A colorful milieu

Fellowships look to facilitate, improve entry of Jews of color into communal leadership roles

As Jewish groups looked to bring people of different backgrounds into their ranks, the process wasn’t always easy; these programs are looking to help

While many Jewish organizations in recent years have actively sought to include Jews of color into their leadership ranks, that introduction has not always been seamless. 

In some cases, Jews of color in these leadership positions feel unheard, pigeonholed or misunderstood. To address this issue, a number of organizations have recently launched fellowships to prepare Jews of color for the specific stresses and challenges they are likely to face as leaders in the Jewish community, including the JewV’Nation fellowship, Jews of Color Initiative’s philanthropy fellowship and Jimena’s Sephardic Leaders Fellowship. 

All of these strive to create a peer community for Jews who may feel outside of the Jewish mainstream. Their programs provide mentors who have flourished in similar situations and help fellows develop relationships with other community leaders from all Jewish backgrounds.

According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 8% of American Jews are Jews of color. A 2021 study performed by the Jews of Color Initiative found that eight out of 10 Jews of color who responded to the survey reported having experienced discrimination in Jewish settings. That’s why when April Baskin was creating the JewV’Nation fellowship in 2016, she told eJewishPhilanthropy that she knew that the basis of the program needed to be “that it is normal to be a Jew of color, that we are a global Jewish people, and there are a range of different identities… [even though] it’s not treated as normative in the broader [Jewish] world.”

Baskin, who left JewV’Nation in 2019 and now runs the Grounded & Growing trauma-informed leadership program, said that Jews of color are often viewed as “perpetual strangers,” a term taken from historian Ronald Takaki, which he used to describe how Asian Americans are seen as foreigners no matter how long they’ve lived in America. 

For Jews of color, this perpetual stranger status means that in the synagogues where they look for comfort and belonging, they can instead be mistaken for hired help, a security threat, an outcast or a “token minority,” no matter how long and how deeply they’ve been involved in the community.

Another way Jews of color are treated as strangers occurs when they want to get involved in service work within the Jewish community, and are often pushed onto a diversity, equity and inclusion committee, Baskin said, even if this isn’t necessarily their personal area of interest – if they’d prefer to put focus on education or prayer or any other Jewish issue.

In 2018, Becky Jaye began her studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, dreaming of one day standing behind her own pulpit. “I love God and I love humans,” Jaye told eJewishPhilanthropy about why she yearned to become a rabbi. “I just want everyone to feel seen.”

But during her studies, she said she felt unheard and misunderstood because of her Korean background. Within a year, “I was thinking about dropping out,” she said.

But as she contemplated quitting, she was accepted to the Reform movement’s JewV’Nation fellowship as part of its cohort of Jews of color. The fellowship affirmed that her background and experiences were “something that is beautiful,” she said.

Jaye credits the fellowship with helping her graduate rabbinical school by providing the community and emotional support she needed. Today, she is a program manager for Emor, a Jewish think tank, at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

One of the biggest benefits of being a part of a fellowship for Jews of color, Baskin said, is having a cohort of people to share experiences with, who have also felt unheard. “As Jews of color, because of the silence that’s often in the spaces we’re navigating, it can make our brains wonder [if we are losing it],” Baskin said. Having peers provides Jews of color with the opportunity to process events, attain empathy and be reminded that they aren’t crazy. It’s healing just to have someone recognize that “it was that bad,” Baskin said. 

This was one of the main benefits for Jaye, who claims the JewV’Nation fellowship gave her “affirmation that I mattered as a human being… That fellowship and its consistent support throughout the years was the only thing that was helping me create a tether to reality,” she said.

The JewV’Nation fellowship and Baskin’s new leadership program are focused on trauma-informed healing and leadership, she said. Her goal was to teach fellows to “develop that capacity to navigate [the terrain], to sharpen and clarify our vision and keep going. Because our kids need it. Because we need it. Because we are worthy of it,” Baskin said.

Sarah Levin, the director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, said that their fellowship program isn’t focused on prejudice but on empowerment. Prejudice is what Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews already know, Levin said, explaining that they often feel they must filter their experiences and culture in ways to make sense to Jews who aren’t from their background. “This is the reality that so many people have been born into,” Levin said, “that they’re living with every single day.”

So JIMENA’s Sephardic Leaders Fellowship aims to provide fellows with the tools to build community and bring Sepharic and Mizrahi culture into the mainstream. Fellows work with top Sephardic scholars, learning about topics including Sephardic culture’s current revival throughout Israel, best practices to bring Sephardic studies into Jewish day schools, the ways both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews have been targeted in America while also benefiting from structural racism and the methods that Sephardic sages and leaders have used to create inclusive communities throughout history.

“I felt pride in my background and my story,” said past fellow Vicky Tsur, the learning and prayer coordinator at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto, Calif. “The fellowship gave me a sense of belonging that I had not felt since leaving my parents’ home.”

She was able to bring what she learned to the programs and classes she teaches at her temple. “I wanted to change the Ashkenazi-centric environment and make sure that each and every student in my classroom felt a sense of belonging and that their Judaism is as valid as everyone else’s.”

To Stephanie Sebag, a former fellow who was parent association president and a board member at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, the overall Jewish community is “more curious” about learning about Jews of different backgrounds than in the past, and the fellowship gave her the knowledge and pride to bring back to the schools her kids attended. “I discovered many aspects of the Sephardic world and the Mizrahi world that I didn’t know,” she said. 

Gabi Kuhn, the senior program officer at the the Jews of Color Initiative, told eJP that she sees their philanthropy fellowship as “a little bit like grad school for philanthropy in the Jewish community… We will obviously talk about power dynamics, race, equity and inclusion, as part of the work and how people navigate [philanthropy] with various intersectional identities, but the focus of the fellowship is specifically to train [fellows] as program officers and philanthropic professionals.”

They do this by teaching fellows the ropes of philanthropy by bringing in industry leaders to lead conferences and trainings. The program brings in Jews of color and people of color who work in Jewish spaces to talk about how they have navigated similar situations and learned to live “as their full and authentic selves.” Eventually, fellows dive into the work, shadowing the grants team and learning the entire request for proposal process. After the year program, the JOCI supports fellows in finding a job placement at a philanthropic organization. 

All the representatives for fellowships that eJP spoke with reported that mentorship – experts who have walked similar terrain – was an important component of the fellowship. Each of the representatives also acknowledged that it was important to have Jews of all backgrounds involved, people who have committed to being allies, sometimes as mentors, sometimes as teachers and presenters, because many Jews of color may not have the connections and systemic resources that others have.

While it’s important for fellows to strive towards their goals, it is also important to teach fellows to recognize when it is time to move on from working with the wrong organizations, Baskin said. If an organization isn’t supporting you, it might mean you have to recognize that “They don’t have the capacity to respect and work with me at the level that I need to work” and leave.

Levin told eJP that there are plenty of people in Jewish spaces who are pushing to grow as a community, which she sees as a positive step in itself. “I don’t know what the answers are,” she said, “but I know that we cannot stop doing the work. As long as there are Jewish leaders, whether it is heads of schools or board members or senior staff, who recognize that something needs to change, then we must keep pushing.”

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that between 6% and 15% of American Jews were Jews color. This was not the most up-to-date figure, and it has been updated to the correct 8% estimate.