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Black Orthodox Jewish Fashion Designer

July 12, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Elisheva Rishon’s empowering designs reflect her experiences as a Black Orthodox Jew.

“One of my best sellers is my ‘Hashem loves you’ sweatshirt,” explains Elisheva Rishon, the Modern Orthodox Jewish fashion designer behind Eli7 Designs. “And that’s really good. That tells me that people are looking not only to feel loved, but to let other people know they are loved,” she explains. “I didn’t make sweatshirts saying ‘Hashem loves me’ because that’s selfish – I made ‘Hashem loves you’ to make other people feel good.”

Launched in 2019, Eli7 Designs features clothes and accessories with affirming slogans designed to help people feel happy with their identities and be uplifted. Elisheva is inspired by her own life experiences as a Black Orthodox Jewish woman and as a millennial who has spent a lifetime nurturing her spirituality.

Feeling positive about herself wasn’t an emotion that Elisheva often felt growing up in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York where she was often teased and insulted because of the color of her skin. “My childhood was difficult,” she explained in a recent exclusive interview.

Elisheva and her four siblings grew up in a tightly knit Jewish community in Brooklyn in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her father is African American and converted to Orthodox Judaism; her Black mother grew up in a traditional Jewish home and became religiously observant as an adult. Elisheva has noticed because of her Black features that people often quiz her about her own lineage, always suspicious that she isn't really Jewish. “My mother’s family goes back many years – people always ask.” It’s just one of the many slights she’s received over the years.

“When I was a child I didn’t realize the whole world wasn’t Jewish,” she recalls. She also didn’t notice any difference in skin tone between her and her friends. She and her brothers and sisters loved everything about being Jewish. They would spend hours singing Jewish songs, pretend to pray from a siddur, and say Shabbat shalom to anyone she saw.

Elisheva was eight years old when she realized for the first time that some people viewed her differently because of the color of her skin. On Shabbat, many of the children in her synagogue used to go outside to play together while their parents prayed inside. One day, a group of girls refused to play ball with her. When Elisheva asked why they told her she was “dirty”. Elisheva was confused: she wasn’t dirty, she explained. On the contrary, she was wearing her prettiest Shabbat clothing. She’d even just washed her hands. The kids told her she was “dirty” because she was Black and ran away laughing.

That moment was a turning point. Elisheva recalls going home and looking at herself in the mirror, her self-esteem plummeting. It remains a painful incident she remembers clearly today.

There were other slights. She remembers attending a Shabbaton when a synagogue janitor refused to let her in. He insisted she couldn’t be Jewish, despite the fact that Elisheva was all dressed up and ready for Shabbat. Most painful was the fact that while her friends sympathized with her afterwards, nobody was brave enough to help her out at the moment. “People sometimes come up to me twenty minutes later after an anti-black racist incident occurs and say ‘wow that was crazy’, but painfully, nobody intervened at the time that it occurred.” Elisheva explains that she and other Black Jews – or anyone who is targeted and told they don’t belong – need isn’t so much sympathy after the fact, but for people to stick up for them while they’re being insulted or embarrassed or made to feel out of place.

When Elisheva was nineteen, she entered the “dating scene”, contacting a matchmaker to help her find men to date. The process brought her more painful slights. Her matchmaker insisted on setting her up with much older men who had serious baggage. After one particularly disastrous date, Elisheva confronted the matchmaker who put it bluntly: given that she was Black, she couldn’t expect to be treated like any other Jew. Elisheva withdrew from the dating scene.

One way that Elisheva dealt with the racism she faced was through fashion. “Fashion is a way to express myself. Through my clothes I was able to flip the negative to the positive at a very young age.” She developed a flair for putting outfits together and noticed that people seemed drawn to her because of her clothes. “I would wear 1920s gloves, or hats, or mix and match patterns and people would comment ‘wow I love that, where did you get it?’ Fashion pulled them in to say something besides my skin tone.”

She also noticed that fashion could transform people’s moods and make them feel joyous. “I just want them to feel happy,” she explains.

When Elisheva enrolled in Brooklyn College to study history she began to feel happy with her looks for the first time in her life. “A student once commented that I had a beautiful ‘Nubian princess skin.’” She had no idea what that meant and had to look it up. "It meant Black in a beautiful way. I started to look at myself in a different light,” she remembers. It was the very first time she’d been complimented for her dark skin.

