Nate Looney is a Black man who grew up in Los Angeles, a descendant of enslaved people from generations ago. He’s also an observant, kippah-wearing Jew.
But he doesn’t always feel welcome in Jewish spaces — his skin color sometimes elicits questioning glances, suspicions, and hurtful assumptions. Once, he walked into a synagogue dressed for Shabbat services in slacks and a buttoned-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 can do something about that, after being named to the new role of director of community, safety and belonging for the Jewish Equity Diversity and Inclusion team at the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, in April.
In this new role, Looney has been tackling the delicate task of producing guidelines on how to be more welcoming of Jews of color, even as synagogues and community centers strengthen security in the wake of recent attacks including mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. The concern is that such boosted security increases the likelihood of racial profiling incidents affecting congregants of color.
It’s a small but growing demographic. A Pew Center survey in 2021 showed just 8% of U.S. Jews identify as Hispanic, Black, or Asian, but that nearly doubled to 15% among respondents aged 18 to 29. The poll also found that 17% reported living in a nonwhite or multiracial household.
Looney, 37, says is spiritual journey began at 13 when a friend asked Looney, whose father was Baptist and mother was Episcopalian, about his own religion. Despite his family’s Christian faith, Looney said he never felt connected to it.
Looney embraced Judaism while still a teen because he viewed it as a faith that gives believers permission to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions, though he didn’t formally convert until age 26.
It was after the police killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning of summer 2020 that Looney began working with organizations to raise awareness about Jews of color. It was also during that time that JFNA launched its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative.
Looney said Jews of color are often subjected to questions about their Jewish origins. Even when well intentioned, those queries can be painful because they cast doubt on their identity right away and imply they don’t belong, he said.
Add to that the increased security at synagogues, and there’s even greater potential for people to feel othered or unwelcome.
“How do you strike a balance? You don’t want to exclude anyone, and yet you want to be discerning of who is coming in the door,” Looney said. “Cultural competency is important. Just the fact that someone who is Black is walking in shouldn’t raise alarms.”
He knows from personal experience. The morning of the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018, Looney was unaware it had taken place because he was not using his phone in observance of Shabbat. When he entered a synagogue, he got more questions and “experienced deeper scrutiny” from security guards, and it was painful.
“If that were my first time entering that community,” he said, “I would’ve never come back.”
The guidelines he is working on will be shared with Jewish federations across North America and, Looney hopes, implemented at the local level by synagogues and community centers. Just two months into his job, he says they are a work in progress but will continue to evolve over time.
One goal is to inculcate in security guards a deeper understanding of the diversity of the Jewish community, he said: “We’re starting to have these types of conversations and that’s a great beginning.”