Black Jewish History Month: Yavilah McCoy

Today in Black Jewish History Month,Yavilah McCoy.

How Are YOU Jewish: Matrilineal, Patrilineal, Frum-From-Birth

Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Jew, is the founder of Ayecha, a nonprofit organization providing educational resources for Jewish Diversity and advocacy for Jews of Color in the United States. She is a teacher, writer, editor, and diversity consultant. She has taught Judaic studies, Hebrew, and English literature in elementary and secondary schools.


In 2008, after directing Ayecha for eight years, Yavilah assumed the New England directorship of The Curriculum Initiative, (TCI), a non-profit educational consultancy that services close to 600 prep schools across the nation. Within TCI, McCoy works to expand awareness of Jewish identity and culture and empowers students to contextualize their Jewish journeys within the framework of leadership, citizenship, and pursuit of excellence in education.

In 2009, Yavilah McCoy co-wrote and performed “The Colors of Water,” an original theatrical piece that tells the story of the four generations of her African-American Jewish family, as part of Mayyim Hayyim’s Living Waters International Mikveh Conference in Newton, Massachusetts.

In a 2010 article, featured in the New Vilna Review, McCoy described what inspired her to create this piece:

“I have been an educator and activist within the Jewish professional community for close to twelve years now, and am constantly compelled and inspired by the potential for transformative change that diversity and inclusion work propels forward when it is done with grace, intention, forethought and an eye toward practical applicability. In writing this script with Anita Diamant and Janet Buchwald, I found an opportunity to share the unique experience of a multi-generational African-American Jewish family, and the faith and challenges that four different women experienced in regard to their Jewish communal participation and inclusion. This happens to be the story of the women in my matriarchal line, but the truth is that this could be the story of any Jewish family navigating the margins of community, and looking for an entry point that values both their diversity, history and their hope for a new Jewish future. The Colors of Water provides an exciting evening of edutainment, with moments that make the audience laugh, cry, and sit at the edge of their seats wondering where the journey will take us next.”

McCoy attended Jewish elementary and high schools, and studied at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

McCoy’s great-grandmother on her mother’s side, was inspired by the Bible to seek a relationship with [God]] that did not require her to go through a white Jesus to find salvation. “So she took off the shackle of Christianity, so to speak, and took on the religion of Israel,” McCoy said. “All she had to guide her was the Bible, so my great-grandmother developed an appreciation for the ethics and morality found in the stories of the people of Israel, and her songs were the songs of David.”

The family moved to Brownsville in Brooklyn, where Jews and blacks lived side by side. She says: “As a labor union organizer, my grandfather developed friendships with Jews and began to take on Jewish practices. While raising my mother’s family, he learned about kosher and observing the Jewish holidays. He would wear a yarmulke during labor actions and identified as a Jew among his colleagues. 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 and they raised my mother and her six siblings in the Brownsville community.”

McCoy’s father attended an Orthodox Yeshivah and converted to Orthodox Judaism in his early 20s. He later married her mother, who converted to Orthodox observance as well. McCoy and five siblings were raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in the East Flatbush and Crown Heights areas of Brooklyn.

Yavilah McCoy founded and directed Ayecha for eight years. With offices in New York City and St. Louis, Ayecha provided training and educational resources for building greater sensitivity toward differences in the Jewish community. The organization also served as a support group and network for Jews of color and multiracial families. McCoy says: “Ayecha taught people how to understand their Judaism through the lens of race, age, gender 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. McCoy said recent research estimates that there are about 20,000 Jews of color in the United States. In 2009, when asked by the Forward how she felt about being a representative for Jews of color, McCoy acknowledged her own accomplishments but also underscored the need for increased visibility and representation, within the media and Jewish leadership, of a spectrum of Jews of Color:

“I’ve stepped back from being “the one,” because in a way I had become an icon of this work. The idea of associating diversity with a person as opposed to it being a movement within the Jewish community was starting to bother me. So, I made the decision about a year ago to spend more of my time supporting fellow Jewish leaders of color so that when the conversation re-emerged, it would be a conversation along the lines of, maybe, 10 different stories instead of one.”

In 2010, when interviewed by the New Vilna Review, McCoy stated that present challenges to the Jewish community include the challenge of racism:

“One challenge that I address in [The Colors of Water] is racism. By virtue of the valuable strides that Jews in America have made since our initial immigration to these shores, we and our children are not as deeply connected to the issues of race and class that our history in this country ought to make us vested change agents against. We do a great job of celebrating the heroes among our ranks who marched in the Civil Rights movement and worked to make equal rights a constitutional reality, but in many cases, we have neglected the every-day work of not taking privilege and societal access for granted and doing what we can in our personal lives to stay connected to the issues of oppression that still plague so many other identity groups in our country. My Judaism fuels my connection to these issues, and it is my hope that through this show I can share some of the ways that my African-American family has been inspired to work for change through the Torah and Jewish tradition.”

McCoy’s husband is also African-American and Jewish, and the couple keeps kosher in their suburban Boston home with their four children, who attend a local Jewish day school.

This is Black Jewish History Month at Manishtana’s Musings.

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MaNishtana@manishtana.net

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