Lessons Learned from Mentoring for Jews of Color

By April Baskin and Abby Levine

Over the past several months, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable provided 12 Jewish People of Color who are on staff at our affiliated organizations with mentors who are also Jews of Color. We created a new program, adjusted to feedback along the way, and learned valuable lessons that we offer to the broader community in hopes of expanding and strengthening this long-term work.

This program provided interested Jews of Color on staff, regardless of seniority or background, the opportunity to access 4-5 mentoring sessions with Jews of Color who had been working in the Jewish community for six to twenty-five years. Our goal was to offer confidential, supportive space for these staff of color to notice and process challenges they are facing in their professional or personal lives – to support their leadership.

We are grateful to the mentors for their partnership: Tamara Fish, Koach Frazier, Shahanna McKinney Baldon, and me, April Baskin, who guided the program design and also mentored participants. We are also grateful to the Jews of Color Initiative for the funding that enabled this program to happen and to Annie-Rose London for their stellar coordination.

The Roundtable decided to undertake this program as part of a larger effort to advance racial equity in the Jewish social justice field. Acknowledging that Jewish People of Color are a significant and systemically oppressed group within our field, we made this investment, alongside other projects, to address that longstanding disparity and provide leadership support.

We learned several valuable lessons:

  1. The hunger for space led by and for Jews of Color is palpable. We had planned two group calls – an opening one and a closing one. Based on the energy and interest in the first call, we added an interim one so participants had more time to connect with each other and build community.
  1. Participants appreciated having supportive time with a mentor who shared their identity where they could set the agenda. There were no desired outcomes for these sessions other than supporting participants with current challenges and opportunities in their lives. As Koach Frazier, one of the mentors said: “my mentees were all experiencing life transitions in one way or another and needed various kinds of guidance, from personal to spiritual to professional.” Participants said they loved having a thought partner who wasn’t tied to any professional goals and who could serve as a listener, witness, and partner in their leadership journeys.
  1. Staying flexible was essential to our success. We adapted several times throughout the program, including changing from coaching to mentoring in order to invest in JOC mentors as well as participants. There were times when the program didn’t unfold as planned – more time was needed for planning and recruiting than we originally expected – but we avoided false urgency and adjusted the overall timeframe of the project. We also allowed participants to schedule their sessions however they saw fit over a five-month period.
  1. This program was framed within the context of our larger racial justice effort across the network. We did not expect this program to solve all the problems Jews of Color face in the world or in our Jewish communities – it was one piece of a multi-faceted effort to advance racial diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in our Jewish social justice network.
  1. Dedicated program funding is a key ingredient. This was an initiative we wanted to do, and having specific funding for the program motivated us to prioritize it, amidst many other competing priorities. The JOC Initiative provided important, nuanced thought partnership in their role as a funder.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck in the middle of this program. We were grateful that this effort was already underway to provide support for navigating unprecedented change and upheaval for all of us, but especially for Jewish People of Color, who are being disproportionately impacted.

We share these lessons as we ask an overarching question: How might this program seed a stronger network of resourced, well-connected Jews of Color with abundant community and professional support? We look forward to working collectively toward answering that question.

April Baskin is the Racial Justice Director and Abby Levine is the Executive Director, both at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network of 64 Jewish organizations, that strengthens and aligns the Jewish social justice field to make justice a core expression of Jewish life and to help create a more equitable world.