Ray Williams just finished their freshman year in high school, but their vision for Jewish leadership is one that reflects experiences of Jews of Color across generations. Ray has spent the last six months in an activist-driven, community-building youth group called Jews Against Marginalization, or JAM for short, which is designed for Jews of Color, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (JOCSM). JAM is part of Jewish Youth for Community Action. During Ray’s time with JAM, the group has been involved in supporting a campaign by One Fair Wage, and Ray co-authored an article sharing JAM’s knowledge about and advocating for fair wages.
“I was one of three people in JAM who wrote an article for Alma talking about the legacy of tipping and how that was connected to slavery once it came to the U.S. from France. That trickles down and evolves to fit today’s [equitable pay] standards, or lack thereof,” Ray explained of their co-authored piece with Naomi Hyman and Annalise Kalmanoff.
But JAM has given Ray much more than the excitement of being published in Alma; it’s given them a sense of belonging, validation, and a drive to develop as a Jewish leader.
“I never really saw myself as a Jew,” Ray said with a familiar sadness. “Thinking about the fact that it took me 14 years to realize and come to accept that I am a Jewish person—that in and of itself is part of the problem. There’s no one person to blame. I think representation in the media is a really big deal.” Ray explained that the Jewish representation of white Ashkenazi Jews never resonated with them, leaving them to feel that the Jewish community was not a place they belonged. JAM has helped Ray connect with other JOCSM youth in a way they didn’t even imagine before.
“It was really nice [to connect with JAM]. I knew there could be Jews of Color because I exist, but it was just really great to see that that part of my identity could be validated.” Ray described this experience of connecting with other JOCSM youth as “a breath of fresh air.” “A lot of white Jews don’t think about us, and in this space of JAM, I am thought about,” they said.
Emma Kositsky, another member of JAM who additionally has served on the Board of Directors for Jewish Youth for Community Action, expressed similar sentiments about finding community among JAM youth. “Having a JOCSM space has allowed me to reflect on and become more secure in my whole, authentic self. Before JAM, I had never been in that position before. Other affinity groups have typically made me feel as though I had to leave parts of myself behind.”
When around other JOCSM youth, Ray feels at ease in Jewish community. “I had my first in-person Shabbat, or I count it as my first, because it felt a lot safer and it felt like a real community, just a lot safer for me. Like this is where I belong. There was no pressure to be really religious or something, it’s just like ‘it’s fine, you are a Jew and that’s fine.’” This can be a rare occurrence for many Jews of Color, who often feel they are held to a higher standard to prove their authenticity as Jews.
Through experiencing this sense of ease, particularly when with other queer JOCSM youth, Ray has begun to chart their path forward as a growing Jewish leader. Ray has learned that they want to be part of creating peaceful places for Jews of Color to connect with one another.
“When I’m in community with other trans or queer Jews of Color, I feel like I can just rest. And I want to learn to encompass that, be able to cultivate those spaces, and be a person that gives that energy just to sort of rest. I think that’s such a lovely thing that we look out for each other as People of Color, as Jews, as trans people, or as queer people in general.”
Ray has learned to think about community-building as a collaborative process done with nuance and sincerity. “No one has to be a carbon copy of each other, you kind of just need to sit down in a room and start with ‘hi, how are you’ just to sort of build that foundation for a relationship.” Ray said that while this sounds like common sense, it can be hard to develop and sustain in group contexts where there is a constant influx of new faces and shifting priorities and interests. “There has to be a strong foundation or else one person could leave and then everything would fall apart. It has to be a team effort. And without that it doesn’t really work.”
But the work should not all fall on community members like Ray to develop safe havens where Jews of Color can connect freely and with the type of community supports that create inclusive spaces. Ray also pointed out the ways they hope the white Jewish community can adapt to create safer and more loving communities that center Jews of Color. “I think that Jews who aren’t of color need to know that we exist so that we can also accept that we exist. And they need to do their part to make sure we can keep existing safely because it’s very hard to accept yourself when others deny that your identity is possible.”
When asked what they might like to say to other JOCSM youth, Ray replied, “You exist. And be f***ing proud of it! You happen to hold these identities and isn’t that such a cool thing that you can be part of so many different communities and experience so many different things and explore so many parts of who you are. There’s no way to exist incorrectly. You’re existing just fine. No matter how you choose to express your identity…Any way you participate or choose not to participate, that’s part of your identity. That’s part of you expressing your identity and your free will, which is very important as a person who holds multiple minority identities. Hold onto your free will, hold onto your identity, and keep existing.”