In 2019, Elisheva launched her own brand, Eli7 Designs. She had the idea for her company name ever since childhood. By then, she’d moved to Los Angeles and her clothes and accessories have a laid-back vibe. She designed shirts with slogans such as “Gam Zu L’Tova” in Hebrew, meaning “Everything is For the Good”, mugs that read “Self Care = Self Love”, and handbags that read “Malka. Period.” using the Hebrew word for Queen. Elisheva explains the meaning behind that particular slogan: “Because all Jewish girls/women are Queens, PERIOD. And no one should get to make you feel any less than a Queen." Her other slogans are also empowering.

She also has products aimed at customers who are Black and Jewish. One t-shirt reads “Jewish. Yes I really am. Please stop asking,” a line that Elisheva has longed to repeat to many people through the years. A section on the website gives advice to “frum” (Orthodox Jewish) customers who might want to wear some of the shorter sleeves featured on the website. She gives specific advice about how to layer and pair items to be modest, drawing on her years of presenting herself fashionably in an Orthodox Jewish context.

Elisheva explains that she draws her creative inspiration from two places. “The first place is literally my entire life – I know how people are made to feel bad about certain parts of their identity.” Her designs are meant to counter some of the negative messages that people hear and give a positive boost. “I would have killed to have things that made me happy about myself as a teenager and child.”

Her second inspiration is “the amazing people I’ve met throughout my life.” Elisheva explains that she’s met countless Jewish girls who embody the Jewish imperative to live a good life and treat all people well. “They have no hate in their bones. They are really good people who are so amazing they don’t even know how amazing they really are. These are people I’ve met in my life who understand what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. These people are part of my design process too.”

She also tries to incorporate Jewish values of tzniut, or modesty, in her designs. For Elisheva, the commandment to be modest is spiritual as well as physical. Eli7 Designs began to boom, and Elisheva soon added more and more products, featuring pictures of herself sporting her latest designs on her website. But then she started getting “nasty” comments on her website questioning why she was using a Black model.

“I made a post and said ‘hi, the reason there’s a Black girl in all the pictures is – it’s me!’” The response to her post shocked her. “I lost over 300 followers.I had several dozen orders cancelled. All my collaborations were cancelled. I was devastated.” The experience left Elisheva feeling like she lived in the 1950s.

She also began to receive harassing, anti-black racist emails. It got so bad that she had a friend open her emails for her; the number of hate emails dwarfed the actual emails and orders she was receiving. Her business plummeted for several months. “I was yelling at myself, saying ‘Elisheva you’re so stupid, why did you tell people you were Black?’”

In the past several months, she’s slowly begun to rebuild her brand. “I’ve been getting real, actual followers who don’t care what color my skin is.” Women have started reaching out to her to thank her for being a Black Jewish role model and for creating products aimed at Black Jewish women. “I’m now hearing more positive things than in my whole life.”

As the United States has embarked on a national dialogue about race, Elisheva has felt a profound sense of relief. “Finally in the past months we Black Jews can speak our truths… I feel people are more interested in what everyone’s been saying.” She likens being Black and Jewish to carrying a pile of heavy rocks. Black Jews have the burden of being disliked by anti-Semites because they’re Jews, of dealing with anti-black racists and the difficulty of facing racism from within in the Jewish world. She finally feels that some of those burdens are being shared.

“People finally feel safe enough to speak. I’m hopeful that this is going to continue.”

Elisheva has a few concrete suggestions for people who wish to become more sensitive and inclusive. If you see someone being targeted or harassed because of the color of their skin or for any other reason, speak up. Don’t excuse the behavior, and don’t try minimize or ignore it. Don’t try to rationalize away racist, cruel or degrading actions. Think how you would want other people to stand up for you. Don’t use derogatory terms, and speak up when other people do.

“There’s no real ahavat Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jew) when we don’t stand up for Black Jews,” Elisheva observes. “Sisters have to stand with sisters, brothers have to stand with brothers.” Elisheva explains that she hopes to build a Jewish family one day, God willing, and she doesn’t want her children to go through the pain she herself experienced. “There’s so much potential, so much good that can be done,” she feels. “We need to wake up.”

Elisheva feels the current period of the "Three Weeks" between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av is a particularly appropriate time to work on loving our fellow Jews. "We have these weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B'Av because Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) - because Jews didn't love each other like they should. And when Jews don't love each other it makes us weak and it makes it so easy for those who hate us to harm us. This is an opportune time for all of us to do some serious introspection."


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