Sometimes it’s difficult for leaders to ask for help, to declare the work with which they have been charged has in fact exceeded their training, expertise and professional ability.
By Ilana Kaufman
I bumped into Raffi, a colleague from my professional sphere, on the south side of Market Street in San Francisco. We both work in the Financial District neighborhood that seems to attract a variety of mainstream Jewish organizations, and frequent neighborhood lunch spots full of Jewish community professionals apologizing to each other in advance of ordering crispy, bacony Cobb salads or porky, sweet fluffy bao.
Raffi and I don’t know each other well, and we are often awkward when in one another’s company. I find Raffi’s East Coast assertiveness a bit much for my native San Franciscan sensibilities. And I’ve heard that Raffi finds my Black/Jewish intersected identities a little confusing, and that it makes me “hard to place.” Nevertheless, Raffi and I have great affection for each other’s work, and find humor in the quirks and foibles that are part of any collegial community.
While stopped in front of Boulevard restaurant, where Beyoncé, Jay Z and Blue Ivy dined during their last Bay Area concert, Raffi wondered out loud if he could ask me a question. Seemed Raffi’s dear friend, another Jewish community professional whom I didn’t know, faced a leadership challenge having to do with a community of color here in the Bay Area. “I would love an opportunity to work on a leadership challenge related to a Jewish organization and a community of color,” I thought to myself. With curiosity and enthusiasm I leaned in and said to Raffi, “I’m listening.”
“My friend and his organization find themselves in a bit of a relational pickle,” Raffi said. “They need a fresh perspective about what’s going on from a community insider.” “Community insider?” I asked, with a tone that revealed I was more confused than enlightened. I knew this organization about which Raffi spoke. From all I had observed as a Jewish community colleague, its staff and leadership were full of community insiders – well respected rabbinic progeny, the sons and daughters of community legacies, the finest scholars and thinkers from the most prestigious Jewish community fellowships. “It’s full of nothing but community insiders…” I said out loud. “…Raffi, I’m perplexed. What kind of community insider could your friend possibly need?”
Raffi understood my confusion, and as he prepared to respond, uncomfortably shifted his weight from foot-to-foot. Raffi, whom I only knew to be chatty and confident, was now weirdly quiet. He was taking what felt like too long to find the right words. And it was in that moment of reflective pause I realized what was going on … Raffi wasn’t talking about his leader-friend needing a mainstream Jewish community insider. Raffi was trying to reach out to me because his leader-friend quite literally needed to borrow a Jewish community professional who also happened to be a person of color. And while certainly a little awkward, on behalf of his leader-friend Raffi was asking me to be that community insider.
I could have received this request as tokenizing or reducing. Even offensive. But in that moment I just stood there and marveled at Raffi. I admired the courage it took for Raffi’s leader-friend to admit he and his organization needed a hand. It takes a strong leader to say out loud that he and his team lack the capacity to resolve any situation, especially one that has to do with diversity and social justice issues. And it takes a good friend like Raffi to confidently fill the role of liaison between the leader-friend and a colleague such as myself.
I was impressed the leader-friend was reflective about the situation he and his organization faced, and immediately wanted to be of service. Here was an opportunity to be a bridge between two communities. How amazing to get to be part of an effort to help deepen meaningful partnerships. The intention of Raffi’s request was clear to me, and I valued this moment to help my colleagues move through a difficult spot. And my enthusiasm wasn’t rooted in altruism alone. I knew that helping this Jewish organizational partner expand their capacity to work with communities of color would be an important step in helping this same organization deepen its relationship with Jews of Color. And I was happy to have them start with me.
Sometimes it’s difficult for leaders to ask for help, to declare the work with which they have been charged has in fact exceeded their training, expertise and professional ability. And it’s certainly gutsy for mainstream Jewish leaders to openly seek help learning to grapple with race and racism, required prerequisites for building healthy relationships with communities of color. In fact, what Raffi and his leader-friend did was an incredibly powerful leadership move. Their approach to requesting help modeled the ability to be reflective, showed deep insight and suggested real intentionality. And importantly, it was in Raffi and his leader-friend’s approach that they showed their ability to discern between tokenizing me as a person of color, and tapping me as an experienced, expert colleague who would be a good bridge to borrow to help ease the leadership challenge faced.
As you read about and reflect on conversations related to race, racism, and ways to deepen partnerships with communities of color – Jews of Color in specific, let’s build-in new pathways to positive (even if sometimes uncomfortable) conversations and opportunities for community connectedness. And rather than trying to figure out where to start, try figuring out with whom to start. When you are ready, be bold, take well-considered risks, and reach out to your Jewish community bridges. There are scores of mainstream Jewish leaders who also happen to be people of color. Invite in fresh voices, and welcome perspectives very different than your own. When we welcome a true diversity of Jewish ideas, strengthened becomes our ability to authentically and powerfully serve the diversity of Jews who make-up our rich, multi-faceted Jewish world.
Ilana Kaufman, a native of San Francisco lives in Berkeley, California.