For Some Blacks, Judaism is Home

For Some Blacks, Judaism is Home

Converts assume leadership roles in Arlington synagogue

Tammy Duprey, a genial black woman, hands worshippers their tickets as they stream into the Etz Hayim synagogue for Yom Kippur services last week, wishing them a pleasant fast.

Duprey is a devoted member of the Arlington congregation, attending every Sabbath and teaching at the synagogue’s Hebrew school.

“I’ve always been a seeker of knowledge,” said the 36-year-old, who converted to Judaism five years ago. “In my soul I was born Jewish. Everything finally made sense. Here I found a home.”

Etz Hayim has a long tradition of being a progressive house of worship and attracts those seeking an intimate atmosphere and an eclectic membership. The synagogue is led by one of the few female rabbis in Northern Virginia, Rabbi Lia Bass. An estimated one-quarter of the members are converts and in the mid-1990s the congregation had a black president.

“We cherish the fact that we have people from diverse backgrounds and it adds to the richness of our congregation,” said Etz Hayim President Jonathan Wroblewski.

Terry Leach, an associate on the synagogue’s board of directors, is black, as is Rhonda Bell — who is in the process of converting. The congregation also has several Asian-American members in addition to a plethora of white Christian converts.

“The image most Americans have of Jews is white Eastern Europeans. They don’t have an idea of the multicultural nature of the religion,” said Leach, who has been an Arlington resident for a decade and converted to Judaism two years ago.

RAISED BY A CATHOLIC FATHER and Anglican mother, Duprey’s family only attended church “for weddings and funerals.” When she was a child living in Heidelberg, Germany, where her dad was stationed by the army, she first became interested in Judaism while reading books on the Holocaust. Duprey attended a year of Hebrew school and said she might have converted then if the military chaplain had had the authority to perform the complex ceremonies.

In her teenage years and early twenties she continued to practice Judaism on her own but became something of a religious “shopper,” attending Mormon and Islamic services and dabbling in Buddhism.

Duprey became an observant, though unofficial, Jew when she moved to Northern Virginia in 1996, praying daily in her house, keeping kosher and refusing to drive on the Sabbath.

She began attending services at Agudas Achim, a synagogue in Alexandria seven years ago and subsequently began the arduous, two-year conversion process.

“There was a need for me to convert,” said Duprey, who works as a management analyst for the Navy. “I had been a fellow traveler for so long and everyone saw me as Jewish. But there was still a barrier.”

There is no synagogue in Fredericksburg for Bell to attend, so she also observed the Jewish holidays at home. After her divorce, Judaism helped Bell get her life back on track and she began commuting to Arlington to attend Etz Hayim. Next month the 40-year-old Bell is expected to complete the conversion process.

“Judaism is about community and when I first came here I felt at home,” said Bell, who began practicing Judaism as a 14-year-old in Jacksonville, N.C., against the wishes of her mother, who was a member of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.

MEMBERS OF ETZ HAYIM have been thrilled with the contributions of the three black converts, citing their dedication to the congregation and enthusiasm for learning more about Jewish customs.

“It’s wonderful that they have explored other religions and choose Judaism,” said Ann Schwartz Unitas, who also lauded Duprey’s work as a teacher.

The support of friends and family has helped eased the transition for Duprey, though her father remains wary of all formal religious involvement, she said. Leach’s non-Jewish friends encouraged him to convert, constantly telling him “since you go to synagogue every week you should convert.”

But black converts to Judaism can face ostracism from the African-American community and subtle discrimination as a double minority.

Many of Bell’s black friends are confused by her impending conversion and don’t fully comprehend that Judaism is her new “way of life.” One black friend recently asked, “haven’t our people been through enough persecution?”

Bell said she senses a mix of puzzlement and indirect racism from segments of the population when she is performing a Jewish ritual in public. Leach has found himself in several tense situations because of his staunch defense of Israel, and is dismayed that he always has to be on guard for anti-Semitic comments by people who do not know he is Jewish.

Though there have been historic tensions between Black and Jewish communities, the two ethnic groups have a long history of collaboration, from the days of abolition to the civil rights movement. Though fellow blacks are often surprised to learn Duprey is Jewish, she tells them the two traits are not conflicting.

“Blacks and Jews have a lot in common,” Duprey said. “We’ve both continued to survive after lots of opportunities when we could have been killed off.”

At the end of Yom Kippur services Bell and several young white couples converse in the lobby. An adopted Chinese toddler runs through the crowd, as they discuss how they will manage not eating for 24 straight hours.

“Judaism is a color-blind faith,” Bell said. “As long as you believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph it doesn’t matter what you look like.