Like many girls, Collier Meyerson has a diverse family. While Collier’s biological mother was Jewish, she was adopted at birth by an African-American mother, who was Christian, and a white father, who was Jewish. Collier has experienced the many challenges and rewards of growing up in a racially and culturally diverse family.
“[My parents] intentionally created a combination of both African-American and Jewish cultures so that I’d never be confused or ashamed about who I am and where I come from,” she recalls. On Saturdays as a child, she’d make the short trip from her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the Dance Theater of Harlem, an historically black dance school. She also studied the Yiddish language and Jewish culture at her synagogue and attended a secular sleep-away camp where most of the kids were Jewish.
As a program coordinator for Be’chol Lashon, an organization dedicated to strengthening the Jewish people through inclusiveness, Collier Meyerson works to make Jews of diverse backgrounds feel welcome in the community. She works to expand the definition of what “Jewish” looks like.
When Collier was 13, she and her parents had a meeting at her Hebrew school teacher’s house in preparation for her upcoming bat mitzvah. When the teacher met Collier’s parents—her white Jewish father and her non-Jewish African American mother—he told the Meyersons that Collier would not be permitted to have a bat mitzvah in their Conservative synagogue because Collier’s mother was not Jewish.
Collier’s mother insisted that her daughter’s birth mother was Jewish, and the Hebrew school teacher changed his mind. But Collier was enraged by the experience. She felt as if she had just been told that she couldn’t be both black and Jewish. “I felt at that time (and still do) that I shouldn’t have to surrender one part of my identity for another,” she said. Collier decided not to have a bat mitzvah. From then on, she started to “create her own rules.”
Collier considers her relationship to Judaism something that is continuously evolving. “I respect all forms of observation but I choose, like I did that day when I chose not to have a Bat Mitzvah, that my Judaism would take a different, less traveled route,” she said. “I believe in the harmony, the goodness, in Tikkun Olam that Judaism promotes. I believe in the solidarity I feel towards other Jews around the Passover table or the full belly I feel after ingesting too many latkes at Chanukah.”