Dancing between Light and Shadow – Increasing Awareness of the Impact of Covid 19 Disparities on Jews of Color

By Yavilah McCoy

As the CEO of a majority Jewish women of color and people of color led organization, I continue to learn how deeply essential our work to expand racial equity in the world around us is to our survival. As the COVID-19 outbreak began, we, along with other women in experienced the fear and anxiety of trying to protect ourselves and our families from contracting a potentially fatal disease that still has no vaccine. As women of color, we simultaneously battled the physical and psychological impacts of needing to protect ourselves, and those we love, from increased vulnerability to fundamentally inequitable systems that have been killing people in Black and Brown bodies for centuries.

When the pandemic hit this country and our national shut-down began, I lost my previously healthy mother to “undetermined” causes in a rural North Carolina hospital. In late March, I flew on an empty plane to arrange a Jewish burial for her within 24 hours. I arrived to an Orthodox Jewish community that was spinning with the impact of navigating rising deaths among them while being prohibited by state mandated restrictions from observing usual Jewish rituals for burial. I also arrived at a hospital in the Black southern community where my mother lived and encountered doctors and nurses working without protective gear, without the capacity for testing patients and without any expectation that resources would be coming their way any time soon. My assistant, who lives in Boston, found herself traveling during the pandemic to Michigan, one of the hardest hit people of color communities in the country, to be a health advocate for her sister. Her sister had to be flown to a secondary hospital, outside of Detroit, in order to receive treatment and be placed on a ventilator while she battled COVID-19. One of our project directors, who lives in a majority Black community in Washington, DC, found herself having to relocate to her father’s home in Connecticut because she and her wife had just given birth to a newborn and found themselves living in a community where one thousand cases of COVID-19 were reported in their neighborhood alone. Another of our project directors, ended up sheltering in place with her college-aged daughter and elder mother in Oakland feeling terrified of what might happen to her family if they became ill with the limited options they currently have for healthcare.

Among the communities of Jews of Color and people of color that Dimensions offers direct-service to, we encountered hourly wage earners who have been or are worried about being laid off from work. We encountered leaders in our programs who work in education and healthcare and who have been deemed “essential” to the American economy, but have not received adequate protections or a living wage under government law for their labor. In recent weeks, as areas of the country have begun to open, we have all felt the impact of the death of Amaud Arbery and the disparate reality that as people across the country are now venturing outdoors after quarantining for weeks, many people of color can not leave their homes for a jog without fearing being gunned down and killed.

During Covid-19, a veil was lifted for my staff and the POC/JOC community we serve that revealed just how commoditized and expendable women of colors’ bodies are in a racialized system that consistently devalues our worth and teaches us to only value ourselves in the context of services we can provide for a White majority. Among my White Jewish colleagues, I have been heartened by discussions that have been organized to acknowledge the depth of loss, stress and strain that so many leaders across our institutions have shared while also acknowledging the privileges that so many of us have benefited from during the pandemic. Many have enjoyed the ability to leave urban cities and shelter in place in second homes, while others among us have continued to live in packed urban dwellings and environments, traveling on subways and buses to keep our jobs at Whole Foods, Home Depot and Target. Many of us have had the access and resources to stock and restock our fridges and cabinets in single trips to the grocery store while others of us have worried at whether our paychecks would stretch to the next time stores would restock basic supplies like milk, flour, canned goods and toilet paper. Many of us have been harried by the experience of being sequestered from our regular lives and routines while others among us worried that the current disruption to hard-earned economic stability in our lives might lead to conditions of homelessness. Many of us have been challenged by having to live in close quarters, for extended periods of time, with parents, children, partners and family while not considering that for many people of color, domestically and globally, sharing living space with parents, grandparents and children has been their only option for obtaining affordable living space. Additionally, many of us did not have to worry about having family members in the mass incarceration system who are not only living in close quarters with others who are sick, but facing life and death conditions in our prisons. Many of us have bemoaned having to provide services to ourselves that we have become used to relying on others to provide for us, while others among us continue to risk our health and safety daily by continuing to drive for Uber and Amazon, work in restaurants, and operate as tellers, cashiers, nannies and other hourly-waged workers because the alternative would be losing jobs that we can simply not live without.

