Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Spiritually Rooted: Yehudah Webster on Faith, Race, and Activism

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Spiritually Rooted: Yehudah Webster on Faith, Race, and Activism

Article excerpt

Community organizer and political activist, Yehudah Webster, works to inspire and empower the Jewish community to join the modern-day fight for civil rights. As a volunteer organizer for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, Webster supports the police accountability and Black Lives Matter campaigns through organizing meaningful actions and lobbying for legislative reform. He is a resident of Moishe House in Park Slope, Brooklyn, organizing seven events per month for Jews in their 20s and 30s. Webster primarily works as director of the B'nai Mitzvah Campaign, an innovative bar/bar mitzvah tutoring company that provides meaningful learning experience to students on their journey to Jewish adulthood.

Yehudah Webster is a man of true faith. It is not that he does or says all the right things, nor is he an angel with some special long-distance calling code to heaven. Neither a naïve child nor a crazy grown man, Webster is simply a man who believes.

The child of a Black American father and Guyanese mother, Webster was born "Wesley Webster" on 30 October 30 1992 in suburban New Jersey. His father was a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor, and Webster's early life was filled with dreams of one day leading a church just like his dad. However, when Webster was four-years-old, the family's religious life began to change. "The whole thing started when my father decided he needed to read the Old Testament in it's original language," Webster said nonchalantly, as if this was a thought that goes through everyone's head. "That's when we began learning Hebrew. We were living in North Carolina at the time and got all the pronunciation wrong, but we did our best teaching ourselves."

Soon enough, Webster's parents were on what he refers to as "a fast track to Jewish self-discovery." Beyond simply learning biblical language, they were reading Jewish history and trying to understand "where Africans fit into the Jewish narrative" through their travel to Africa and the Middle East. By the late '90s, the family had left the church Webster's father once helped lead and moved to a farm in Guyana with neither running water nor electricity. Webster identifies that as the moment when "we really did away with Jesus and started identifying as Jewish." Rural Guyana is an unusual place to become Jewish, but given the family's unique trajectory, it is perhaps a natural one.

Webster has been profoundly shaped by this early search for religious meaning. His parents were looking for what he calls "the good news," no matter the sacrifice, and that has given him a sense there is no distance too vast to travel in pursuit of spiritual guidance if enlightenment lies on the other side.

Jews of color like Webster make up a sizable portion of the Semitic world. Because simplistic definitions of race are increasingly fraught, accurate statistics are hard to come by. Nonetheless, Be'chol Lashon and the Institute for Jewish Community Research (two organizations that analyze Jewish diversity) estimate that between 10 and 20 percent of American Jews are people of color.1 Yet, black and brown Jews are often overlooked when Americans of all races and political affiliations engage with Jewish people. Jews and Gentiles alike still tend to conjure up lazy stereotypes when they think about Jews and race, images that probably look more like Nazi propaganda than anything else. In reality, Jews are a fairly diverse group and Webster is not as much of an outlier as most would assume.

Nonetheless, suspicion of Webster's religious authenticity has come into play throughout his life. On birthright, he felt he had to lie about his identity to be allowed entrance to Jerusalem's Western Wall, one of Judaism's most sacred sites. On that same trip, an Orthodox shop owner admonished him for donning tefillin, pulling the black leather straps often worn by religious Jewish men from Webster's arms and chasing him out of the store. "No one else would ever face these circumstances," Webster said when describing his time in Israel. …

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