Pathbreaking: Jew of color to lead diversity group Be'chol Lashon

Date18 January 2021
Publication Date18 January 2021
For two decades, Be'chol Lashon had pioneered programming by and for Jews of color. Inspired by a Hanukkah gathering of diverse Jews in the San Francisco area in December 2000, it launched a summer camp for young Jews of color, a curriculum for children on the topic, a blog elevating the voices of multiracial Jews and a diversity training and consulting program.

But as the movement the group launched took hold, its leadership increasingly looked out of step. The group was founded by Diane Tobin and her late husband Gary, white parents who wanted their Black child to know other Jews who were not white. They continued to helm the organization even as the number of groups representing Jews of color multiplied — and Jews of color took leadership roles.

Diane Tobin, now 68, saw that Be'chol Lashon wasn't leading national conversations about Jews of color anymore. So this summer, as the country reeled, she met with Marcella White Campbell, a longtime employee and Be'chol Lashon camp parent who is Black, to talk about handing over the reins of the organization.

Campbell, a veteran of Silicon Valley, was announced as the group's new executive director last week, in a release timed to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

"We felt that it was time to build on what Diane had done up to this point. Be'chol Lashon was all about creating community … but also about amplifying the voices of Jews of color, amplifying the visibility of Jews of color," Campbell told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "And so it seemed natural to then move on to handing leadership to Jews of color and seeing what we could do."

Campbell takes over at a moment of intense reckoning over race and inclusion for America and American Jews. She talked to JTA about the historic moment, her journey to Judaism and the work that white Jews need to do to be truly welcoming to Jews of color.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: What a time to start the job that you're starting. What were you feeling as you watched the violence at the Capitol?

Campbell: I took it very personally, actually. Both the racism and the anti-Semitism, I react to those as we should, with revulsion, but for me there's something about that happening at the Capitol. I'm a student of history — I bore my children with it all the time. When we went to Washington, D.C, several years ago, I dragged them to the Lincoln Memorial and made them look out at the reflecting pool and read all the words of the Gettysburg Address, because I really want them to understand that America is theirs. And that forcing America to look at these words and apply these words to everyone is how we become citizens, is how we cement our place in America, in the American story. I kept saying that to them when we were out on the Washington Mall: "This is yours, you need to understand that. America is yours in the same way that it's everyone else's."

So something about that crowd overrunning the Capitol — it felt like a violation. And for them to be bringing those symbols of hatred into that space that I tell the kids all the time is mine, and they're bringing those symbols in specifically to lay claim to it and exclude us on multiple levels — I found it really hurtful.

Do you feel any shred of hope that this could be a positive turning point in terms of the country's reckoning with racism?

I suppose there are many people who over the past several years have been able to discount what was going on in our country, to discount racism and anti-Semitism somehow — I guess because neither of those things really apply to them. But the starkness, the symbolism of seeing these people in the seat of government...

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