Emerging leader is ‘superstar for racial and social justice’
Yehudah Webster is black, Jewish, and a ‘fighter for liberation’
Ablack Guyanese “preacher’s kid” who grew up in New Jersey has been lauded as “a Jewish superhero for racial and social justice” by The New York Jewish Week.
Among the honorees in the 2017 edition of the newspaper’s annual “36 Under 36” section — highlighting young activists who have demonstrated “unique initiative, creativity, and leadership” — is Yehuda Webster, 24, a committed community organizer from Newark whose passion for promoting racial justice is fueled by his Jewish idealism.
The newspaper, owner and publisher of NJJN, has been issuing “36 Under 36” for a decade.
Webster is the son of former evangelical Christians from Guyana who left the Worldwide Church of God, converted to Judaism in 2000, moved to Orange when Yehudah was seven, and joined the Conservative Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.
His father, Moriyah, was a pastor in the church before his conversion.
“Even though my dad became Jewish, I was still a preacher’s kid…and very much indoctrinated in the lifestyle of building a stronger community of liberation,” Webster told NJJN. “Having the unique experience of being an African-American growing up in the white Jewish community in New Jersey, being entrenched in the Conservative youth movements, and a member of a white Jewish Boy Scout troop, the bottom line is that I see a certain purpose, a calling, to move me to action.”
His commitment to the life of an activist, he said, is strengthened by his membership in two worlds apart from mainstream, white Christianity.
“I am unapologetically both black and Jewish,” identities that, he said, “are not mutually exclusive. Racism is everywhere. Unfortunately that virus has infected all of our communities, including black communities. It goes both ways.”
His work — which spans both communities — begins with mornings at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, where he works part-time as coordinator of a program whose aim is “building egalitarian leadership and its justice task force among 40 religious organizations around the JTS campus in Morningside Heights and Harlem.”
But, said Webster, his main “bread and butter” comes from being a founding member of the B’nai Mitzvah Campaign (BMC). According to its website, the tutoring service “provides a meaningful learning experience to Jewish adulthood” through working with families who seek “an alternative b’nai mitzvah ceremony experience” or those who are unaffiliated with synagogues.
Webster acts as what the BMC calls its “master of ceremonies” in non-traditional observances that use the arts — notably music and dance — and, he added, “of course, our natural Jewish humor.”
“So many families hold the bar and bat mitzvahs to a very high standard in the Jewish life-cycle, so we thought we could make the learning process much more meaningful and relevant to the modern sensibilities of our students,” he said.
His evenings are spent as an organizer for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, where, he said, “I found my voice making sure that the white Jewish community is committed to the fight for black lives and people of color in an American context.”
He is a strong supporter of the Blacks Lives Matter movement in New York. Asked about a separate organization, the Movement for Black Lives, which published a policy position in August 2016 calling Israel an “apartheid state,” he said, “People may feel that pain, but we don’t get to give up our work” in fighting racism.
“I am very much against state-sponsored oppression in any context in America, in Israel, or in Palestine. I must stand on the side of the people who fight for liberation,” he declared.
In a sense, Webster is a man who brings his work home from the office. He lives in the Moishe House in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, one of 101 such homes in 25 countries which offer communal living experiences for young Jewish leaders.
One of his four fellow residents, however, is not Jewish, and, he said, “that’s OK because the Moishe House model is building around folks who are passionate about upholding Jewish community. It is a beautiful thing that you don’t necessarily have to be Jewish to further the mission of what it means to be a Moishe House resident.”
He said the residents’ interests and passions “are focused on organizing around justice and making room for folks of all perspectives on different issues.”
“Given the political climate of the Trump administration, we share in honest dialogue and try to get an understanding of one another and the opinions we hold,” he said.
As a teenager, Webster had considered becoming a rabbi, but, he said, such a path “is not on my priority list right now.” Although he wants “to pursue justice work incorporating elements of my Judaism with my life, I don’t only want to organize as a member of the clergy or as a Jewish leader.”
While rabbis “can really help the Jewish community in working for racial justice,” he has set his sights on a more diverse target; “my work is not only with Jews of color but with Christians, Muslims, and others who are not necessarily religious.”