Rabbi Sholomo B. Levy speaks to guests about the Black-Jewish Alliance. Lehigh's Office of Jewish Student Life and the Office of Multicultural Affairs hosted “Restarting the Black-Jewish Alliance” on Feb. 21 in the Health, Science and Technology building. (Jackie Belkin/ B&W Staff)

Restarting the Black-Jewish Alliance


Many Black Jews in America today trace their origin to Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who founded the Harlem Ethiopian Rabbinical College in 1925. Rabbi Matthew was also the teacher of Rabbi Sholomo B. Levy’s father. 

On Feb. 21, Lehigh’s Office of Jewish Student Life and the Office of Multicultural Affairs hosted “Restarting the Black-Jewish Alliance” in the Health, Science and Technology building. Levy led the “courageous conversation,” discussing his experience as a Black Jew and the issues that divide Black and Jewish people today.

During the event, open to all students, faculty and local community members, Levy spoke about the history of Black Jews, the origin of antisemitism and the similarities between Jewish Zionism and Black Nationalism. 

Levy, who is now a history professor at Northampton Community College, entered the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in 1981 to continue his rabbinic studies while also pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College in Vermont. Upon graduation from Middlebury, Levy immediately enrolled in a master’s program at Yale in African American studies. In 2005, he received his master’s of philosophy degree from Columbia University in American history.

“As we celebrate Black History Month, we want to make sure that we show the gamut of what the culture is,” Robert L. Robinson, interim director for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, said. “We want to show the complexity of a broader culture.”

Levy said any admixture with groups that are not Caucasian excludes that group or person from being white, so by European standards, Jews are not white, until they come to America. 

On U.S. college and job applications, there is no separate category for Jewish people. Regardless of their Semitic ancestry, Jews are counted as Caucasians in America. 

“People tend to think of Jews as just a monolith, racial and ethnic homogeneous group, and that’s just not the case,” Tyler Katz, engagement and programming associate of the Office of Jewish Student Life, said. 

Katz said there are many different kinds of Jews from around the world. Aside from Ashkenazi Jews, there are Sephardic (Spanish,) Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Iranian and even Indian Jews. 

Levy said that the concept of a “homogenous” racial and ethnic group also applies to African Americans as well. 

“African Americans are not a monolithic group,” Levy said. “People have different views. You may not agree with Clarence Thomas because he’s a Black Republican. But, could you say he’s not Black anymore because he’s Republican? Or because he’s married to a white woman?”

Levy drove a conversation about how Jews are considered white in America. He explained that Ashkenazi Jews — who often have “white-passing” features — are the “elephant” in the room. 

Ashkenazi Jews are the largest ethnic group of Jews in the world, and often overpower other diverse Jewish communities.

Levy pointed to James Baldwin in this discussion, specifically referencing an essay in which Baldwin wrote, “Don’t blame Jews for wanting to be white.” He said while Baldwin argued being white is a choice and the price of whiteness is embracing racism against Black people, he said he believes Jewish and Black people must embrace their common ancestors as Semitic people who originally hail from Africa and East Asia. 

“Groups of people who have been abused over generations react in certain ways and attempt to be morally consistent,” Levy said. “So, you have to check your group bias. You may be Black, you may be Jewish, but as you apply your moral values, your political values and your religious values, apply them to every group, even your own.”

The idea of Zionism, or a Jewish state, comes from the desire of the Jewish people to have a nation to themselves — regardless of what Jewish community one stems from. Levy said this was the same principle that guided Black communities in the movement for Black Nationalism in the 20th century.

Levy quoted W.E.B. Du Bois, saying, “The African movement means to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews: the centralization of race effort, and the recognition of a racial front.” 

He also pointed out the more recent historical ties between the fight for antisemitism and Black rights, citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s display of support for Jewish people and Israel in the 1960s.

Levy said the goal of the event was to create a safe space for students, especially with the current tension in the Middle East.

“Reaching out to people, trying to build bridges of understanding, trying to bring about an appreciation and respect for all people, that is an act of radical love,” Levy said. “This is a safe space, where you can say whatever you want, whatever you genuinely feel, without fear of reprisal or recrimination.”

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