The Ko’ach Fellowship
The leadership of Jews of Color: The future is now
Fish are the last to discover water.
The truth of this maxim has been highlighted again and again for me since I started working with April N. Baskin and her two enterprises, Joyous Justice and The Joyous Justice Collective. As I continue on my antiracist path and practice, things I once had a hard time seeing because they were just “normal” or natural, start to come more clearly into focus. This is true in nearly every aspect and environment of my life, including the Jewish and nonprofit spaces that have been my professional home for all of my adult life.
Almost universally, these spaces deeply and consistently center whiteness. In other words, white people, their thoughts, comfort, and experience drive everything from programming to policy, communication norms to cultural expectations. There are many side effects of this, but the one that is resonating for me now is the way in which the contributions and the leadership of people of color–non-Jewish and Jewish–were and are met not typically with vitriol or hatred, but with a kind of confusion and dissonance generated by completely unexamined white dominance.
To be honest, I’m not sure I fully saw this dynamic until I heard April talking about her new leadership intensive for Jews of Color, the Ko’ach Fellowship. I was a fish, and centering whiteness was water. April said about this fellowship, “It is important to me that Ko’ach intentionally counter the institutional cultures that, often unwittingly, continue to center whiteness over the clarity of vision and expertise many Global Majority Jewish leaders possess.”
Made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor and Rise Up, the Ko’ach Fellowship kicked off over President’s Day weekend of 2021. The fellowship is a program of the Joyous Justice Collective, which is fiscally-sponsored by Keshet, and is the nonprofit arm of Joyous Justice, LLC, a Black Jewish woman-led, multiracial community-powered social justice and spiritual transformation organization that seeds and leads systemic change and healing through radical imagination, education, consulting, coaching, and innovative programming. Leveraging nearly two decades of groundbreaking, award-winning liberation-focused leadership in the Jewish community, April N. Baskin founded Joyous Justice in 2019.
The Ko’ach Fellowship’s inaugural cohort is a collection of ten highly-accomplished Global Majority Jewish leaders. Much like April herself, these are people who have already accomplished exceptional things, and exceeded most expectations others have placed on them. Their inclusion in Ko’ach was no accident. SooJi Min-Maranda, Executive Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, said it in a different way: “My heart sang as I saw the fabulous faces of the new cohort, some familiar, some new. We Jewish leaders of color are too often isolated and marginalized. We are required to bear the mantle of leadership while weighted down by hatred and fear that closes hearts and minds and causes irreparable harm. This fellowship seeds and fosters collaboration, coordination and partnership.”
Now that I’m seeing the water, I’m realizing just how limiting the “normal” that is white-centering has been to my Jewish and nonprofit communities. That limitation has had real, though yet unmeasured costs that this fellowship will start to recoup. Claudia Horwitz, Project Director for the RiseUp Initiative, articulates it this way: “How many Jews of Color have left their vital roles in Jewish institutions or communities because of lack of support, ignorance, and/or the constant strain of racism? How much leadership power and brilliance has been lost in the process? With Ko’ach, leaders of color will be supported, loved and challenged by each other in a container created explicitly for them and by them. I know, in my bones, that the Jewish community will reap the gifts of the Ko’ach Fellowship for literally decades to come. Let the world rejoice.”
The losses Claudia speaks of will multiply and continue to limit us unless we more substantially support and invest in Jewish leaders of color–and back it up by proactively building our own racial awareness, analysis, and accountability within our organizations and ourselves. We must ensure the ecosystems of our Jewish and nonprofit communities are properly prepared to reflect the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural webs of teams, constituents, leaders, and stakeholders they were always meant to be. We have always been a global people. The Jewish past and the Jewish present are multiracial. The Jewish future will only be more so. If Jewish organizations, nonprofits, and congregations are to keep up, we must learn to respect, trust, and embrace the multi-dimensional vision of Jewish leaders of color, even when it extends beyond our current limitations. Doing so is an investment not just in individual leaders, but in our future. May it be just and joyous for us all.