Grants on the Ground

People of the Book: Jews of Color Reclaiming Jewish Learning

By: Tova Ricardo

Jewish learning and education serve a crucial role in Jewish identity and community building. But despite the centrality of education to our people, structural barriers limit who has access to necessary resources, including books and education fees.

Even though Jews of Color are often disproportionately impacted by these tangible disparities, they also face challenges around more abstract experiences, such as feeling represented in content and discussion, learning from educators who share your background, a sense of belonging among one’s peers, or even being fully recognized as a Jew.

The disparities in access to such resources, tangible or conceptual, systematically disadvantage Jews of Color. Ammud: the Jews of Color Torah Academy is changing that, creating “a space for Jewish education by Jewish people of color for Jewish people of color,” says Co-Executive Director Arielle Korman.

Born out of Korman’s vision to teach a Jewish learning class for other Jews of Color (JoCs) and Co-Executive Director Yehuda Webster’s suggestion to create an ongoing group, Ammud hosts seminar classes out of New York University’s Bronfman Center, with out-of-state participants joining in through Zoom.

Korman and Webster decided to build an organization free from prejudice, and where Jews of Color can learn in community with others who know first-hand the beauty and challenges of being a Jew of Color.

“We really started to think beyond what we could teach and really how to hire Jews of color to teach classes for Jews of color.” This structure helps to tackle the unequal power dynamics many Jews of Color typically experience with educators, facilitators, or rabbis who are white.

Now, Ammud offers an array of Jewish textual, language, and culturally-themed sessions, such as “Truth-telling Prophecy and the Prophetic Voice in JOC Activism” by Dimensions CEO and JoCI grantee Yavilah McCoy. Ammud’s chavruta-style sessions are reaching 340 members, with between 15 to 45 participants in each course they offer.

Korman told JoCI that Ammud prioritizes Jewish learning and leadership training while making sure not to box Jews of Color into one-dimensional roles. Often Jews of Color are pressured to take on activist roles, or to put their stories on display as “teachable moments” for the benefit of white Jews improving their racial biases or politics. Ammud makes sure not to pressure participants to fill these roles, treating them with the full humanity and complexities white Jews are granted in Jewish learning spaces.

“Our hope is that ultimately we want to be empowering JoCs to be in positions of leadership to whatever extent they want,” Korman stated. “Not everyone who comes to our programs has to be ready to teach white Jews, but that is an option if people want to get that kind of skill-learning.”

Ammud’s educational approach focuses on uplifting Jewish learning and community building amongst JoCs without the tokenization they often face in predominantly white Jewish settings. Korman noted that Ammud seeks to foster an environment where Jews of Color can exist, study Jewish texts, and learn alongside those who reflect and respect their identities.

To help sustain their Jewish educational community, Ammud has used a JoCI-distributed grant to pay their teaching staff for facilitating learning sessions, which reflects JoCI’s values of compensating the emotional and intellectual labor of Jews of Color.

“Funding for Ammud allows us to pay our teachers, which is so key. We do have a volunteer board at Ammud, but we are not trying to be another organization that relies on volunteer labor to function,” said Korman. “We really believe in honoring the work our teachers, and people who work at Ammud, do.”

Ammud has also used the grant to address food insecurity and supply participants with dinner during each learning session. “When you are running a program for people who have been historically disenfranchised, it could really make a difference if there is dinner or not. We took that very seriously,” Korman explained.

In addition to receiving grants, Korman says Ammud’s ability to provide JoCs with a safe and accepting educational environment can be credited to the legacy of Jews of Color who have tirelessly organized for years. “I know that nothing Yehuda or I did would have been possible without decades of JoCs being in institutions and pushing for that possibility. We have elders looking out for us.”