Growing Up African-American and Jewish Leads to a Life of Service in Georgia

I am an oddity: I am both African-American and Jewish.

This dual identity has shaped my life and worldview. Even though the African-American community and the Jewish community have had some historical collaborations, such as those during the civil rights movement, these two groups don’t mesh as well as they should. In the past, I have been reluctant to share my story for fear of acceptance, but today I talk openly with confidence and without hesitation.

My grandfather, Cecil Reginald Eaves, converted to Judaism after immigrating to America from Jamaica in 1913. He passed his faith to my father, John Henry Eaves Sr., who in turn passed it on to me.

I grew up in the South during a period when it was incredibly unusual for a person of color to be Jewish. During my childhood, I was comfortable being a member of a congregation mostly composed of African-Americans, and I felt accepted.

Yet at school, I was always different from my friends. I didn’t celebrate Christmas, have a tree in my home or put lights outside my house. And I couldn’t go out on dates with my friends on Friday nights because my family observed the Sabbath as the day of rest.

My Jewish faith affected me in other ways too. Like many Southerners, I have always loved football. In high school, I was so proud to make the school team as a cornerback, and I practiced every day. My teammates would say, “Eaves! You’re crazy!” because, of course, I could not play on Friday nights.

But twice a season there was a Saturday night game, and that made it all worth it.

I remember one Friday afternoon during my senior year, the coaches came to my house hoping to persuade my dad to let me play. I waited upstairs, and when they left after only 10 minutes, I asked, “Can I please play, Dad?” He only said, “Get ready for Shabbat service.”

My football-playing days are now long behind me, and I proudly serve our community as the chairman of Fulton County. My desire to give back to the community was instilled by my Jewish faith, which has a call of service to others. Many biblical leaders and prophets were called and accepted the obligation to help and repair the world. As a Jew, I feel that same obligation.