In January, the Jews of Color Initiative proudly welcomed two new Senior Staff to our team. Alongside Ilana Kaufman, Tonda Case, our Senior Director of Finance and Operations, and Arya Marvazy, our Senior Director of Programs, have started shaping a new chapter for JoCI. We sat down with them to learn more about who they are, what their role at the Initiative is, and their vision for the future of JoCI.
What in your life has led you to this moment and this role at JoCI?
I think it really has been curiosity that has driven me. I’ve loved so many things about different aspects of work I’ve done. They’re all so varied, ranging from working in a group home to being in the military to working as an artist assistant to being a personal assistant for a comedian, finance, HR, tax, daycare, so many different things. My trajectory has not been a straight path and I think I’ve always had the hunger to be connected with people, the hunger for having work that allows me to love in all of the particular ways that I do, the hunger to be of service to build equity, and the hunger to grow my own skills and talents. I’ve learned to want my impact to be meaningful for both other peoples’ growth and my own development. In the beginning I was more focused on others, but as I matured and shifted, the big thing that was missing was me doing it for me. Looking at the span of my life, I have however much time I have and that’s it. What do I want to do with it? Especially now, I think of this question along with the generosity and folks’ willingness to see me in all my entirety. All of this has brought me to this beautiful point. Once somebody said, “You are the queen of welcome.” It tickled me because in so many ways it’s true. I build everything I do on welcome and equity.
I grew up in a vibrant immigrant community of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and inspired by that I place an indispensable value on community and communal life. I truly see them as core to a meaningful human experience. It’s because of these values I’ve found myself so invested in Jewish community, not only as an engaged member, but having chosen to build my career path within it. Amidst this arc, I’ve often focused on creating experiences, opportunities, and offerings for people who may not have been seen, welcomed, or embraced before. Over the past 6 years I’ve worked to energize a Jewish communal ecosystem that is more consciously inclusive and equitable, and most recently, this focused on LGBTQ+ inclusion. Now this theme has expanded to passionately uplifting and empowering racial justice and equity in Jewish life. It’s a long overdue and essential responsibility for us as we build a Jewish community that understands its past and aims to build a more just and relevant one for the future. I care deeply about how we shift our energy and resources to make our community not just palatable but desirable, vibrant, inclusive, engaging and representative of the Jewish people of the future – much of which will be embedded in the lives and identities of Jews of Color. I feel a deep sense of alignment contributing to JoCI’s groundbreaking work in this moment, and I’m so grateful to be here.
What do you do at JoCI and how does that contribute to the community?
I look at the fiscal health of the organization—I manage the money—and I also look at the ecosystem in which we work. I think about how we run, the container we create for staff in order to do their work, the joy and resources and support and guidance I bring, the values that we actually want to hold as we do our work for ourselves, for one another, and for the external community and ecosystem. That feeds my desire to be welcoming and also to hold expectations in the organization so we can all be our best selves and do the work that we do so excellently. I also look at managing, navigating, and becoming deeply intimate with what we receive financially and what we spend and how to make sure that we meet our obligations in relationship to what we receive, to make sure we spend the right amount to meet our goals, and to figure out if something is out of alignment, to use a forensic mindset to be able to spot that immediately and figure out the story. I also have to think about the organization’s future. I get to hold both what’s happened in the past, what our spending and receiving landscape is now, and at the same time, keep an eye to the future. I find that particularly exciting. That actually is a really amazing analogy to one’s life. In so many ways it’s a natural fit because that’s somewhat how I think of myself, what’s happened, where are we now, and where do we want to be. Finance and money and numbers, one way of looking at that is that it’s crazy wicked. People think, “Who wants to be bothered with the minutia of things like that?” But from how I think about it, in some elegant way it mirrors the story of life. Stuff comes in and stuff goes out. What are you going to do with it? What are you going to do with the gifts, the challenges, the quandaries, the painful stuff, all of it within a particular time? How does the past shape where you are today and how is that going to shape what you do in the future?
As the new Senior Director of Programs, I’m excited that this answer will continue to evolve to meet community needs over time. Our programmatic work is uniquely positioned to uplift and empower Jews of Color and their leadership in a communal ecosystem that not only reflects our multiracial diversity, but that is evolving to more holistically see, welcome, and be inspired by it. So JoCI programs aim to be experiential and transformative to this aim and they’ve been growing rapidly since our institution. Content ranges from educational presentations for the broader ecosystem – think Beyond the Count and Counting Inconsistencies research – organizational partnerships that amplify racial equity work in Jewish life, leadership development that centers and amplifies Jewish leaders of Color in the ecosystem, and incubators that help to further develop brilliant projects led by JoCs. Much of the current work now is focused on community education ensuring that the groundbreaking research from JoCI’s studies inform the ways in which our community leaders, funders, organizers and professionals build a robustly inclusive and equitable experience for Jews of Color wherever they may be. In overseeing this division of our work, I hope to always be in service of the visions and leadership of Jews of Color across the Jewish communal landscape.
What’s a hope or vision you have for the JoCI?
That our work continues to grow and flourish internally, starting with the individual folks on this team and branching from there to the organization. That we continue to create and hold this beautiful ecosystem full of opportunity and possibility and that each of us leans into that. For anyone who is part of this organization or becomes part of it, I envision we connect with the work and that we’re able to see this workplace as a learning lab. For me, I’m coming into it having already learned some things about work, leadership, engagement, resilience, disappointment, joy. So, I can step into this workplace and see all of the elements that could grow. Whatever elements each of us bring to the work that might stall us, that we are able to release those with levels of grace and joy and embrace the ecosystem that has been created here. Having worked from pilar to post, I can tell you this place is highly unique. The pace of change here is fast; we have a high pace of movement in this organization. Ilana has set this framework for growth moving at the pace of change. The curiosity and the mindset to be both solution oriented but also moving yourself out of the way to lean into the possibilities at hand. I get to work with staff on the team in a way that allows me to see each team member in their full self. We don’t do things just by the book but hold each other as individuals with families, lives, careers that are taking shape as we move through the work. In my work, personal life, in all my ways of being, I believe it is alchemy that we are here. This whole life we’re living, this work we’re doing, it’s alchemy. We are making magic happen in so many ways and bringing miracles to bear and keeping life moving.
I sincerely hope that today’s Jewish communal leaders recognize the need to meet this moment, and really to go further than they may even be comfortable, to center Jews of Color, center LGBTQ+ Jews, center Jews of differing abilities, and so many others diverse manifestations of Jewish life. And for this recognition to come with the understanding that the success of our DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice) efforts is absolutely imperative to thriving Jewish life in the future. Communal leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to exceed the moment by positioning Jews of Color in leadership roles that allow us to build a Jewish future we believe in, that we’re deeply invested in, and that continues to reflect our full and vibrant diversity. Another genuine hope and vision is that with time JoCI can grow our amazing team to really give us the bandwidth and expand our efforts even more fully into the Jewish communal ecosystem. I see this work growing rapidly, and to meet the rapid growth we’ll need passionate inspired souls, both on the ground as professionals, and as lay leaders, stakeholders, board members and more. May we see the individual, organizational, and communal investments to the movement continue to grow with pride over time!
You can learn more about Tonda and Arya by visiting our Who We Are page on our website.