More than a full year into the COVID-19 pandemic, communities of color have statistically faced harsher outcomes than white communities. This current manifestation of inequality in the U.S. has also shown up in our Jewish community. In the Spring and Summer of 2020, the Jews of Color Initiative created a relief fund to address some of these disparities. Now as the pandemic begins to subside, institutional changes are still needed so that Jews of Color are not left by the wayside in moments of crisis.
In late April of 2021, Ilana Kaufman and Angel Alvarez-Mapp, our Executive Director and our Director of Programs and Operations, led a session for the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (NJHSA) sponsored by CVS Health. The NJHSA is a collective of nonprofits across the U.S., Canada, and Israel that provide services to the Jewish community related to healthcare, employment, mental health, and programs for youth, families, seniors, refugees, people with disabilities, and more. Altogether, the NJHSA is comprised of over 140 agencies, representing a wide reach throughout the Jewish community. The session focused on our COVID-19 Relief Fund as well as how institutions can better equip themselves to operate through a lens of racial equity.
The session with NJHSA, titled “Communal Crisis, Emerging Communities, Connecting Resources to Those in Need—Lessons Learned at the Intersection of COVID-19, Crisis Funding, and the Work of the Jews of Color Initiative,” was one step in helping the Jewish Human Services community understand how despite good intentions and significant communal resources, Jews of Color were significantly underserved during the COVID-19 crisis. While we considered our COVID-19 Relief Fund a success—providing $221, 693 in relief support for essential expenses such as rent, food, or medical bills—we also know that the work doesn’t stop there.
“As citizens and neighbors, friends and colleagues in the United States — a country structured using systems of racism—we are obligated to move though our world and work understanding the impact of that history of racism. Therefore, in order to be in Jewish communal service, all must be informed by racial equity and justice.” Kaufman said this is even more crucial when a crisis, such as the pandemic, arises and inequalities are exacerbated.
Our nation’s legacy of racism is one that impacts all People of Color. That impact must be taken into consideration when institutions develop support systems for Jews of Color. “We need to understand Jews of Color as People of Color in the United States. Whatever’s going on nationally for People of Color is going on inside of the Jewish community for Jews of Color,” Kaufman asserted. “Had our relief-interventions as a Jewish national human services community reflected an understanding of the national COVID-19 context for People of Color which includes Jews of Color, we probably would’ve approached COVID-19 crisis relief differently, and likely would have done better in the interventions—particularly for those most vulnerable.”
Kaufman also said that the lack of resources for Jews of Color may mean that there are other institutional gaps that limit the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem’s ability to serve our entire people, especially emerging, marginalized, or growing communities. “If the data that informs our work is missing representation of Jewish People of Color, then we must wonder: who else is missing?” What’s the first step to changing an institution to be in service to the true diversity of its community? Kaufman says to disrupt the cycle of existing institutional dynamics. “There are abundant resources in our community that are inaccessible to marginalized communities,” adding that we as a communal ecosystem “have to interrupt that dynamic” to prevent the same inequalities from playing out in future crises.
Angel Alvarez-Mapp said that one of the institutional practices that must be addressed in interrupting the current dynamic is the lack of a streamlined institutional support system. Alvarez-Mapp said that in the process of developing the relief fund, he learned that there wasn’t any “truly national connective tissue between different service organizations,” making it difficult for many to find the help they needed. Another challenge was that qualifying for assistance varied greatly by location, requiring applicants to navigate new, complicated processes and requirements at each institution. Furthermore, few institutions were willing to support non-Jews.
Supporting non-Jews was important since the relief fund was intended not only for Jews of Color, but for People of Color who were working within Jewish communities, who Kaufman described as “the backbone of support for the Jewish community.” People of Color make up the majority of service employees in Jewish Community Centers, Jewish homes for the aging, and other essential institutions in the Jewish community. Alvarez-Mapp said this is a demographic the Jewish community repeatedly forgets, and that “it was clear that in a number of places those folks would not be supported by institutions, even though these folks work in our institutions and keep them running.”
Kaufman emphasized that institutional and national-scale change is a slow and cumbersome process, and that leaders in the Jewish community need to deeply understand the Jewish people as multiracial, value racial equity and justice, and disrupt racism and prevent unequal outcomes. Because our current conception of the communal ecosystem is misrepresentative of the racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. Jewish population, there is a common misperception that Jews, who are assumed to be white, should care about racial justice and equity as a way to –stand with the “stranger.” But the reality is that we are a multiracial people, and that when people of color are in crisis, part of our Jewish family is suffering. “We should practice anti-racism not only because it’s the right thing to do as Jews, but because members of our community are experiencing racism too.”