Black Man Hopes to Increase Awareness and Acceptance of Jews of Color

·2 min read
Nate Looney, Director of Community, Safety and Belonging for the Jewish Equity Diversity and Inclusion team at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)
Nate Looney, Director of Community, Safety and Belonging for the Jewish Equity Diversity and Inclusion team at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)

Nate Looney is a proud Black Jew. But since converting to the faith over a decade ago, he has found that not everyone is welcoming him with open arms. He said he was once told to go to the kitchen when he showed up to a synagogue dressed for Shabbat services. “The last thing you want to happen when you go to a synagogue to attend a service is to be treated like you don’t belong,” he said. Now, as Director of Community, Safety and Belonging for the Jewish Equity Diversity and Inclusion team at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), Looney hopes to help make things a little easier for Jewish people of color.

A 2021 survey by the Pew Center found that a growing number of young Jews identify as people of color. The results showed that 15 percent of Jewish people in the U.S. aged 18 to 29 identify as Black, Hispanic or Asian.

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A native of Los Angeles, Looney was raised by a Baptist father and an Episcopalian mother. But he says he never felt a connection to Christianity and began exploring a new spiritual identity as a teen. “I was obstinate that (Christianity) wasn’t for me,” he said in an interview with the AP. “When I think about African enslavement in America and how religion was something that was forced, I believed that the religion I was practicing was not true to who my ancestors were.” As he explored, Looney found himself drawn to Judaism. And he officially converted at age 26.

The racial unrest around the killing of George Floyd inspired Looney to being his work on creating more awareness and acceptance of the growing number of Jews of color. Work, he said, that has been even more challenging after many synagogues have increased security in response to incidents such as the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “Cultural competency is important. Just the fact that someone who is Black is walking in shouldn’t raise alarms,” he said.

Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein is the founder of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative as well as JFNA’s public affairs advisor. As the son of a white father and a Black mother, he has a unique understanding of the discrimination faced by Jews of color. And he believes that Looney is the best person to help make synagogues a more welcoming space for non-white worshippers.

“Security and belonging don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Rothstein told the AP. “Nate is helping us bring an equity lens to make sure all our institutions are safe and secure while creating a culture of belonging for all Jews and our loved ones.”