 article for the Forward. The new study found that the United States Jewish population, as is the nation as a whole, is becoming more racially diverse, with 15% of Jews under 30 identifying as racially diverse 7% mixed race Hispanic, 2% Black and 6% mixed race. Thirteen percent of the survey respondents in the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys recent community survey stated they had one or more ethnically and/or racially diverse Jews in their household.
Jews live on every continent. Birth, intermarriage and adoption have all contributed to growth, and continue to do so. In the United States, a significant demographic shift is taking place. Within the next few decades, people of color will comprise a majority of the population. “Judaism, no matter how compelling, will lose out if participation in Jewish life occurs outside and separated from these prevailing trends,” notes Campbell.
One of Be’Chol Lashon’s goals is to help people understand that Jewish diversity is our birthright. “It’s not something that was invented in the 1960’s,” explains Campbell, “but has existed in millennia. Wherever we’ve lived, we look like our neighbors. We come in all colors. We speak all languages. Understanding this means whatever affects some Jews affects all Jews.”
In the last year, Be’Chol Lashon’s mission has intensified. “People want to be on the right side of history. They are beginning to realize that when we stand against racism, we are standing up for all Jews. We’re having these great conversations we’d been hoping to have for the last twenty years. It feels like a privilege to be a part of these conversations,” says Campbell.
For many of us during this time of national and personal healing, loss has been sitting side by side with gratitude. Our communities have adapted rapidly in a time of continuous change. We have learned creative ways to be together, pray together and learn together. Be’Chol Lashon has been part of this paradigm shift. Campbell stands rooted in her belief that “education is the Jewish future, and is more vital all the time.” During the last year she is encouraged by “how quickly we created change. We began to realize so many possibilities. We can dream big—very big.”
For more information on Be’Chol Lashon, or to learn how you or your congregation may connect with them go to www.globaljews.org.
DIANE BURR is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.