Yavilah McCoy has a story to tell that spans generations

She’s African-American and she’s Jewish
Yavilah McCoy has a story to tell that spans generations.

The Kansas City Star


Most people are unaware of someone like Yavilah McCoy: an African-American and a fourth-generation Jew.

“People are surprised to find a Jew of color,” said McCoy, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in a heavily Jewish area of Brooklyn.

Wherever she is, McCoy said, she has to explain to African-Americans that being Jewish doesn’t necessarily mean being white. And Jews want to know how she can be Jewish and African-American. 

Her story begins with her great-grandmother on her mother’s side, who, when growing up in Virginia, was influenced by Marcus Garvey. He led a crusade for black nationalism in the 1920s.

What especially grabbed her grandmother was the notion that blacks in America needed to investigate their African origins and that they had a relationship with God that didn’t have to go through a white Jesus, McCoy said.

“So she took off the shackle of Christianity, so to speak, and took on the religion of Israel,” she said. “All she had was the Bible. So most of my great-grandmother’s songs were the songs of David.”

The family moved north to the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, where Jews and blacks lived side by side, she said.

“My grandfather started developing friendships with Jews and started to take on Jewish practices as he moved up through the labor and justice movement. He started to learn about kosher and observing the Jewish holidays. He would wear a yarmulke and really started to identify as a Jew.

“In the 1940s and ’50s, there were a number of people of color who identified with Judaism in Brownsville, many for similar reasons as those that drew my grandmother to the faith of the people of Israel in the ’20s and ’30s. When my grandfather met my grandmother, she took on his way of life.”

In her grandparents’ home, McCoy’s mother grew up with a strong Jewish identity; her parents bought kosher meat and observed the Jewish holidays, she said. McCoy’s father converted to Orthodox Judaism in his early 20s and later married her mother, who converted to Orthodox observance as well.McCoy attended Jewish elementary and high schools and studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She holds a degree in English education and Judaic studies and has taught Judaic studies, Hebrew and English literature in elementary and secondary schools during the last 10 years. She is now a teacher, writer, editor, diversity consultant and founder and director of Ayecha, which provides training and educational resources to build greater sensitivity toward differences in the Jewish community.

Her husband is also African-American and Jewish, and the couple keeps kosher in their St. Louis home with their three children, who attend a local Jewish day school.

When people meet her, she said, most are unaware that there are many other people like her. She said recent research estimates that there are about 200,000 Jews of color in the United States.

Wanting to find other Jews like herself, McCoy set up a Web site and heard from about 100 people in about a month. She raised money and held a weekend program.

“People then wanted to have some organization that would advocate for our needs and teach the larger community that we existed,” she said.

This was the beginning of her nonprofit organization, Ayecha, with offices in New York City and St. Louis.

“Our mission is to show Jews as multidimensional and multicultural,” she said. “We teach people how to understand their Judaism through the lens of race, age and economic status. When most people think of Jewish, they think white and they think European. But Jews of color have been alive and well for thousands of years in parts of the world.”

The organization also serves as a support group and network for Jews of color and multiracial families, she said.

Read the full story at the Kansas City Star:



6 comments so far

  1. kosheroreo on

    Yavilah talked Sept. 13 about her experiences to a Kansas City crowd as part of the 12th Yad B’yad Enrichment Series held at the JCC there and sponsored by the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas. Someone who attended the event sent me an email saying, “Ms. McCoy was under the microscope regarding her Jewish-ness” during the event attended by more than 100 white Jews and a handful of People of Color. “Many Jews thought she may sing gospel that speaks of Jesus Christ. The running joke was, do you think she will sing Amazing Grace in Hebrew,” the person wrote to me.
    This is basically what I replied to that person:
    It is interesting that the Jews at that event thought Yavilah would sing Christian songs….especially given her strong Jewish upbringing. It’s not like she converted at age 30 after creating several gospel CDs of Christian music. She was born a Jew, raised in an extremely religious environment and probably knows her religion in and out more so than most of those attendees, yet still they want to suggest an undertone in Christianity about her just because of the color of skin. It is sad. — Sheree, BAJ Editor.

