Breaking barriers: A Black Christian DEI practitioner’s journey in the Jewish nonprofit field

I remember my first meeting with a Jewish person of color. I asked him what it is like being Black and Jewish. He immediately retorted with his own question: “What’s it like being Black and Christian?” The moment was less about his question, of course, and more about my lack of awareness of the similarities between our experiences.

One of the most fascinating things about my journey as a Black, Christian woman working as a diversity, equity, inclusion and justice practitioner within the Jewish nonprofit sector is that I find myself in a place of constantly unlearning everything I thought to be true. Honestly, I previously thought all Jewish people were white, and I thought that all white people lived in safety. I admit my ignorance with both shame and curiosity: How could I, as a woman of color, who herself is a victim of oppressive systems, be so unaware when it came to understanding the plight of others who experience oppression? 

I’d like to think that one of the reasons is that I have been head down in survival mode, trying to combat the systemic inequities and atrocities facing me and my community. But the attacks on Oct. 7 have taught me that assuming one community’s pain is theirs to bear alone is, well, un-Christian, and it is inhumane. Moreover, there is an element of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that has stopped working for me: Antisemitism has been absent in many of the DEI trainings in which I’ve participated, and that is a perpetuation of harm. 

I often reflect on that conversation with the Black Jewish leader I met in 2021: He pushed me to think that the experiences between Jews of Color and Black Christians were not that different at all; and that by assuming there were differences, I was entering into the conversation from the wrong direction. If I were sitting in front of him today, however, I might offer that the experiences are in fact different — Black Christian people might experience racism, and a Black woman might experience racism and sexism, but I do not experience antisemitism. 

April Powers, vice president of DEI at Project Shema, once reminded me that the precarious nature of being Jewish in America is that people assume certain things about Jewish people. The first assumption is that Jewish people are impenetrable. The next one is that Jewish people do not need allies because their communities are so close-knit that they don’t need others. I think that another assumption folks make about Jewish people is that they look, speak, think, talk and operate a certain way. 

One of the key lessons I’ve learned as a DEI practitioner is that groups should not be seen as a monolith; rather, each individual should be held for their beauty and embraced for their humanity. Still, if someone had told me three years ago that by working at UpStart I would have met some of the kindest, fiercest, and bravest people in my life, I perhaps would have laughed. I will be transparent: I had no idea this field — specifically the Jewish social entrepreneurial ecosystem — even existed. I admit this with no shortage of embarrassment. I was ignorant. Through my work at UpStart, I’ve learned that Judaism is a culture, a spiritual practice, a race and ethnicity, and a people. 

I have often wrestled with whether or not I should be in this position, a Black Christian woman working within a predominantly white Jewish organization. It seems paradoxical on the surface. But I am here, in this moment, for a reason. Perhaps that reason is to help break down barriers between our faith communities. Perhaps it is to learn more about myself as a Christian (after all, Jesus was Jewish). Perhaps I am figuring out how to really understand what allyship means. Regardless, I’ll never go back to a life without Judaism. 

In a time when DEI is under attack both politically and philosophically, I am grateful to be at UpStart. Not only has UpStart expanded the team dedicated to DEI, but we’ve rooted our work in the wisdom of Judaism. We now embrace that DEI work is spiritual first and strategic second. 

I am reminded of the following Jewish wisdom: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Somewhere along the way, Black Christian folks and Jewish people (regardless of how they racially identify) stopped leaning on one another for support; somewhere along the way, Black people and Jewish people stopped having a shared struggle; somewhere along the way, we all forgot to remember that oppression to one group is oppression for all groups. 

In the words of my friend Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, “Our commitment to creating a better world — making it to the Promised Land — must always be so much more than merely skin deep. Only when we believe in our bones that change is possible, and that we can be agents of that change, will fear melt away and we will be able to defeat the Pharaohs who seek to deprive us of our dignity… anywhere in our land.” 

Amen and amen.

Whitney Weathers, M.Ed., (she/her) is the managing director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice for UpStart, an incubator and accelerator for Jewish social entrepreneurship.