Be’chol Lashon Celebrates First JOC BMitzvah

For Young Jews of Color Community Helps Build Identity

On June 18th, 2022 Be’ chol Lashon celebrated the group B’ Mitzvah of the first JOC B’ Mitzvah Cohort. The ceremony, officiated by Rabbi Isaama Goldstein-Stoll, served as the culmination of the cohort’s months of collective Torah study, exploration of what it means to become a B’ Mitzvah, and conversations about intersectional identity. For three of the participants, the ceremony marked the first time they were officially called to the Torah as a B’ Mitzvah. 

In addition to having their first aliyah and mellifluously reading/chanting Torah, several of the participants shared a speech reflecting on what it means to become a B’ Mitzvah as a Jew of Color and how they understand their Jewish identity. Below are Rabbi Isaama’s reflections and a selection from the participants.

As Rabbi Isaama explains:

“ The participants in this cohort fully embraced the opportunity to bring all of their identities into their Jewish learning. Together they bonded over shared experiences: for some the experience of interfaith family, for others the dynamics of inter-racial adoption, for all the experience of knowing few other Jews that look like them.

We live our lives as whole people and practice Judaism in a way that is influenced by all of our other identities and experiences. By carving out some time and space for personal reflection and identity exploration, we have allowed these young people to imagine and demand a Jewish future for themselves in which they are not required to compromise any part of themselves for the sake of belonging. To the contrary, they have come to see how much richer their understanding of Torah and connection to Judaism can be when they bring their whole selves to the table. Ultimately, the JOC B’ Mitzvah experience helps prepare these young JOC to embrace self-acceptance, pursue knowledge, and love being Jewish.”

It is our pleasure to share the B’ Mitzvah speeches from some of our participants:

Sylvie TansmanSylvie Tansman, Age 13, Berkeley, California:

Before I start my speech I would like to thank Rabbi Isaama for helping me to think about what it means for me to be Jewish and to be a Jew of color. Personally, I don’t think there is a difference between the two.

Before I went to Camp Be’chol Lashon, in the summer of third grade, I had only been friends with one other Jew of color in my community, and it was not something we talked about. Sometimes our families lit Shabbat candles and sang the blessings together. And then I went to camp. When I first got to the camp, I just saw a group of kids of color having a good time, and I started making friends. On the first evening, when we sang the blessings before the meal, I started to really understand that this was a Jewish camp. It was nice to be in a group of people that I could identify with.

We were in nature, and I was away from my parents for the first time. With my new friends, we went to the lake every day, went swimming and rowing, and we would listen to music and dance. I learned songs in Hebrew, and singing them together with my friends felt special.

It was a great experience, and I go back there every year.

But for me, I still think the most important thing is to be who I am in this world, and it is both complicated and very simple: I am Jewish, I am American, I am of Mexican and African descent. I am proud of it all, but most of all I want to be a person in the world who makes a difference.

I would like to help make a world where everybody can get a well paying job, and there are lots of opportunities for everyone. No one would be homeless and no one would be hungry. Most of all, I would like to help make a more just world, where people are not separated according to their ethnicity or race, but get to choose their friends because of their character and their personality, and be chosen by others for the same reasons.

I would like to thank everyone who has joined us here today. In particular I would like to thank my family for all the ways they support and encourage me including providing me with this Jewish education.”

Claire WiseClaire Wise, Age 13, Milwaukee, Wisconsin:

My family may not look like your typical Jewish family. I come from an inter-racial multi-faith family (meaning we aren’t the most Jewish people in the word). I remember the first time I went to a Shabbat service and I was in 3rd grade. It was a more kid-friendly Shabbat called “PJ Shabbat”, meaning all the kids came dressed in Pajamas. I had by the end of Shabbat had organized all the smaller children into musical chairs. At the end of the Shabbat service I had lost my stuffed animal that had been given to me as a part of the Shabbat. The Rabbi at the time, Rabbi Noah, had come over and sat with me and found me a new stuffed animal. That kindness led us to keep coming to the services. Something there had made me want to come back more and more and more. As we kept going to Shabbat, kiddush club, and other events I realized I liked it more and more. I wanted to be more involved in services and learn more about the Jewish community. I took the initiative and asked my dad if we could start a religious school. He said yes and we began going. Every single Sunday from the middle of the year and then Covid came along.

During Covid, we quickly learned that religious school with three other kids running around the house wasn’t going to fly. After we figured that out I still didn’t want to lose touch with the Jewish community so, I would watch videos from the past/present remembering all the songs that I had learned pre-covid. Covid, despite being one of the things that turned our world upside down, had made me realize some values I had and one of them was Judaism.

Jewish values are my values and after my Bat Mitzvah I want to be even more involved. I want my community to be more diverse. I want to see more people like me in the Jewish community. I want a Judaism, which in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, prays with its feet. I want to see more Jewish communities being brave and being bold. But, most importantly I want my Jewish communities to be leaders.

I want to specifically thank the JOC B’mitzvah Project and Be’chol Lashon for being a part of making our Jewish community ours and helping us value our Jewish heritage. I also want to personally thank everyone for coming to this B’mitzvah and for making it a priority. My final thank you goes out to my family, Rabbi Issama, and Rabbi Noah for making me want to continue to be involved.

Isabella Coles-Campion, Age 13, Baltimore, Maryland:

I was born into an interfaith and interracial family which means we are always in between. Personally, I have never paid much attained to it until I started school. In school, people would always say how lucky I was that I got to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas.

Being young I never really acknowledged what it meant to be a Jew of Color. But I didn’t really get the full experience until I went to the JCC. At the Jewish Community Center, I had a two-week experience where I had a range of classes and activities from learning about the culture of Israel to learning how to attach myself to a zipline. But my favorite part was Shabbat. Every Friday we would gather in the gym. Depending on the Friday we would chant the blessing or we would gather around and sing to the guitar. Then for a treat after we would have a piece of bread topped with marshmallow fluff and chocolate hazelnut spread.

Being at the camp helped me to understand what it meant to be a Jew, especially one of Color because no matter where I turned I was also welcomed and never looked at funny or asked uncomfortable questions. When there was a question about my identity it was simply out of curiosity and not to be funny or spiteful. What I’m trying to say is with the help from the JCC and the experience that they gave me plus the JOC B’Mitzvah program and the help from Rabbi Isaama got me to the finish line of understanding my place in Judaism.

Read more on these topics:

Related Articles

A Japanese Bar-Mitzvah Boy Comes of Age in Israel

A Japanese Bar-Mitzvah Boy Comes of Age in Israel

JOC B’Mitzvah Pilot Program

JOC B’Mitzvah Pilot Program

My Unexpectedly Perfect Bat Mitzvah

My Unexpectedly Perfect Bat Mitzvah

JOC B’Mitzvah Project Overview

JOC B’Mitzvah Project Overview