By: Tova Ricardo
“Fundamentally, a community that is not diverse is not resilient,” said Yoshi Silverstein, emphasizing that a homogenous human culture is just as weak and unstable as a homogenous ecosystem in nature. Silverstein developed this understanding as the Founder and Executive Director of Mitsui Collective, an emerging, Cleveland-based organization focused on deepening a connection to wellness and nature through Judaism and racial equity practices.
Various forms of wellness practice, such as meditation and yoga, have been increasingly prevalent in Jewish life, especially since the 1960s. Today these practices can be found anywhere from Shabbat services to community retreats and conferences. But the widespread incorporation of Jewish mindfulness and wellness has largely been headed by predominantly white Jews and hasn’t always been accessible to Jews of Color. A sense of peace, wholeness, belonging, and feeling present that are often intended to come from mindfulness practice can be intruded upon by the realities of racial injustice, microaggressions, cultural appropriation, or a questioning of one’s Jewishness.
Silverstein is reimagining what Jewish wellness can look like when it is designed by and centers Jews of Color, celebrating our multiracial people. Mitsui Collective brings together what they describe on their website as the “three pillars of embodied Jewish practice and community-care: Wellness, Nature Connection, and Food.”
Growing up in a “radically welcoming” Jewish enclave of the Pacific Northwest as a Chinese Ashkenazi American Jew, Silverstein acquired an appreciation for the Earth’s natural ecosystem and a variety of movement practices, such as fitness and martial arts. Years ago, on his way to receive a CrossFit certification in a car full of colleagues, Silverstein imagined how to create a workout environment influenced by Jewish values and holidays.
In order to build a community focused on Earth, unity, movement, and Judaism, Silverstein wanted his collective to be guided by “the ability to connect to nature, to get your hands dirty, and then to have shared meals and to have access to delicious, nutritious, locally-resourced food together.”
Months passed by, and Silverstein decided to take his vision to the next step and bring it to life for the community. He realized that he needed institutional support and funding to launch this organization, which led him to contact Ilana Kaufman, the Executive Director of the Jews of Color Initiative (JoCI). Silverstein and JoCI designed a personalized approach for Mitsui Collective to ask and receive financial assistance by major Jewish funders, such as the Jim Joseph Foundation.
Eventually, Silverstein’s organization branched out and established partnerships with Jewish community organizations lead by Jews of Color, including Edot: the Midwest Jewish Diversity Collaborative, and became fiscally sponsored by ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Having existing JoC-led organizations in the Jewish ecosystem with which one can build partnerships is crucial for building the field for Jews of Color. These working relationships can enable networking, sharing of information, resources, and knowledge, collaborating on programming, and feeling a sense of shared experience as JoC leaders in the Jewish community.
Silverstein’s networking in the Jewish community has helped him build an organization that combines his passions for nature and fitness with racial justice advocacy and education. “Everyone needs to be thinking about racial equity in their work if we’re ever going to make progress,” Silverstein stated.
Silverstein also serves as a JoCI Grant Advisory Committee member (leaving the conversations when funding for Mitsui’s operations and professional development occurred). In this role, Silverstein is able to engage his commitment to vibrant, equity-based Jewish efforts, especially those led by JoCs, well beyond his own organization’s programming.
As Mitsui Collective continues to evolve, Silverstein said that he is motivated to design programming where JoCs can congregate together and freely express their identities without fear of prejudice. “I dream of a time—and I’ve had tastes of this in particular when I’ve been in JoC community—where we get to be just in beloved community.”
Silverstein also described his vision for building “beloved community” as a “taste of the world-to-come.” This refers to the rabbinic eschatology of an afterlife, or Gan Eden (Garden of Eden), when one’s immortal soul is filled with and reaches immense happiness and love, righteous souls are resurrected, and the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah) brings a unified and harmonious world. Though there are various interpretations and levels of belief regarding the world-to-come and the Moshiach among different Movements and traditions in Judaism, the underlying longing for a time of peace and unity can be found in most every corner of our People. Just as Shabbat is intended to provide a glimpse into the world-to-come, Silverstein reminds us that we can also catch a glimmer when we are in equitable, diverse, and loving community.
Even in the early stages of Mitsui Collective, Silverstein already believes that he has a responsibility to create a small semblance of this perfect future of the Gan Eden where Jews of Color have an inner peace that transcends identity and labelling, and can connect to the creative and beautifully designed ecosystems of HaOlam HaZeh (this world).
Silverstein’s wellness practices are thoughtful and grounding, using Jewish imagery and spirituality, and tapping into the buzz of energy felt in our bodies and in community. We at the JoCI know first-hand. During our virtual JoCI staff retreat this August, we had the pleasure of being guided by Silverstein in an elegant movement-based mindfulness session. Using the image of a Magen David, the Star—or Shield—of David, Silverstein had each staff member creating unique movements that grounded us in the present moment and enforced a sense of connectedness even through our computer screens. While our JoCI staff was perhaps not always as graceful as Silverstein himself, the experience was just as enriching. Silverstein’s own genuine energy and peace was palpable through the screen and gave us all a sense of calm.
“Each time we put a program together, and hopefully once we launch the physical space and start building, I like to think of that as we are actively creating the Jewish community and the Jewish practice hand-in-hand,” Silverstein explained. The JoCI is proud to play a part in helping the Mitsui Collective drive this ever-evolving Jewish community and practice forward.