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Asian Jewish Identity & Accidental Activism

I have big hopes. I just want peace in the world...There is a whole new generation of people like me, who I hope do not need to live in fear

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was first recognized in May of 1992. May was also named Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006. And yet, Davi Cheng has held these identities within her long before they were recognized publicly as heritage months. For Davi, “This month speaks to all the Asian Jews in the United States. It’s really cool and exciting to be acknowledged in this way.” While there have been times in her life when being one of the only Asian Jews in a space made her feel invisible or seen as the “exotic other,” May’s recognition of AAPI and Jewish American Heritage Month make her feel like, “It’s like a month just for me.”

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Davi Cheng at Be'chol Lashon Think Tank 2008

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Davi Cheng at Be’chol Lashon Think Tank 2008

Davi has been part of Be’chol Lashon for over two decades when she was first invited to participate in Be’chol Lashon’s first International Think Tank. After conducting field-impacting research highlighting the racial diversity of the Jewish community, and compelled by a desire to ensure that diverse Jews were able to feel a sense of belonging in this future, Be’cholLashon’s founders Diane and Gary Tobin invited Jews of Color from around the world to convene from 2002-2013. These Think Tanks would not only impact the experiences of many Jews of Color, but they would also play a profound role in Davi’s life.

Davi’s personal experiences of occasional feelings of isolation in the Jewish community was something Be’chol Lashon’s research found to be a shared common experience amongst many diverse Jews. This was one of the many reasons gathering together was such an important experience. Davi shared how prior to the Think Tank, she had never before met another Jew of Color. Because so many of the leaders in the room had been one of “the only ones” in their communities, she expressed how “There was this uncertainty amongst many of us. Even in that space there wasn’t much of an understanding of how to interact with one another.”

In conversations about Jews of Color, Davi expressed how the experiences of JOCs oftentimes get combined together. “Sometimes it’s important we recognize the nuance of the experiences of Jews of Color.” The Think Tank emphasized this, bringing in leaders from a range of geographical locations, levels of observance, and varied experiences within the Jewish community. The range of religious observance in the room in particular led to intense conversations and rising tensions. While they shared the identities of being Jewish and people of color, Davi also brought into the space her identity as a lesbian.

Davi sounding shofar in front of stained glass windows she've designed at BCCHome in Los Angeles, Davi belonged to the first LGBTQ+ synagogue in the United States. She had served as president and held this community incredibly close to her heart. At first, Davi didn’t know if she even wanted to participate in the Think Tank. She was especially hesitant that she would be accepted by more religiously observant Jews, given a lack of acceptance she had already experienced in the past. While this was Davi’s first time sharing space with other Jews of Color, she was for many, their first experience with a person who was LGBTQ+.

Davi building Sukkah at BCC

Davi building sukkah at her Synagogue Beth Chayim Chadashim

An overall theme of Davi’s experience with the Think Tank was gratitude. “I’m grateful because it forced me to do things I was uncomfortable with, like speaking in front of people. And I met Jews of Color I never otherwise would have. We knew we had to keep this going.” Over the course of their time together, the group shared stories, grappled with big Jewish questions, and brainstormed how to remove barriers and open people’s minds to the diversity of the Jewish community. With all the nuance of experiences, Davi said they left with a collective commitment to returning home and sharing everything they had learned with their communities.

While Davi is a proud Chinese and Jewish lesbian, she also emphasizes her identity as an accidental activist. “I can’t hide that I’m Asian. But while being Jewish and a lesbian are not visible, they are both integral to my identity. Sometimes my identities feel like they’re at odds with one another. My existence itself forces me to be an activist.”

All Love is equalIn 2004 while same-gender marriage was still illegal, Davi was an accidental activist. Davi and her spouse left their LA home at 2 a.m. to drive to San Francisco’s city hall for a marriage though it would later be annulled. She was an accidental activist when Prop8 was overturned in 2008 and she brought a chuppah to stand under at West LA City Hall. While there, an Asian reporter came up to her and asked her what she was doing. Davi recognized this as a moment where she needed to share her Jewish, Asian and lesbian identities with multiple communities. Davi was an accidental activist again when she was the only Asianynagogue president at a conference of 250 people. While her identities were never a choice, and her activism wasn’t intentional, Davi sees herself as a bridge to all of her communities.“While I had to be me, it didn’t always feel safe. The identities I hold have not always been accepted in my own multiple communities and cultures.”

Davi brings the wisdom and strength that come from being the first and the only time and time again. Reflecting on how herself and society have changed over the years, Davi stands as a hopeful leader for multiple communities. “I have big hopes. I just want peace in the world. I want there to not be infighting in the Jewish community. I lived a whole part of my life in hiding and in fear. It’s better now – there’s legalized same-gender marriage. There’s more knowledge of JOCs. There is a whole new generation of people like me, who I hope do not need to live in fear.” While the past was at times isolating, and she had to exist in communities that were not always yet ready for her, Davi’s willingness to be an accidental activist has helped create the future she once imagined.

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