When she began planning for a gathering of Jews of Color (JoCs), Dr. Harriette Wimms didn’t know that her hope for building connections among the community would evolve into one of the largest national gatherings of JoCs, let alone become her own organization.
Dr. Wimms is a psychologist, professor, and community organizer, and the organization she started is The Jews of Color Mishpacha Project (JOCMP). The JOCMP offers advocacy and gathering spaces for Jews of Color and supporting community members, such as family members of Jews of Color or antiracist allies—“accomplices” as the JOCMP website calls them.
Dr. Wimms said that she is amazed at how her aspirations have developed into a full-fledged organization. “I didn’t really mean to start an organization,” she said, “I just realized something was needed. And I put the seed out there and it grew. It’s still blowing my mind!”
Although Dr. Wimms may be surprised by the growing success of the JOCMP, those who have watched her cultivate relationships with community members, funders, partners, and other leaders are anything but surprised. Building connections throughout the Jewish ecosystem, Dr. Wimms has guided her efforts with her heart, creating what she called a “nest” of support one relationship at a time. “Every one of our partners became involved through a meeting and a human connection. I’ve spent time—no, I’ve been lucky to have meetings with 50 to 60 people as [the Shabbaton] has been coming to fruition because I’ve just been trying to build friendships around this and promote healing.”
Healing is a central theme in the conceptualization of the National Jews of Color Shabbaton—a weekend long gathering for Jews of Color led by JOCMP that took place in mid-May—and that’s not an accident. As both a Black Jew and a psychologist, Dr. Wimms knows that, following the stream of heightened racial violence and hate that has characterized the last year, Jews of Color are in need of communal healing. In the midst of navigating these struggles, Jews of Color have been frequently called upon by their Jewish communities to guide racial justice learning, and Dr. Wimms recognizes the need within the JoC community to have time to just be. “I wanted this to be an opportunity for Jews of Color to put down the work and breathe.”
Dr. Wimms is not only driven by the challenges Jews of Color face, but by the joy she has encountered in community with other JoCs. Throughout the process of planning the Shabbaton, Dr. Wimms realized that organizing in Jewish spaces allows her to connect not only to others but to herself in powerful ways. So powerful that, as the Shabbaton approached, she found herself regularly staying up until all hours of the night, describing this time as akin to the combination of exhaustion, joy, and love that one feels when their baby wakes in the night. “When I’m in JoC mishpacha project space, even if we’re having hard, difficult conversations, I feel like I like myself. I like who I am when I’m in Jewish space.”
This sense of connectedness—what Dr. Wimms refers to as a “homecoming”—was her greatest hope for the over 200 Jews of Color who participated in the Shabbaton. “I want there to be healing. I want there to be joy. I want there to be exploration,’ she said about a week before the event.
“For Jews of Color, my mission and vision–that I honestly feel like was placed inside of me by the Divine–was that this could be a gathering in, a homecoming, that happens year after year after year for Jews of Color.” As Dr. Wimms thinks ahead, she does so with a sensitivity to the work already happening in the community. Dr. Wimms is dedicated to contributing to the JoC community in a way that expands organizational support for Jews of Color, rather than competing with other JoC leaders or organizations. “There are myriad organizations that are supporting Jews of Color; the intention is never to overtake but instead to collaborate with and lift up all of the programming that’s being done across the country.”
Dr. Wimms’ thoughtful preparation of the Shabbaton can also be seen in the mindfulness around accessibility, programming for all ages (from storytelling for young children to honoring JoC elders and trailblazers), support for JoC queer youth in partnership with Keshet, low-cost tickets and scholarship tickets, and inclusion of different levels of observance. For example, because the pandemic required the Shabbaton to be a virtual gathering this year, Jews of Color whose observance restricted their use of electronics during Shabbat would not be able to have a full experience of being in community with other participants.
To counterbalance the challenges of holding a virtual Shabbat event, Dr. Wimms and her team developed care packages, which included hand-made Havdalah candles, challah covers, and other special items to use during Shabbat. “If folks are shomer Shabbos (Shabbat observant) for example and not able to be on their device during Shabbat, they still have places and moments to connect and know they are part of us.”
Through thinking of ways to serve the Jews of Color community, Dr. Wimms also felt it was important to both center Jews of Color and incorporate white Jewish accomplices as a way of building a way forward for our entire multiracial people, an approach that evolved from Dr. Wimms’ search for “both/and solutions” in all circumstances. “From beginning to end, there’s been the hope that, while this Shabbaton and the JOCMP definitely centers and has places and spaces for us [JoC] together to meet and talk and heal, we are also inviting in the larger community who want to hold us up and want to really link elbows and keep walking forward.”
The Shabbaton itself was full of joy, learning, space for communal mourning and healing, and the beautiful sense of belonging that comes from being in community—even if virtual—with so many other Jews of Color. Dr. Wimms, reflecting on the Shabbaton said it was so much more than she could have initially imagined.
Weeks after, Dr. Wimms is still in awe of the Shabbaton’s success, beaming about the ways Jews of Color felt loved, supported, and whole in community with one another. “I still need to pinch myself to make sure that this dream really did become a reality,” she said. During the Shabbaton, she was overwhelmed with joy hearing multiple attendants express their love for other Jews of Color and the compassion and friendships that emerged. Dr. Wimms said that one attendant shared that they had “been waiting 30 years for this”–a testament to the depth of healing that took place during the Shabbaton.
Dr. Wimms is ready to continue her journey as a leader in the community and believes authentic human connection and conversation can be a driving force for progress. “If all of us can keep talking, that’s how tikkun olam [repairing the world] happens; if we can share our stories and keep seeing the light that’s spilling out from others, we can make healing happen.”