A Jewish Organization’s First “Diversity Team Meeting”

diversity teamA Jewish Organization’s First “Diversity Team Meeting:”
Come, be a Fly on the Wall

By Ilana Kaufman

It was now 9:13 am, and we had work to do. This was the first diversity team meeting for Irving’s organization. Around the table sat six executive and senior staff, and seven program staff. I knew Irving and his team to be smart, thoughtful, reflective, assertive, and most of all fair-minded. This team had come together with no direct path but a clear sense of destination. Neatly printed on the white board, it said: To become an authentic, thriving community, inclusive of all Jews and expressions of Jewish life.

After a check-in question designed to focus attention on the day’s work, Irving walked up to the front of the room, and underneath the destination-statement wrote, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? Irving then underlined the question, and said to the group, “Read our purpose statement, and then look around and draw conclusions about what you see.” I watched as everyone eyeballed the room. Some took notes while others leaned back and contemplatively bobbed in their chairs. Irving pointed to a willing colleague, and asked, “Mind starting? Building a more inclusive Jewish community – What’s wrong with this picture? Our picture right here in our organization?”

Each person spoke. ”We are all over 50,” said one of the team members, with the others groaning. “We are old,” Irving resolved. Most heads nodded. We are all over 50 and old, Irving wrote on the board. The next speaker exclaimed, “Are we are all NOT from the West Coast?!” The comment went up on the board. A senior staff member then said, “We are all White. Or at least we all look White.” We are all White/look White, Irving added to the list. And then someone said, “Half this group knows each other from summer camp. And that side of the room, weren’t we all in the same fellowship cohort?” He then looked at Irving and said, “That’s kind of sad, Irving. That there’s a big world of Jews out there, and the ones who work for you are practically related to one another.” Irving wrote the final comment on the board, and then walked back to his chair. We all sat in silence and read what had been recorded.

Building a More Inclusive Jewish Community:

  • We are all over 50 and old
  • None of us are from the West Coast
  • We all are/look White
  • We all went to the same schools/from same social arenas
  • We are all similar/practically related

I then walked up to the front of the room, and asked everyone to go around and say one word about how the chart made them think/feel about this work – their organization. “Blue.” “Pessimistic.” “So not diverse.” “Deficient.” “Narrow minded,” each rattled off. We captured the comments, and just sat for a moment to breathe in their insight and heft. We talked about this list of attributes as real organizational sensitivities and possible weaknesses.

“That last exercise left me in a funk…” said Irving, “…so let’s hold on to what we just revealed, but also talk about strengths and assets, starting with our own. Ilana’s going to read three questions out loud.” Irving said. “Don’t answer them, but think and feel on them.”

  • When are you motivated to action by social justice issues?
  • When was a time someone made and acted on an assumption about you or your family?
  • What has Judaism taught you about fairness, differences, being an ally?

Irving approached his original question on the board, and replaced the word wrong with right. And then he read, “Building a more inclusive Jewish community – WHAT’S RIGHT WITH THIS PICTURE? Your picture right here in your organization?” I decapped my pen, Irving asked one of the colleagues if she’d mind kicking us off, and this time suggested each person start their response with an “I statement.”

Building a More inclusive Jewish Community:

  • “I’m White. My partner is Asian. Someone always asks what country he’s from. He’s from Houston!I know what racism in this community looks like.”
  • “I was the only Jewish girl in my high school. I was the wrong kind of White. I thought I was ugly. I hated my hair.I know what it’s like to feel like the one on the margin.
  • “I’ve always sucked at sports. My male role models collected books, not trophies. I hate being called “nebbishy” even though I am.I have Jewish man issues, and I can’t even imagine what it’s like for a guy who’s Black and Jewish.
  • “I was raised among Lefty Jews. I went to protests, not Services.I know social justice actions!

And then it was Irving’s turn.

Building a More inclusive Jewish Community:

  • “I grew up with a lot of family wealth. I went to those fellowships you mentioned. I’ve never been excluded from our community.It hurts me to know our organization might push some Jews away.”

I walked up to the front of the room one last time, and asked everyone to take in what was on the new chart, and then invited final words that captured feelings and thoughts. “Empathetic.” “More connected.” “Kind of diverse.” “We have some capacities.” “We know feelings of exclusion.” And then Irving said, “I actually don’t know exclusion. It was my parent’s experience, not mine. Folks, I’m thinking this through in real time, but know I have a lot of work to do. I also have a lot of privilege to navigate.” The team nodded … many of the program staff looked at each other and grinned. I looked at the clock, silently telling Irving that 10:30 am had come and gone. No one seemed to mind.

As we departed, Irving reminded the team they’d meet again in a month. And, that there was homework reading/viewing waiting in their email inboxes i ii iii iv. On next month’s agenda? Some of the many different expressions of Jewish diversity, what it means to have privilege, an Orthodox Rabbi’s response to Gay Marriage, and how to start the diversity strategic planning process.

i http://popchassid.com/10-photos-to-remind-you-that-jews-dont-fit-into-a-stereotype-and-never-have/
ii http://nymag.com/news/features/black-jews-2012-12/
iii http://www.jewishmultiracialnetwork.org/advocacy/privilege-checklist/
iv http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuly-yanklowitz/orthodox-rabbi-gay-marriage_b_4452154.html

Ilana Kaufman lives in Berkeley, California. Want to connect? ilana.kaufman@gmail.com.