LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nate Looney is a black man who grew up in Los Angeles, a descendant of enslaved people from generations ago. He is also an observant Jew with skullcaps.
But he doesn’t always feel welcome in Jewish spaces – his skin color sometimes provokes questioning looks, suspicion and hurtful assumptions. Once he walked into a synagogue dressed for Shabbat in trousers and a buttoned shirt and was told to go to the kitchen.
“The last thing you want to happen when you go to a synagogue to attend a service,” Looney said, “is to be treated like you don’t belong there.”
Now, Looney is in a position to do something about it, having been named director of community, security and connectedness for the Jewish Equity Diversity and Inclusion team at the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, in April. He believes he can channel his painful personal experiences into healing divisions and shifting perceptions, and help turn a trip to the synagogue into a spiritual rather than a scarring encounter for Jews of color.
In this new role, Looney has dealt with the delicate task of drafting guidelines on how to welcome more Jews of color even as synagogues and community centers bolster security in the wake of recent attacks, including mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. . The concern is that such enhanced security increases the likelihood of ethnic profiling incidents affecting community members of color.
It is a relatively small but growing demographic. A Pew Center Survey in 2021 showed that only 8% of American Jews identify as Hispanic, Black or Asian, but that has nearly doubled to 15% among respondents aged 18 to 29. The poll also found that 17% said they live in a non-white or multiracial household.
Looney, 37, has lived a life that has taken several turns. He served in the military police as part of the Louisiana National Guard and spent nine months abroad training Iraqi police forces. He has worked in real estate and has even done urban farming, selling microgreens in local markets.
His spiritual journey began when he was 13 when a friend Looney, whose father was Baptist and mother was Episcopalian, asked about his own religion. Despite his family’s Christian faith, Looney said he never felt connected to it.
“I was stubborn that (Christianity) was not for me,” he said. “When I think about African slavery in America and how religion was something that was forced, I believed that the religion I practiced was not true to who my ancestors were.”
Looney embraced Judaism when he was a teenager, considering it a faith that gives believers permission to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions, even though he didn’t formally convert until age 26.
It was after the police murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020 that Looney began working with organizations to raise awareness about Jews of color. It was also during this time that JFNA launched its Diversity, Equality and Inclusion initiative.
Looney said Jews of color are often subjected to questions about their Jewish ancestry. Even if they’re well-intentioned, those questions can be painful because they immediately question their identities and imply they don’t belong there, he said.
Add to that the increased security in synagogues, and there is an even greater potential for people to feel different or unwelcome.
“How do you find a balance? You don’t want to exclude anyone, and yet you want to discern who comes in,” Looney said. “Cultural competence is important. The mere fact that someone comes in who is black shouldn’t sound like an alarm.”
He knows from personal experience. The morning of the October 27, 2018, mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Looney was unaware it had happened because he was not using his phone in connection with the Shabbat. Entering a synagogue, he got more questions and “a deeper investigation” from guards, and it was painful.
“If that was the first time I entered that community,” he said, “I would never have come back.”
The guidelines he is working on will be shared with Jewish federations in North America and, Looney hopes, implemented locally by synagogues and community centers. Only two months into his job, he says they are a work in progress but will continue to evolve over time.
One of the goals is to help security guards understand the diversity of the Jewish community more deeply, he said: “We’re starting to have these kinds of conversations and that’s a good start.”
Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, who founded the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Initiative and serves as JFNA’s public affairs adviser, said Looney’s professional experience as a military police officer and his experience as a Jewish person of color makes him uniquely qualified to drive inclusiveness as he develops. aware of the sensitive relationship between law enforcement and people of color.
“Security and closeness don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” says Rothstein, who is the son of a white father and black mother and has seen his darker relatives treated differently in synagogues. “Nate helps us bring an equity lens to ensure all our institutions are safe while creating a culture of belonging for all Jews and our loved ones.”
Sabrina Sojourner, an African-American Jewish chaplain at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington who met Looney five years ago during a leadership seminar, said people of color are “consciously and unconsciously profiled by white people” and that Looney’s role at the JFNA is crucial to help change assumptions about “who is the threat and who is not”.
“If you look at attacks on Jewish people and synagogues, they are not perpetrated by people of color,” Sojourner said. “Nate’s work is so important because it tells me that JFNA understands that if the most vulnerable people in our communities are not safe, our communities are not safe.”
Looney said another challenge is that anti-Semitism and racism tend to be compartmentalised.
“It’s a tough job to get people to understand that many of us have multiple identities and fit into both categories and that we’re all fighting against white supremacy,” he said.
Placing Jews of color in decision-making roles in Jewish spaces can help forge solidarity and bring awareness that “marginalized communities are stronger when they come together,” he added.
Rothstein believes Looney will make a big difference because “he is also a healer”. As an example, he cited a virtual JFNA event commemorating Martin Luther King Day in 2021 when Looney recited a prayer and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and often referred to as the “Black National Anthem.”
“Those three minutes felt like three hours and they felt like three seconds,” Rothstein said. “That’s how Nate holds herself. He is so accessible to people because of his heart. That’s because of the life he’s lived.”
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.