Waking Up and Showing Up for our Jewish Youth of Color – Because our Community is at Stake

Shabbat at Camp Be’chol Lashon; screenshot B'nai B'rith Magazine
Shabbat at Camp Be’chol Lashon; screenshot B’nai B’rith Magazine

By Ilana Kaufman

I was sitting across the very large desk of a nationally respected, executive Jewish organizational leader. I had questions about data and the Jewish organizational ecosystem. He had questions about where I grew up, what compelled me toward working in the Jewish community, and where my daughter attends religious school. As we closed the meeting my colleague stood up, walked across the expanse of his office to a bureau filled with books, journals and framed pictures. He picked up the only picture not facing forward and handed it to me. “This is my grandson,” he said in a quiet, cautious tone.

“He’s amazing! Where is he in religious school?” I asked.

My colleague’s voice cracked.

“It’s complicated.”

More than five times now, nationally regarded Jewish organizational executives have come-out-of-the-closet to me about their family members of color. And when I’ve been able to ask about this hesitance to share, these leaders, despite their significant formal power inside of the mainstream Jewish community, feel powerless and afraid when it comes to race and racism.

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When I was twenty years old, my friend Wanjiru and I went to see art at Washington DC’s famed Phillips Collection. By the time we stepped out of the second floor elevator we were greeted by security guards who escorted us to a private room where they searched and checked-in our small bags. The museum was filled with women carrying big bags and purses. They just all happened to be White.

When I told my Mother what happened, she quite literally was on the next train from New York City, and I somehow found myself standing behind her as she sat at a small desk across from the Collection’s executive director. She named the racism and articulated the unacceptable nature of our treatment. I was floored at her power – to convene this meeting, to elegantly dress down an uppity racist. My Mother spent parenthood fighting off the racists. Didn’t matter if they were in a bourgie gallery or in her own Jewish community. Our Ashkenazi family initially eschewed the idea of Black members, which was only partially eased with religious school and rites of passage. It was my faith community and family who taught me the term schvartze. If my Mother wanted to engage in secular or Jewish life, she quite literally carried the gifts and burdens that come with having children of color in White dominated communities deeply informed by racism.

When we left the museum I thanked my Mother for the intervention. As we walked down 21st Street Northwest, she turned to me and said, “It can be subtle or in your face, but only White people know how racist White people can be.”

It is this internal knowledge of the danger of White racism that makes those thinking about resisting it in some way fearful. Never mind the times my Mother had to endure the stories of refused restaurant tables, racist comments at Jewish summer camp and the suggestion that I park my car “in the back,” even though my hosts were expecting me to come through the front entrance. Racism makes you tough, but there is a price to survival. It is also like a slow drippy leak. After time it corrodes the spirit of People of Color, and also wounds the spirit of those White folks who love them. Some White Jewish community leaders with Black and Brown relatives worry about their reputation, and in some way about being seen as having let the community down. They worry about how racist the Jewish community is, and like my Mother, have experience, upon experience observing – sometimes even partaking in racism common in Jewish community life.

While sitting on a panel at the Jewish Council of Public Affairs Townhall discussing the role of Jewish advocacy in 21st Century Social Justice Movements, and race and racism’s effect on the organized Jewish community, one of my colleagues asked the audience of 70 participants (two of whom were non-White) to raise their hands if they have People of Color in their families. Half of the hands in the room went up. When I was teaching in a Northern California Shul on Yom Kippur about Jewish Identity and Racial Justice I asked how many of the 50 all White participants in the room have family members who are non-White. Looking across the room, up went half of the hands. And when I work with my nationally renowned colleagues on how to build enduring, authentic coalitions with communities of color, and I ask them if they have People of Color in their families, with all of the same awkwardness and fear of a coming out Queer adolescent, at least half of them come out about having next generation family of color. And when I asked each of those three audiences how many of those family members of color attend Shul, engage in mainstream Jewish life, or in some way meaningfully connect to the organized Jewish community, not one – not a single person – can say the Jews of Color in their families are connected to any part of the organized Jewish community eco-system.

When I ask what’s keeping the Jewish family of color away, I am told, “It’s complicated,” followed by stories of being made to feel unwelcome because of race. One of my colleagues said, “Here I am in a role where I set national policy, but I can’t get my grandson to come to Shul because last time he went an older White woman kindly suggested he was somehow lost or confused when he was finding our seats. It was subtle, but the subtle experiences add up.” And then he said, “Going to Synagogue is like trying to kill my spirit by 1,000 racist cuts.”

The United States is well on its way to becoming a nation of folks of color. With 20% of our Jewish community already racially and ethnically diverse, non-Observant Jews marrying non-Jews at almost a rate of three out of four, and qualitative data that suggests many Jewish families have next generation family of color, the Jewish community is poised to soon become quite hued, too. And if you want to see the Jewish future – the one where Jews of Color are whole and amazing and thriving – just look at my former intern and Oakland, California’s Youth Poet Laureate, Tova Ricardo. Or consider the two young women of color who, at their recent B’not Mitzvah chanted darn near flawless Trope, delivered a compelling drash on leadership, summonsed the kind of power relegated to moments both extraordinary and holy, and claimed their space in their Shul and in our Jewish community.

On a recent afternoon I sat with Jewish leaders of color talking about our experiences, and the trials and tribulations associated with being of color in mainstream Jewish life. We talked about the youth of color in our community, and while acknowledging some level of acceptance, we noted that the Jewish community has done next to nothing to strategically address racism emanating from within our Jewish community. There are handfuls who are indeed whole and thriving, but the experiences with race for Jewish youth of Color are hardly characterized by rainbows and unicorns. One colleague said, “The ones who thrive are the ones who, when racist things happen, they talk about it. And then their parents come and handle it. Until the rest of our community wakes up and shows up, that’s our obligation as Jewish leaders of Color. We are like community in loco parentis. Because not only do we know how racist our community can be, we know how to thrive.”

So, when that nationally respected, executive Jewish organizational leader I mentioned at the opening explained that his grandson didn’t feel welcome at religious school, I understood exactly what he meant and told him I was sorry. But then, after a reflective pause, I asked, “Don’t you want him to love our community?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Then saying ‘It’s complicated,’ isn’t enough. Too much is at stake.”

Ilana Kaufman is the Jewish Community Relation Council’s Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director for the East Bay. She lives and brews kombucha in Berkeley, California.