The beginning of Be’chol Lashon was both serendipitous and intentional. In her role as president of the Jewish Community Center of Francisco, Be’chol Lashon’s founding director, Diane Tobin, attended the JWB Biennial in St, Louis in 1988. There she met presenter Gary Tobin, director of the Center of Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) at Brandeis University. They got married in 1991 and opened the Institute for Jewish & Community Research (IJCR) in San Francisco.
Their union brought Diane’s three and Gary’s two children together, and they decided to adopt and raise a child together. Having contacted Jewish Family and Children’s Services, they were chosen by an African American couple seeking a home for their yet unborn child. The stars aligned and Diane was lucky to witness the miracle of Jonah’s birth.
In 1997, Diane and Gary didn’t know any Black Jews, so they conducted the “Study of Ethnic and Racial Diversity of the Jewish Population of the United States” in 1999, which included a questionnaire and a series of focus groups. (Tobin, Tobin, & Rubin, 2005)
The initial programming in the San Francisco Bay Area was an outcome of this research. The focus groups brought diverse Jews together for the first time and the participants overwhelmingly wanted to meet again, some never having met other Jews like themselves. One of the primary findings was that multicultural Jews often experience a sense of isolation in an American Jewish community largely characterized by historic immigration from Eastern Europe despite a deep commitment to their Jewish identity. Be’chol Lashon was born at a seminal Hanukkah celebration at the Women’s Building in 2000.
Subsequent research in 2005 revealed that American Jews are more diverse than many assume, with 20% of America’s 6 million Jews or 1,200,000 having African American, Latino, Asian, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed race heritage.
The research also revealed that most diverse Jews desire events targeted to different parts of their identity, all equally important:
- Gatherings for Jews who share the similar heritage or experiences like African American Jews or transracial adoptees.
- Events where diversity is the norm, and not the exception. Some Bay Area Be’chol Lashon events were “by invitation only” for diverse Jews, their families and friends. Such events were an opportunity to see and interact with many different kinds of Jews, including those like themselves. Visual reinforcement is crucial for a positive sense of self.
- Other programs were open to the general public, casting a wide net. These events are typically co-sponsored with a variety of organizations. This serves the purpose of making mainstream organizations more accessible to diverse Jews, in addition to educating the Jewish community and the general public about Jewish diversity.