Yaffy Newman Discusses Being A Black Person in the Modern Orthodox Community

By: Shayna Herszage  |  June 18, 2020

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

In contribution to recent international dialogue about racial discrimination, the Yeshiva University undergraduate Office of Student Life hosted an event with Yaffy Newman, a Black Jewish woman, as the speaker. The event was held over Zoom on June 17, and about 50 people were in attendance.

Newman, who now lives in Jerusalem with her husband, grew up in a Modern Orthodox community in the United States. While she grew up attending Jewish day schools and has always been involved in the Jewish community, she explained in the event that she often encounters microaggressions due to her race. For example, people assume she is not Jewish or as familiar with Jewish concepts and prayers as her peers.

While discussing her experiences, Newman said, “I have learned that everyone grows up with bias.” She expressed that all people have their initial responses to those who are different. However, if people address these biases within themselves, she believes that the negative impact of prejudices can be lessened.

Newman stated that people can work on their biases through education and exposure. If people take the time to meet People of Color, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and acknowledge that their skin color is a part of their identity without considering their ethnicity a negative trait, people’s biases may be weakened. Additionally, through reading books, watching movies, and consuming other forms of factual media about Black history, people can learn more about how Black and non-Black people have interacted in the past, and consider how that impacts the present, and how that differs from an ideal future. Newman expressed that it is more helpful to acknowledge, embrace, and celebrate people’s differences than it is to attempt to ignore what shapes a person’s identity.

When asked if it is the responsibility of non-Black Jewish people in the United States to care about Black people, Newman responded that Jewish people should fight for racial equality. She added that, much like the concept in Judaism that tzedakah (charity) begins with one’s community, it is important that non-Black Jewish people understand that Black people are a part of the community; and, as such, non-Black Jewish people should consider the cause as one that is important in the world around them.

During the event, a student inquired about Newman’s thoughts regarding the Jewish people who express discomfort at the idea of supporting the Black Lives Matter organization due to their anti-Zionist values. In response, Newman said that people are not, by any means, obligated to support the organization if it makes them uncomfortable. “Black Lives Matter is a part of the movement, but it is by no means the be-all, end-all of fighting racism,” Newman responded. “People do not have to support the organization to support change and be an anti-racist.” 

The event showed many students the importance of educating oneself in order to decrease the effects of learned bias. “As Jew[s] … we have the responsibility to pursue peace and love among everybody — and understanding the facts is an important way of getting there,” said recent graduate Talya Hyman (SCW ‘20).

For others, the event inspired them to continue thinking about the topic of racism in the Jewish community. “Listening to Yaffy was really eye-opening for me because I realized that even things that many wouldn’t consider racist can still be very hurtful,” Shlomit Ebbin, SCW ‘22, expressed to the YU Observer. “With her story and advice in mind, I left the Zoom thinking about how we can combat racism within the orthodox Jewish community.”

Newman hopes that, after non-Black people hear stories like hers, “[P]eople will be able to open themselves up emotionally to the point of being able to hear and care about an experience that isn’t their own. … Being flippant about the often poor treatment and negative words surrounding people of color only further hurts those outside the Jewish community who are Black, and on a more painful note is excruciatingly painful to those who are both Black and Jewish. It hurts those outside since it reinforces an overall dismissive treatment of issues surrounding racism and allows others to continue treating them wrongly. Furthermore, in terms of [Jews of Color], it serves to further remind them how few in their Jewish communities are interested in noticing or giving attention to their pain coming from their communities. Even if our communities are not able to collectively move towards a place of sensitivity, higher awareness and change over racism, our communities should do their absolute best to at the very least make sure those within our community who are both Black and Jewish feel accepted and part of the fold. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And that should stand regardless of the color of skin we were born with.”