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Footsteps of faith: Black Jewish Hoosiers

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Willaine St. Pierre remembers being just twelve years and going up against a Christian youth pastor to defend her faith at a convention.

The pastor was teaching the youth group about the rapture when he mentioned something about Jews.

“My mom was Jewish in the strictest of the orthodox faith. They believe if your mom is Jewish, you’re Jewish. I was born in Haiti, and she was a third generation Haitian Jew.

My father was a Christian pastor,” said Pierre, who is on the board of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

RELATED: Black Jewish leader works to boost community, inclusiveness

“So, they did not want his church to know that my mom was letting us practice Judaism. We moved to New York where my father’s church was. I got in trouble quite a few times because I would obviously have different opinions.”

Pierre remembers the youth pastor telling her she was pretty vocal about defending the Jewish faith.

She was steadfast in telling others what she did and did not believe.

“When I got home, my dad said he got a phone call from this pastor that said I needed to be forced to convert because I’m going to hell. My dad, who was also a psychologist, sat me down and told me it was my right to choose,” said Pierre.

Ira Mallory was raised Methodist.

He grew up Christian within his mother’s household.

“But she always encouraged us to be open minded and to seek our own journey. So, at around fifteen years old, she took me to a synagogue, which is actually the same synagogue I go to now, which is the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation,” said Mallory.

“I was a big fan of Dr. Cornel West, and he was a guest speaker at the synagogue. Part of his conversation was centered around the relationship between Black American society and Jewish society in America.”

Mallory said being there, seeing the Torah and hearing songs sung in Hebrew really left an impression on him.

He continued going to church as a teenager, but when he turned twenty-two his mother passed away.

Her death left him questioning life.

“I was very distraught while losing my mom. It was sort of what you would call mad at God, you know, for taking my mother. A part of the process of healing and dealing with those emotions was introducing myself to Judaism and getting familiar with the rabbinic thought around death,” said Mallory.

He said he was carrying around a lot of guilt that Judaism helped him with.

Mallory began to attend the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and introduced himself to the rabbi.

“When I walked into the synagogue on a Friday night and I was the only Black person in there, I was in search of spirituality and religion because I was raised a very proud Black American between my mother and my father. The way that I was received was very welcoming. There wasn’t anybody looking like, ‘What are you doing here?’” said Mallory.

The vast majority of Black Americans are either Christian (79%) or religiously unaffiliated (18%), while about 2% of Black Americans are Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center.

The majority of U.S. Jews identify as white. Black Jews make up 1% of the net population based on the center’s 2021 study.

“Not very long after I started going there, the Jewish holidays started happening. So, these people that were part of the Hebrew congregation went above and beyond to make sure that I never felt like an outsider. They invited me to their home,” said Mallory.

He went through the process of studying the history to complete his conversion. It took a little over a year before he was ready to go before the board including a rabbi and the clergy.

“They ask you questions, and then they convene. When they come back, they can then accept you or not accept you. They accepted me into the Jewish community. During the ceremony they bestowed upon me a Jewish name, which would be Derek, which [in] Hebrew means someone who seeks the path,” said Mallory.

“Black Jewish people exist. We’re here. It’s not a lot of us, but we are here in Indiana and beyond.”

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at (317) 762-7853 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON. 

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