By Jay Cohen
Coming into the Leadership Fellowship, I was hesitant. As a white-passing person stepping into a fellowship labeled for people of color, Jews of Color to be exact, I felt out of place. I grew up in the South Bronx, a predominantly Black and Hispanic community, as a white-passing fem (person perceived as feminine or female). I was labeled as a Jew due to my last name and skin complexion, and this ultimately impacted the way people viewed and treated me. It impacted the way I viewed myself, making me hyper vigilant of the differences between my peers and me. For example, I became aware of the access and power I had by simply knowing I could push the limits farther than my classmates without having my parents called. In comparison, my Black and Latinx peers were excessively disciplined for behavior that was similar to mine. Being labeled a Jew in a predominantly Catholic and Christian space felt like my kryptonite–a weakness I needed to avoid. Knowing that my peers would use my Jewishness to “other” me led me to distance myself from the word “Jew” and everything related to it.
Continuing into high school, I completely disregarded my relationship to Judaism, becoming further disconnected from my extended family. At this time, I was also dismantling my gender identity. It took years for me to feel comfortable enough to pursue hormone replacement therapy and start to live in my fullest truth. I started a new chapter in my life where existing in social spaces didn’t seem as threatening and daunting because I could finally present myself as the person I’ve always envisioned. Being seen now as a cis passing light skin Latino male has created more opportunities in a patriarchal society. Leaning into what I loved to do, community organizing, I joined Black Trans Liberation, a community built around love, respect, and solidarity. This movement for liberation has funneled me into spaces I never dreamed possible before my transition. It has given me a safe space where I know I will be met with fellow community folx who have experiences similar to my own as a trans masculine person. From this family and coalition I was given a recommendation to join the Jews of Color Initiative as a fellow where I could explore and redefine my relationship to an identity I stripped myself of over a decade ago.
Through this fellowship I’ve come to understand the impact of my learned experiences and recognize that my identity is unique to me and all the intersections that I embody. I am mindful still of my worries over how the Jewish community would receive me as a white passing trans person with no actual religious knowledge and no ties to the community coming in. The Fellowship allowed me to realize I’m not the only Jew of Color who has been made to feel “othered” and excluded in the spaces where white Ashkenazi Jews are seen as the norm. I gave myself the grace during this fellowship to explore my new found identity in Jewish spaces. Today, I look for opportunities to help support Jewish communities in the best way that I can through catering, efforts toward liberation, and community organizing. Importantly, I recognize from this fellowship that Judaism has been present in my life throughout all of the community work I’ve already done.
The Jewish value of tikkun olam–repairing the world–is infused in the work being done by Jewish community members to improve society. The phrase grounds me when thinking about my new found relationship with Judaism, thanks to the Fellowship. Accessing a space where I once felt so uncomfortable has helped me recognize the power of embodying my Jewish identity, whether in JoC spaces or any other Jewish spaces. Overall, this fellowship has given me the clarity that my power does not only come from one facet of my identity. From redefining my presentation, to evolving how my confidence and self determination presents itself when I engage in different social circles, I am proud to show up as my full self.