As a JOC leader experiencing the impacts of Covid-19, I find myself wondering how many of my White colleagues and neighbors are still paying the hourly workers, many of whom are people of color, that have regularly taken care of their children, homes and businesses while sheltering in place? I find myself wondering why mostly immigrant cashiers of color have replaced all the white cashiers that were servicing my local grocery store and whether their employment will be sustained once safety conditions around working in a supermarket during a pandemic improve? I wonder who is calculating all the dollars that they have not been able to spend on gas, transportation, coffees, haircuts, and pedicures while sheltering in place and who has made a commitment to gift this saved amount to essential workers of color and those on the margins who have become economically insecure during this crisis?

As JOC staff at Dimensions, we are women of color who have been listening to discussions among our Jewish colleagues about the stress of managing boards and programs and keeping staff engaged under virtual conditions. We have been sounding boards for people’s fears about returning staff, retaining staff, saving JCC’s and Jewish camps and getting back to “normal” post re-opening. What we have experienced less of are crucial discussions to our survival regarding how we as a Jewish institutional community are addressing and will continue to address glaring disparities in the impact of Covid-19 across race and class differences among Jews. As Jewish professionals within Dimensions, we are Jews, and we are women and we are also people in gender non-binary Black and Brown bodies who are triply targeted by persistent inequities within our systems that target us daily and threaten our existence. As our community continues to consider good shifts in practice that we can adopt in the wake of the pandemic, we at Dimensions are wondering who will join us in addressing the impacts of racial injustice and inequality on Jews of Color? Beyond prepping us for board service within majority White institutions or front-lining Jews of Color in campaigns that non-Jewish people of color are already leading in the wide world, who will be willing to get proximate to the depth and breadth and diversity of our narratives and use that “data” to more deeply address growing needs among Jews of Color for direct services that can mitigate our experience of living under triple-threat during Covid-19 and beyond. In our work, we are encountering smart, brilliant, high performing Jewish people of color who are describing being exhausted at the prospect of continuing to deliver their labor within systems that erase us. We are hearing how overwhelmed Jews of Color are by White middle-class institutional “habits” that are requiring 150% of our energy while not making time to acknowledge the large numbers among us who have died or provide adequate resources to care for the depth of our physical and emotional suffering during this time. At the start of the pandemic, Dimensions hosted a JOC national community call to organize our JOC capacity to respond to Covid-19. Our meeting gathered 75 Jewish leaders of color from across the country to pray, dream and organize ourselves for action. As a result of this organizing, Dimensions is working collectively with others to provide limited, but historical mutual-aid and support for Jews of Color and their families in crisis. We are working with leaders to organize a mental health network made up of Jews of Color and people of color providers. We are working with leaders to organize and support close to twenty JOC micro-communities that leaders have self-identified as resources that they would like to offer and receive support from with each other.

Jews of Color studies that have emerged over the last several years have provided plentiful data to our community supporting the fact that Jews of Color and their families exist and have been historically under-counted and under-served by existing Jewish institutions and systems. Within our country, we are witnessing daily how systems that have not changed in regard to racial injustice, police brutality, criminal justice reform, voting rights & suppression, immigration justice, economic injustice, LGBTQIA+ and human rights, environmental conditions, healthcare, government corruption, education and commonsense gun laws are making people of color in this country more and not less vulnerable. As we consider current strategies that are developing to better prepare Jewish institutions for the “post-Covid” moment, we are wondering what can be learned and changed through acknowledging who is being seen and not seen as Jewishly vulnerable within the Covid-19 crisis. How will the narratives that Jewish leaders are proximate and not proximate to impact their ability to address how Jews of Color, as a historically vulnerable population among Jews, will make it through this pandemic without being made more vulnerable within Jewish systems and within the country’s navigation of Covid responsiveness?

The good news is that Dimensions is already working with Jews of Color and their allies to develop resourceful, empowering and resilience-based programs that have the power, through direct-service, to support JOC in saving their own lives within a system that has consistently left them behind. We hope that what will change as we navigate forward through the next stage of this pandemic will be the number of partners in Jewish spaces who see our liberation as their liberation and who will work with us to deepen opportunities for wellness and greater equity for all of us.

Yavilah McCoy is the CEO of DIMENSIONS Inc. in Boston. She has spent the past 20 years working extensively in multi-faith communities and partnering specifically with the Jewish community to engage issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.