Jews of Color Belonging:
We all have Work to Do

By Lyn Light Geller and Laura Hemlock

We could not agree more with Jordan Daniels who shared a call to action for the Jewish community regarding Jews of Color (JOC). In our roles at a local federation, we represent departments that make change by funding new initiatives, conducting research, developing new planning priorities, strengthening organizations, advancing leadership and developing talent, focusing on critical issues and crisis response. Diversity has always been a priority for our work, and we have a tradition of identifying and listening to new voices that are under-represented at our tables and to developing initiatives to involve them and address their interests. While there are many factors which contribute to this work, often it is new research that reminds us that our work is never finished. Based on our own research and experience, we were already mindful that our community was becoming more and more diverse. That is why we are so grateful to the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative for providing the data that yielded both a clarion call and guidance to our community.

This past May, UJA-Federation of New York was honored to host Ilana Kaufman as she presented the findings of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative’s Study. While we recognized that the data she would share is important for all of us to hear, we knew that this moment could help us advance our work in significant ways. The presentation indeed allowed us to begin a dialogue about the work needed to be done to pave the way for significant change.

The electricity in the room on the evening of the presentation was palpable. The presentation alone was enough to challenge all of us to rethink how we approach our work and our relationships. The comments by Jews of Color in the room moved many deeply. Stories of isolation, exclusion, offensive behavior. One comment that was a wakeup call for those of us who convene the community: “this room is unlike any other I have been in at UJA.”

While the presentation of the data itself was incredibly important, we recognized that the evening could serve a role in a much bigger picture. Following the presentation, we asked Ilana to facilitate a closed-door conversation for anyone who identified as a Jew of Color. This meant that even we, organizers of this event, would not be present. This idea came from a small group meeting led by Ilana for leaders of the Jews of Color community in New York to help us plan for her presentation. We are grateful to the JOC advisors who suggested this to us, and to those who participated. Stepping out of the conversation (not easy for organizers to do and a bit out of our comfort zone) signaled to the community the need for safe spaces for Jews of Color. It also taught us that how we do this work is as important as that we do the work.

We are in the midst of figuring out directions and next steps, so we write now not to share our accomplishments – the journey is long, and as Ilana shared, it’s about getting it done right, not getting it done on time – but to reflect on what we have learned thus far and what we imagine might come next. Here are the key take-aways from that conversation. Some may seem obvious. But we had to hear it from the Jews of Color community itself.

There is a lack of knowledge, understanding, and sensitivity around race in the Jewish community.

Jews of Color feel othered in many Jewish institutions that proclaim to be welcoming of all. Trainings and education about race, equity, and justice are needed to make cultural shifts. Plain and simple, we have a lot of white work to do.

Jews of Color feel that entering Jewish spaces often means entering white spaces, forcing many to codeswitch to belong or be heard.

This furthers othering and disempowers Jews of Color to participate in the broader community. In addition to working on cultural change for the broader community, we must create and promote spaces specifically for Jews of Color.

Lack of access to leadership in the Jewish community leads to a lack of voices from Jews of Color to make critical decisions for the future

We must look around our leadership tables and ask, “Are there diverse voices represented here?” If the answer is no, creating pathways to leadership is essential. This includes building authentic relationships (as to not tokenize) and being intentional of who we recommend for open leadership positions, as well as supporting leadership cohorts designed specifically for Jews of Color.

Nothing about us without us.” Inclusion of Jews of Color in this process is essential to carrying out this work.

This work cannot be done without the voices of Jews of Color. This does not mean picking up the phone and asking to pick someone’s brain – this means creating genuine thought partnership throughout the process and paying for consulting as needed.

We have already taken some steps. Consultations were held by our director of research with representatives of the Jews of Color community. Our strategic planning committee has made sure to include voices from Jews of Color in their data collection phase. We are exploring possible convenings and are meeting with those who are engaged in this work and are steps ahead of us. Culture change is hard, we still have lots of work ahead, and we can’t do it alone. We all need to be on this journey together. Let’s use this forum and others to share what we have learned to reshape and rebuild our communal tables and spaces.

Lyn Light Geller is Associate Executive Director, Community Resources and Laura Hemlock is Planning Executive, Jewish Life at UJA-Federation of New York.