Inmate writes of struggle to maintain Jewish connections

By Juan Howard

One day while sitting at a table with some friends, a conversation about Jews and the Palestinians was brought up. Somewhere in the soon-to-become-heated debate, a question arose concerning the validity of Jews’ claim to Eretz Yisrael. At that point I began to explain to the audience in great detail, the history of the Jews. Without hesitation, a guy asked me, “Well how do you know all of this?” I responded, “Because I’m Jewish.” 

The variety of facial expressions of disbelief and shock displayed by those present sent chill bumps running through my skin. After a few seconds, someone broke the silence saying, “But I thought only white people were Jewish?”

As a former resident of St. Louis city, now an inmate at Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Mo. and facilitator of the Jewish Workshop Group, I am constantly haunted by this question. 

Being a person of color, I am aware of the different ethnic backgrounds of St. Louis Jewry; Ashkenazis, Sephardis and Falashas to name a few. Is it because I am Jewish that I know this or is the lack of black Jewry awareness really prevalent amongst the masses of non-Jews? Why aren’t the black Jews in St. Louis and elsewhere regularly active enough in events to be apprised and recognized by other communities, in particular the African-American community? What is it like for those who are a minority within a minority? 

I hope this is not taken as a racial issue because, as Jews, we are all one people under a brith (covenant). However, raising the awareness of Black Jewry is important to me, particularly in a world where tikkun olam is vital. In the Jewish Light (which I subscribe to in prison), I read about views on the healthcare bill, the divide between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel, etc. What about the daily lifestyles of the Black Jews in St. Louis? What are their positions on politics, economics and religion? 

While the “Can We Talk” series in the Jewish Light serves as a podium for public discourse and debate, it should reflect all members of the Jewish community, regardless of ethnic background. A connection should be made, if none exist, between all Jews of ethnic backgrounds and an open forum for dialogue should always be available. 

As a Jewish inmate of color, I, as well as others, feel neglected and forgotten; unnoticed by the larger Jewish community. It is people like Margie Kessler and Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Jewish Prison Outreach, and Alayne Yates of Bais Abraham, who has reached out to us with open arms and hearts. Those of us who are black Jewish inmates—and there are a group of us at S.C.C.—are trying to reach out to the outside world and become noticed and recognized by our sisters and brothers of all backgrounds in the Jewish community. So if you’re out there and reading this article, take a moment to listen to the cries of our needs that vibrate from the Shofar of our hearts. For we, too, recite the “Shema.” Can you hear us?