Nate Looney is a black man who grew up in Los Angeles, a descendant of enslaved people from generations ago. He is also observant, wearing a kippah.
But he does not always feel welcome in Jewish spaces – the color of his skin sometimes causes questioning looks, suspicions and offensive assumptions. Once he entered the synagogue, dressed for the Shabbat service, in slacks and a button-down shirt, and was told to go to the kitchen.
“The last thing you want to happen when you go to a synagogue to attend a service,” Looney said, “is to be treated like you don’t belong.”
Now Looney is in a position to do something about it after being named to the new role of director of community, safety and belonging on the Jewish Capital Diversity and Inclusion team at the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, in April. He believes he can channel his painful personal experiences into healing divisions and changing perceptions, and help make the trip to synagogue a spiritual, not a scarring, encounter for Jews of color.
In this new role, Looney takes on the delicate task of creating guidelines on how to be more welcoming to Jews of color, even as synagogues and community centers tighten security after recent attacks, including mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. The concern is that such heightened security increases the likelihood of incidents of racial profiling affecting congregants of color.
Looney, 37, has led a life that has passed several times. He served in the military police as part of the Louisiana National Guard and spent nine months overseas training Iraqi police forces. He worked in real estate and even dabbled in urban farming, selling micro-vegetables at local markets.
His spiritual journey began at 13 when a friend asked Looney, whose father is Baptist and whose mother is Episcopalian, about his own religion. Despite his family’s Christian faith, Looney said he never felt connected.
“I was adamant that (Christianity) wasn’t for me,” he said. “When I think about African enslavement in America and how religion was a violent thing, I believed that the religion I practiced was not true to my ancestors.”
Looney converted to Judaism as a teenager because he saw it as a faith that gave believers permission to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions, although he didn’t officially convert until he was 26.
Following the police killing of George Floyd and the racial unrest of the summer of 2020, Looney began working with organizations to raise awareness about Jews of color. It was also at this time that JFNA launched its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative.
Looney said Jews of color are often questioned about their Jewish origins. Even when well-intentioned, these inquiries can be hurtful because they cast doubt on their identity right away and imply that they don’t belong, he said.
Add to that the increased security in synagogues and there is an even greater opportunity for people to feel alienated or unwelcome.
“How do you strike a balance? You don’t want to exclude anyone, and yet you want to know who’s coming in the door,” Looney said. “Cultural competence is important. The mere fact that someone who is black is entering should not raise alarm.
He knows from personal experience. On the morning of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, Looney didn’t know it had happened because he wasn’t using his phone to observe Shabbat. When he entered the synagogue, he was asked more questions and “undergoed more thorough scrutiny” by security, and it was painful.
“If it was my first time coming into this community, I would never come back,” he said.
The guidelines he is working on will be shared with Jewish federations across North America and, Luney hopes, will be implemented locally by synagogues and community centers. Just two months into the job, he says they’re a work in progress, but will continue to evolve over time.
One goal is to instill in guards a deeper understanding of the diversity of the Jewish community, he said: “We’re starting to have these types of conversations, and it’s a great start.”
Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, who founded the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative and serves as JFNA’s public affairs advisor, said Looney’s professional experience as a military police officer and his lived experience as a Jew of color make him uniquely qualified to drive inclusion while also aware of the sensitive relationship between law enforcement and people of color.
“Safety and belonging should not be mutually exclusive,” said Rothstein, who is the son of a white father and a black mother and has seen his darker-skinned relatives treated differently in synagogues. “Nate is helping us bring an equity perspective to ensure all of our institutions are safe and secure while creating a culture of belonging for all Jews and our loved ones.”
Sabrina Sojourner, an African-American Jewish chaplain at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C., who met Looney at a leadership seminar five years ago, said people of color are “consciously and unconsciously profiled by white people” and Looney’s role in JFNA is critical to helping transform assumptions about “who is a threat and who is not.”
“If you look at the attacks on Jews and synagogues, they were not committed by people of color,” Sojourner said. “Nate’s work is so important because it tells me that JFNA understands that if the most vulnerable people in our communities are not safe, our communities are not safe.”
Looney said another challenge is that anti-Semitism and racism tend to be separated.
“It’s hard work to get people to understand that many of us have multiple identities and fit into both categories, and that we’re all fighting against white supremacy,” he said.
Placing Jews of color in decision-making roles in Jewish spaces can help build solidarity and lead to the realization that “marginalized communities are stronger when they come together,” he added.
Rothstein believes Looney will make a big difference because “he’s also a healer.” As an example, he cited a virtual JFNA event honoring Martin Luther King Day in 2021, when Looney recited a prayer and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and often called the “Black National Anthem.
“Those three minutes felt like three hours and three seconds,” Rothstein said. “That’s how Nate acts. He is so accessible to people because of his heart. It comes from the life he lived.”
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