Polarity Challenges in Developing Jewish Leaders

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in LeadershipDevelopment through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.


By Yavilah McCoy

Efforts to define and address the contemporary nature of “Jewish identity” and to develop approaches to “Jewish continuity” that have the power to appeal to Gen-X, Millennial and Gen-Z audiences of Jews have been the focus of the majority of Jewish professional spaces that I have been blessed to navigate as an educator and communal professional for the last 20 years, and are highlighted in the Center for Effective Leadership’s (CCL) recent report on Jewish leadership. What I have seen less of in these spaces are approaches to engaging Jewish identity and continuity that do not operate from an often unconscious, yet underlying assumption that the Jews that we are attempting to most engage through Jewish services are White.

As a younger CEO of a newly established nonprofit, whose mission is to service and empower the leadership of Jews of Color, it is important for me to build partnerships with philanthropies and institutions that appreciate the rewards that our community has experienced through years of unified Jewish institutional focus on facing crises and existential threats to our survival. And it is important to find new opportunities that are emerging for Jewish institutions to embrace the diversity of contemporary Jews and environments where rapid social change and emergent realities encourage leaders to engage adaptability, versatility and innovation in order to secure impact and relevance within the communities they serve.

It seems that the state of life itself in 2019 encourages many Jews to seize the opportunities of a diverse world and be whatever type of Jew – affiliated, loosely affiliated or just human – that they would like. As a leader who has benefitted from various fellowships and leadership cohorts offered within Jewish institutional frameworks, this freedom to “Just do JEW” in many ways was granted to this generation by leaders of previous generations who innovated and resisted within the institutional frameworks of their day and created the security and social support necessary to yield a container for today’s most powerful Jewish innovators to flourish.

As a Jewish woman leader of color, navigating and seeking support within a majority White Jewish institutional framework, innovating and resisting has been challenging. It is crucial to study and appreciate how the work of powerful role models like Shifra Bronznick of Advancing Jewish Women Professionals and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service have influenced my own journey. The strategies and frameworks that these White Jewish women utilized to create equitable pathways for what they hoped would be all Jewish women’s leadership empowerment were essential to my success and I would hazard to say the success of many Jewish women leaders today. Yet even with all of the strides and accomplishments in this space, the frameworks and pathways created for women leaders of 2019 do not establish clear roads to leadership for Jewish women of color nor sufficiently remove the equal sign that persists in many Jewish spaces between Jewishness, Woman-ness and Whiteness.  Welcoming the tension that exists between embracing the strides and ongoing challenges that Jewish institutions navigate regarding new opportunities to live Jewishly at the intersection of race, class and gender helps me to stay curious regarding what remains possible for a new generation of Jewish women leaders of color.

In 2014, 10 percent of American Jews identified as Black, Asian, LatinX or mixed, and 12 percent of all Jewish households in New York City, Long Island and Westchester identified as biracial or non-White.* These numbers indicate the presence, in the greater New York area alone, of over 66,000 Jewish Women of Color in the Jewish community whose lives and leadership matter.*[Pew Research Study on Religion and Public Life, 2014]

My desire to appreciate and utilize all that I have learned in White majority Jewish leadership spaces, while also agreeing to engage adaptability, versatility and innovation in my approach to being a transformational Jewish leader, inspired me to build programs within Dimensions that can support Jewish Women of Color in finding new language to allow their Jewish identities and leadership to be expressed and valued outside of an exclusive paradigm of Europeanness and Whiteness. Through “The Jewish Women of Color Resilience Circle,” Dimensions supports Jewish Women of Color (JWOC) in experiencing themselves as other than “other” as Jews.  In many spiritual communities and in Jewish communities specifically, Jewish Women of Color have yet to experience what it means to be central, clearly spoken to, and equally relevant in the derivation of Jewish ritual and practice. In Dimensions’ projects, we utilize a transformational leadership approach to support JWOC empowerment and to create a consciousness of JWOC thinking, JWOC love, JWOC spirit and JWOC power in the world. In our gatherings, I support Jewish Women of Color in developing a Jewish practice for themselves that resists any assumptions of White supremacy.  I do this work with love and compassion and I engage participants in supportive opportunities for ongoing reflection and re-evaluation.

As an aspiring transformational Jewish Woman of Color leader, I also model the prospect that JWOC can lead and operate meaningful leadership lives outside of a paradigm for work that supports our own oppression. In my leadership, I take seriously that in modeling and prioritizing my own self-care, I offer Jewish Women of Color a chance to connect to their humanness and thus their frailty.  My approach to leadership encourages emotional literacy and the confidence to admit when we are hurting or struggling, without succumbing to fear that we will be seen as weak or inadequate.  In my work with Jewish women of Color, I often address the challenge that when a woman leader of color lives even a small portion of her life publicly, that public too often expects perfection and, by virtue of being a leader, that she has already conquered the challenges she advocates against. My approach to transformational leadership provides Jewish Women of Color with opportunities to take off their capes and masks, be vulnerable, share our burdens, and seek and offer help to one another as we develop our capacities for leadership.

According to the Jews of Color Field Building survey “Counting Inconsistencies,” of the United States’ 7.2 million Jews, at least 12-15%, just over 1,000,000, are Jews of Color and in some communities, at least 20% of Jewish households are multiracial. For many, witnessing the profound social transformation occurring within contemporary Jewish communities might be cause for distress and alarm.  For others who are willing to engage the “Both-And” of Jewish communal growth, these times offer an opportunity to explore new ways of growing Jewish community and engaging Jews that will only emerge when leaders choose to welcome tension and swing between our established social polarities, as noted as one of CCL’s Jewish leadership challenges. The goal of Dimensions’ Jewish communal projects is to serve as a catalyst for enhancing the transformational leadership of Jews of Color and Jewish Women of Color. The JWOC Resilience Circle has created a necessary space for Jewish Women of Color to honor and care for themselves while giving voice to their experiences. It supports and makes more visible the leadership and meaningful communal work that Jewish Women of Color are accomplishing. Dimensions teaches our partners to center the work of Jewish Women of Color as valuable within larger Jewish communal spaces and encourages those interested in engaging under-served populations of Jews, to create personal and organizational resources for sustaining these extraordinary Jewish women.

Although the context has changed, Dimensions is leading initiatives that are concerned with Jewish identity and continuity. Our programs approach Jewish continuity as an opportunity to engage difference. We create Circles of Resilience that can sustainably engage Jews of Color, and Jewish Women of Color specifically, because we believe that the lives, families and future generations of all Jews are invaluable to the realization of a beloved, inclusive and multiracial Jewish future for all of us.

Yavilah McCoy is CEO of Dimensions Educational Consulting.