  2. Timothy on

    Jesus is a Jew. So why are the calling him a white man? I am confused about that.

  3. Shelly B. on

    Racism exist everywhere. I experience at all the time at the JCC Houston where I am very active.
    I even get questioned if I am a Muslim or spy to my face because I cover my head with African fabric. Even a coworker was surprised that I have been to a Bat Mitzvah and a Bris. People act surprised because I have multiple degrees and have a better speech pattern them most of our leaders.

    I wish people would judge people on their character and not the color of their skin. I know that that is impossible because if that were the case our leadership would be different.

    email me with any questions –
    all one word but spaced for bots.
    shelly of utsa atsymbol yahoo dotsymbol com

  4. Ogarth A. Drummond on

    Hello Sister Yavilah,

    I need a email address so that I can send
    you a preview on my works for publication. I have read that
    The Ayesha Resource Organization is dedicated to educating
    Rabbis, Jewish Educators, and others about the racial diver-
    sity within Judaism….and is a advocate of Jewish multi-
    culturalism. My work covers a certain spectrum on the historical “Antiquicy” of Jews of Color…beginning with
    72 Syrians who went down into Egypt…From Babylon to Tim-
    buktu, thereby making a certain leverage to the uneducated
    on such subject, why Jews of Color should not be uncommon
    to the world had they had the proper education…whereby at
    the same time creates an atomsphere of ease for Jews of
    Color who have been feeling relatively uncomfortably.

    Please email me so that arrangements could be made for you
    to preview my work.

    Ogarth A. Drummond
    Please email me at:(inrip@live.com)

    It is my hope that this work will be of help to your cause !

  5. Ogarth A. Drummond on

    From Ogarth A. Drummond
    (Yoseph Wolde Haimanot)

    Dear Yavilah and family,

    I did send you a synopsis of my literary
    works (excerpts of a book currently in making) concerning
    Jews of Color dealing with the historical references about
    them, From Babylon To Timbuktu, From Pompey to Julius,from
    the dispersion from Vespasian to the massive migration to
    the African continent, and from there to the Americas.
    Along with the synopsis of the literary works, I have also
    sent graphic illustrations, however I did not get any response. As I have stated in my previous message above, it
    is my hope that this work will be of help to your cause, etc., etc.,etc., could you please give me a feed-back.

    Thank You,
    Ogarth A. Drummond
    9 South Road
    Kingston 10, Jamaica W.I.

  6. Faye Chandler on

    Shalom Yavilah,

    I want to say that I was so glad to read this article and find your site. I have been searching for a way to contact other Jews of color and speak with them. I have Jewish ancestry on both my father and mother’s sides of the family, stretching back to my great-great grandparents. I am a little miffed at the greater Jewish community for treating their darker counterparts with such contempt. (I guess that is the right word.) Assuming that the only way a darker skinned person can be Jewish is through conversion! What is it that causes the European Jew to believe they have the sole rights of saying they are authentic?! Is being Jewish determined by the color of our skin, or the bridge of our noses?! We are what we are. I have met many of black persons who are Jewish or have deep hidden Jewish ancestry, and they are looking to find more answers to their history but they hit brick walls when speaking with “white Jewish community.” They are questioned as to how do they know if they are “really Jewish” or given suspicious looks to say silently,” you are lying about who and what you are.” This places a deep hurt within us who are searching and seeking. Sometimes, it causes a person to stop looking because they no longer want to go through the pain of knowing who they are.

    I believe that if the greater Jewish community opened their eyes and studied the scriptures as intently as they say they do, they would be shown the reality of the color of the first Hebrews. Where was father Avraham originally from? The land of Ur. And where was Ur located? Exactly. Hmm…. There is a lot of history that everyone, including the black Jews, wants to hide from. But the hidden truths will be revealed to everyone. Eventually.

    Thank you for allowing me to write and share,

    Faye Chandler

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