You Should Know … Yosef Webb

Yosef Webb (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Yosef Webb has many identities — person of color, military veteran, multiple-degree-holder — but perhaps his most surprising is as an almost-Methodist pastor-turned-Jew by choice.

The California native has packed a lot of life into 40 years — working at, among others, a Navy aircraft carrier, Lynyrd Skynyrd-themed café, Temple Micah in Washington and the University of Maryland — and talked to WJW about his path to conversion, being a Jew of color and how “A Bug’s Life” is the metaphor of our time.

So, you’re in the middle of becoming a pastor and then you decide to convert to Judaism. Why?
Halfway through my time in seminary — and if you’re doing it right, you’re tearing apart your theology to see how it works — I realized my beliefs aligned with Judaism and not Christianity.

So, I’m having these thoughts like, “I don’t know if I believe what these other folks believe in, I kind of believe these other things.” I go back and started looking through the New Testament through a very Jewish lens and I realized, “Oh Jesus is saying very Jewish things all the time.” Because before that the keystone of my theology was Jesus saying the Sh’ma. And then I go back and start reading the original versions and was like, “Oh yeah, this is what I feel.”

You’re also a person of color. How do those two identities interact and intersect for you?
There’s this belief in the United States that all Jews are white Ashkenazi Jews. They either look like Chasids or they look like — oh what’s his name, with the glasses, ran off with his stepdaughter?

Oh, Woody Allen?
Yes, either Chasids or Woody Allen or, you know, a Seinfeld character. So, it’s this idea of, “Oh, there’s Jews of color?” One of the things we’re really, really trying to work on in the Jews of color community is to say, “No, no, there’s whole swaths of Jews out there.”

There’s some amazing groups forming for Jews of color. That being said, I get a lot of, “Who are you?” [at synagogues]. I’ve been going here for two years, what do you mean, who am I? Or the traditional — and this has happened at multiple synagogues in multiple states as I’ve traveled around — getting an “Oh, can you tell me where the chairs are at?” There’s the assumption that I’m the hired help.

As someone who’s part of two marginalized communities — Jews and people of color — what has it been like with all the recent issues around race?
It’s tough. You get a group of white Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans in the same room together and the Jews want to do everything. Not in a “you can’t do it” way, but “I want to help, let me help.” And the African Americans are like “Stop it, I want to do it myself” because they’re always denied their agency. And those two run headlong into each other.

Just being able to identify that and be like, “Hey, you’re really trying to help and you really want self-determination. Tone down your helpfulness so it doesn’t run over their agency.” And so being caught in the middle of that? It’s an interesting place to be in and a lot more conversations need to happen. I think getting everyone in that room to talk about it is what’s needed and everyone is so scared to do it.

What would be your best advice for people who do eventually want to do that work?
Hire me! Have dialogue is the real answer. An actual dialogue, not polite debate. You need to be able to sit with people, get to know them, share some food. Find people to facilitate those conversations and find people who don’t look just like you.

Describe a few of your odd jobs before you came to D.C.
After high school, I joined the Navy and I served on the aircraft carrier the USS John F. Kennedy. I worked as a boiler technician and then a machinist mate.

I got out of the Navy and spent some time in Florida where I was a cook and apprentice chef. Everyone should have a job where they work in a restaurant. I actually worked at this place called the Freebird Café in Jacksonville Beach, Fl. It was run by Melody and Judy Van Zant, the daughter and wife of former lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd Ronnie Van Zant, who died in that plane crash. So, inside the restaurant it was all gold and platinum records and memorabilia from all the concerts. They played Lynyrd Skynyrd 24/7, so I know all the Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.

At one point, I was cutting down trees in the swamp as a job in Florida. And when I moved back to California, I worked at an automotive parts store. There were some struggles with drugs in there, before school. After I got cleaned up I did three years at a community college and three years at a four-year institution and ended up with two associate’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree.

Through all the places you’ve been and work you’ve done, you’ve experienced a lot of humanity, but it seems like you’re still fairly optimistic about it.
I am, in that there’s a cycle I see in history that repeats itself. The rich get richer, the powerful more powerful and eventually the people get pissed off about it. It’s essentially “A Bug’s Life.” At some point the ants are going to be like “No, we’re done with the grasshoppers.” And it’s horrific every time it happens. And so my goal is to get the grasshoppers to realize they’re also insects and the ants are insects — everybody’s insects. I want to interrupt that process of violent revolution to violent revolution to violent revolution. If nothing else, just to save lives.

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