In August 2022, the JoCI hired two incredible leaders to become part of our expanding Grants team. Sarah Starks and Jordan Daniels are JoCI’s Junior Program Officers and represent a generation of JoC whose leadership experiences and backgrounds contribute to the richness of our ever-expanding field. Though they eventually ended up on the same team at JoCI, Starks and Daniels have had distinct paths to, and experiences in, the Jewish communal ecosystem. As a result, they each bring unique insights and perspectives to their work at JoCI, where they work together in allocating grants, planning and executing events, and uplifting fellow community members and emerging leaders.
Daniels and Starks are both from Northern California and were each involved in Jewish community. Prior to becoming Program Officers, Daniels was the communications and creative specialist at Leichtag Foundation, and Starks worked as a paralegal at a law office. Daniels was involved in Hillel during college and Starks worked at Camp Tawonga for a number of years in high school, but neither of them knew there were professional opportunities that could center their identities as Jews of Color and enable them to direct resources to this community.
“I was involved in Hillel in both my Community College and in my university,” said Daniels. “They were really great experiences socially, but they didn’t really leave me wanting to learn more about my Jewishness.” Starks, on the other hand, became deeply involved with Black student organizations during college, where she gained leadership and community-building experience. “That was the first time that I was a leader of color for other people of color,” said Starks. It wasn’t until the pandemic that she returned to the Jewish community over Zoom. “Once everything was on Zoom, I would tap into services because even though I was so far away, that felt more like home than sitting through a service that didn’t resonate with me,” she said.
The trajectory of Daniels’ professional life was heavily impacted by the passing of his father at the beginning of 2018. When his father passed, Daniels moved to Oceanside, California to be with his mother. Shortly thereafter, he took a communications position at the Leichtag, a local Jewish foundation—and the JoCI’s first fiscal sponsor. At Leichtag, Daniels spearheaded communications for the organization and its initiatives, as well as created intersectional Jewish programming. He was then introduced to the Jewish social justice nonprofit ecosystem. This would become the entry point into a robust, multiracial Jewish community he’d never known.
During Daniels’ interview process with Leichtag, he addressed how the organization might make space for him to explore his intersectional identities. “I am black. I am queer. And I am Jewish. And I have no idea what that means. I wonder if there’s a space for me to figure that out here.” He was pleased by Leichtag’s response that they engaged in racial equity work, such as supporting the early efforts that would eventually become the Jews of Color Initiative. Through Leichtag, Jordan met Ilana Kaufman, and for the first time ever, was introduced to a community of Jews of Color.
Daniels referred to this initial entry into JoC community following the loss of his father as “divine timing… when something really traumatic happens in your life, then something really pure and beautiful happens.”
“I had no idea that JoC was even a term until I got to hear that in my [Leichtag] interview, and then within my first six months of being there, I got to meet so many JoCs. I had not met another Black Jewish person besides myself in my whole life. I honestly thought I was an enigma, like just some unicorn with identities that no one else could exist with.”
Starks had experienced JoC community prior to joining JoCI; during high school, she was asked to facilitate a luncheon for Jews of Color at Camp Tawonga, which was a formative early leadership experience. But when she moved to the East Coast, the overwhelming whiteness of Jewish community felt unwelcoming. After graduating college, she began to pursue a career in law, a field that she was drawn to for its potential to impact social change, specifically in communities of color. “I always had a particular lens for the struggles of communities of color because that’s where I saw my experience and my family’s experience reflected the most. So, growing up, I always knew that I wanted to do something to help people of color. And I think I was just figuring out what that could look like, what kind of help could make the most impact.” But the hegemonic whiteness Starks encountered in the legal field was disheartening.
When her mother sent her a job listing for Junior Program Officers at JoCI, Starks saw new avenues for creating social change, in ways that developed leadership skills she had honed in different arenas for several years. “I saw the job opening as an amazing opportunity to bridge these aspects of my identity that I had never been able to bridge, explicitly, ever before in my life. And it was also a way to incorporate the leadership development and training that I gained in organizations like the Black Student Union; I had Black leadership experience, and I had Jewish leadership experience, but not a way to put them together.”
The JoCI Grants team includes Starks, Daniels and our Senior Program Officer, Gabi Kuhn. Together, the three build connections in the field, manage the grantmaking process, and provide individualized support for grantees. Daniels’ pivot from communications at Leichtag to grantmaking at JoCI reflects his own journey through the Jewish organizational ecosystem. “I was heavily invested in at Leichtag. They helped me become the leader I am, and to then be well-positioned to get this job as a Junior Program Officer,” Daniels said. “I’ve had to rethink impact because I’m so used to rolling up my sleeves and doing communications work. It’s been very exciting, as well as challenging. I’m learning so much.”
Starks finds grantmaking at JoCI to be an ideal opportunity to merge her leadership experiences with her passion for racial equity. “Grantmaking has been a really amazing opportunity for me because I believe financial resources can make an immediate impact. I’m glad to be in a role where I can redistribute resources. It feels like a big deal.” The dynamic between the two Junior Officers and Kuhn also contributes to the positive energy on the Grants team. “I feel like our Grants team meetings are always fun, because we’re all excited and passionate about what we’re doing.” Starks said. “It’s a serious job. But there’s also joy that’s infused into it, because we’re literally supporting other people’s hopes and dreams.”