Creating Belonging for Jews of Color
By Jordan Daniels
My relationship to the Jewish community has always been a tightrope that I’ve struggled to balance on.
I didn’t attend Hebrew school, camp or synagogue, and I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. My mom and I observed few Jewish rituals, particularly lighting candles for her parents’ yahrzeits and Chanukah. As a secular Black man, my dad wasn’t eager to convert and navigate a seemingly all-white Jewish community. None of us felt like we belonged.
Together, we all felt that I would be treated as an anomaly and made to feel that I would never fit in. So, I navigated my childhood and adolescence with repression, hardly disclosing my Jewishness. Whenever I did disclose my identities, I was met with disbelief and questions about my existence. I wielded my mom’s ancestry and my grandparents’ survival of the Holocaust as a tool of validation.
In college, I felt an urgency to understand my Jewishness through Hillel and their inclusive programming. The desire came from a need to connect to a part of my family’s history that I didn’t feel safe enough to explore when I was younger. Participating in Shabbat weekly and learning with peers gave me the connection I craved, but the lack of other Jews of Color left me wondering if I belonged there. I needed to dive deeper.
I thought I could find belonging if I became more involved with the JCC, Federation and Israel advocacy. While I gained familiarity with Jewish spaces and felt included, I was still one of few Jews of Color in them, and almost always the only Jewish and Black one. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only a guest.
My yearning for belonging led me to work at the Leichtag Foundation, located on Leichtag Commons, which is also home to The Hive (a coworking & events center) and Coastal Roots Farm. Here, I’ve been supported in my quest through conferences such as Facing Race where I was surrounded by a contingent of Jews of Color, events led by important JOC leaders such as Yavilah McCoy and Ilana Kaufman, and the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative’s demographic findings release in Los Angeles. The report highlights the multiracial expansiveness of the American Jewish population and provides recommendations for counting our growing numbers in future surveys. The initiative, which is headed by Kaufman, is partly funded by the Foundation which gives me access to a network of Jews of Color who look like me and lead in this field.
The tightrope is widening into a bridge as I realize that I am not alone. There are many Jews of Color on this journey, and we’re all craving belonging.
I’m the only Jew of Color in my office, but I know I belong here because the organization is committed to co-creating community together. Doubling down on transparency, we’re still learning how to do this together, and I want to share some steps we are taking as well as ideas that your organization could implement too:
Create Programming for Jews of Color with Jews of Color
For organizations and communities to move from inclusion to belonging, we need to acknowledge that Jews of Color have been absent from creating Jewish spaces. Not every organization knows how to engage with us beyond bias, diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings, but we can help with that if you co-create these new programs with us.
The Hive recently hosted a conference with a panel on racial inequity. The Hive director asked me, and several other Jews of Color, to co-create this panel with her, which also meant her taking a backseat to us setting the framework for the discussion. The panelists she invited were people of color and experts in bias and diversity through a Jewish lens, which made this session a true co-creation from inception to execution.
A challenge to co-creation is losing decision-making authority, but working through this process builds crucial trust. Trust that success for Jews of Color programming will come from Jews of Color.
You Can’t Stop at Programming
Creating belonging needs to be a multi-dimensional approach. The change needs to be systemic, from programs to procedures and organizational culture.
To demonstrate our commitment to co-creation, The Hive will soon announce “belonging” as its theme for the new year. We will review every new event through the question, “how will this help people believe that they belong?”
We will launch our theme officially in October during Coastal Roots Farm’s annual Sukkot Harvest Festival with the debut of our “San Diego Jewry” exhibit in our Farm House Gallery. This exhibit will feature the diversity of Jewish San Diego through race, ability, sexuality and more.
We will take radical hospitality to the next level. Beyond inviting people to our home at The Hive, we will continually build this home together with our community.
As we experiment with this theme and attempt to measure our community’s sense of belonging through the year, we will learn together which features effectively lay that path to belonging.
None of these changes will be easy, and there will be many moments where we’re uncomfortable. Which leads me to my last point.
Lean into the Discomfort
Being the only Jew of Color in the room has made me uncomfortable. I have bitten my tongue while discussing marginalized communities, even though they weren’t represented in the room. I have been accused of making everything about race or oppression, and I have been made to feel like I’m the singular representative for these communities.
Now, I’ve deliberately decided to lean into these uncomfortable situations instead of avoiding them, and sometimes being audacious enough to enter these spaces. I’ve discovered that these situations are opportunities to teach and learn. It looks like creating brave spaces, where opposing and different views exist together, and we find solutions through understanding each other’s experiences.
I want to be clear, however, that just because I lean into these situations, doesn’t mean that I – or any Jew of Color – should be expected to do it. Nor should we be expected to create the brave spaces. In fact, it’s the responsibility of those who have contributed to our exclusion to share their power and create these spaces with us.
Some people liken this to “having a seat at the table,” but we need to build a whole new table as suggested by Edgar Villanueva in his book Decolonizing Wealth.
At the Foundation, I am uplifted to use my power to speak up, even if my beliefs might make others uncomfortable or challenge them. I am mindful that I will be challenged too. If we can hold space for both of our beliefs to exist, then we’ve begun walking the path of co-creation.
On this path, we’ll continue experiencing resistance to these changes. It may come from our staff, our community or even ourselves. We must tap into that discomfort and use it to repair the world together. We must see this time of enlightenment about who comprises our Jewish community as an opportunity to build a culture of belonging with each other.
The words of Rabbi Hillel inspire me at this moment. If a community is too heavy to carry alone, then surely, we can do this together.
Jordan Daniels is a Communications Associate at Leichtag Foundation.