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.
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