Newsletter   /   September 2023
Centering Jews of Color While Engaging White Jewish Audiences

Centering Jews of Color While Engaging White Jewish Audiences

Over the summer, Riki Robinson, the Program Director of our New York Hub, and Jade Groobman, our Programs Associate, had the opportunity to lead presentations to young adults and rising communal leaders about Jewish racial diversity and the JoCI’s commitment to racial equity. The first group was composed of high school students participating in NYU Hillel’s Summer Excelerator program, and the second group were Hebrew Union College rabbinical students participating in the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship for Global Jewish Leaders. Though Groobman and Robinson used the same materials for each presentation, the discussions that arose from each varied widely, as each group had different levels of familiarity with Jews of Color. A major factor that also shaped the discussion was that both groups were all-white audiences. We spoke to Groobman and Robinson about how they centered JoC in discussions with all white attendees, and how engaging with a small group of individuals may have impacted the effectiveness of their presentations. 

When presenting to the Excelerator teens, Robinson and Groobman found themselves speaking to a cohort that had little prior knowledge about Jews of Color or how structural racism operates in mainstream, Ashkenazi-centric Jewish spaces.“The students in this group had just learned the term intersectionality about an hour before our presentation,” said Groobman. Because the teens had spent most of their lives in predominantly white Jewish communities and had minimal understanding of the multiracial reality of American Jews, Groobman and Robinson started from square one. 

“I would say that the presentation was mostly about the basics of understanding that there is diversity in Judaism beyond what you typically see in your synagogues and summer camps and day schools,” said Groobman. Robinson and Groobman engaged the high schoolers by inviting them to examine their own lived experiences as Jews.

Most white Jews experience some level of difference in relation to non-Jewish white folks; feeling like an outsider at one point or another is part of the American Jewish experience, though the extent to which Ashkenazi Jews feel their difference to non-Jewish white people depends on many factors including religiosity, appearance, cultural distinctiveness, socioeconomic class, and social context. Robinson and Groobman believe tapping into the shared experience of difference, including moments where one may feel alienated or unsafe as a Jew, can help white Jews widen their worldview. “One example I asked the high schoolers was, have you ever been the only Jewish person in a situation, and how did that make you feel? Were you nervous? Was it uncomfortable if people were asking you questions? And then I helped them make the connection: that’s how Jews of Color often feel in predominantly white Jewish spaces,” said Groobman. Offering a relatable point of comparison can often help white Jews–teens and adults alike–begin to grasp the alienation that Jews of Color often experience.

The rabbinical students in the Weitzman-JDC fellowship were also an all white cohort. But because they were older and dedicated to becoming Jewish communal leaders after graduation, they were all already familiar with the lack of representation of JoC in Jewish communities. The rabbinical students asked Groobman and Robinson more specific questions about how they can best serve JoC as future community leaders who are white. In their desire to be effective leaders for a multiracial Jewish community, they were very interested in the work of the JoCI. Their interest in acquainting themselves with how JoCI supports the growing infrastructure that exists for non-white Jewish leadership and community was a positive sign that emerging communal leaders take seriously the JoCI’s call to action to support anti-racist and equitable multiracial Jewish communities. 

“This group had a lot of questions about how funding works and what programs we do,” said Groobman, “and were interested in learning about being not only actively inclusive, but actively anti-racist clergy members as they become professionals in the Jewish world.” Robinson recounted that the rabbinical students asked how Mizrahim and Sephardim fit into the umbrella concept of Jews of Color, and how to thoughtfully approach a JoC community member about their experience in Jewish community without being tokenizing or micro-aggressive. With this cohort, Robinson and Groobman were speaking to people who already had an awareness of Jews of Color and a familiarity with the JoCI’s goals and concerns. Their knowledge base facilitated a deeper conversation that addressed tangible ways that white Jewish leaders can support JoC. “These are people who are dedicating their life to the Jewish community by becoming clergy,” said Robinson, “so they were a very engaged audience.” 

Groobman and Robinson successfully led conversations with all-white audiences by centering Jews of Color. The importance of grantmaking, researching, and expanding the field for JoC was imparted to both groups, and the young adults and leaders in each group came away with the intention of sharing what they had learned with their peers. Robinson and Groobman credit some of this with the fact that the groups they were speaking to had already built rapport with one another through their respective programs. 

“I think that there’s a higher chance that they will process what they learned with us together as a cohort through the relationships that they’ve built with each other,” said Robinson. Groobman noted that these two speaking engagements afforded valuable insights about how to center JoC experiences with groups that may not be familiar with structural racism or racial diversity in the Jewish community. “The smaller size of the groups allows people to be able to ask us questions that we would not have the time or capacity to answer in a larger setting,” said Robinson. “We really enjoyed it.” 

Here are the top four tactics that Robinson and Groobman utilize to center Jews of Color among white Jewish audiences:

  1. Bring the conversation back to Jewish People of Color. When discussing marginalization in the Jewish community, it is common for white Jewish audiences to raise questions about other marginalized groups, such as queer Jews, disabled Jews, or Jewish women. While these questions and topics are important, steering the conversation toward other marginalized groups of Jews can lead audiences to lose their focus on Jews of Color.
  2. Use data. Focusing on data generated by the JoCI and other Jewish demographic and community research studies helps ground the conversation in the lived experiences of Jews of Color and the multiracial reality of the American Jewish population. This can be especially important for audiences who have had little connection with Jews of Color or are fixated on the lack of Jews of Color in their own Jewish communities or institutions.
  3. Showcase the work of JoC leaders. Sharing the work of JoCI grantees not only celebrates and amplifies their efforts, but offers audiences a view into the vibrant community building, research, and Jewish engagement initiatives taking place among Jews of Color. Exploring the efforts of our grantees also provides clarity on why JoC-led and focused programming is so meaningful for our community.
  4. Ask participants how they will use this knowledge about Jews of Color to educate or bring about change in their communities. Concluding the program with a focus on actionable change helps participants see their role in initiating ripple effects—a paradigm shift—throughout the Jewish community. Encourage audiences to see their new knowledge as a starting point for committing to ongoing efforts towards equity.
Date Posted

September 2023


Jews of Color Initiative