“I grew up as a young Black woman knowing that education was a very important part of my life and my journey, and that education would open many doors for me, just like many marginalized people will say,” Tova Ricardo said. Tova is a rising JoC leader, currently working as the Communications Intern for the Jews of Color Initiative as she completes her senior year at Columbia University.
Aspiring to pursue a graduate education, possibly in Communications or Public Affairs, Tova is driven by the ability to use words to build relationships and create change. This is no new endeavor for her; Tova is also a poet, previously holding the high literary honor of Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate in 2015.
“I’ve always been a storyteller,” she said, adding that she values the ability to “paint a narrative” for herself and others. The ability to do so has been a central component of Tova’s life and educational pursuits. As she looks toward graduate education, Tova reflects on a message she regularly hears from her dad—to choose a graduate program that allows her to move toward her strengths.
“I’m still in a position of trying to figure out what’s right for me,” Tova said of her developing plans for graduate school.
Now nearing the completion of her undergraduate degree, she is guided to continue her educational journey in graduate school by much more than the interest of landing a job. Tova views her journey in education not only through her present experience as a student with career aspirations, but in connection to histories of oppression and resilience of her family and the Black community collectively.
“Part of what inspires me to continue pursuing my education as a Black woman in America [is] about my family, my grandmother, people in my family who have undergraduate degrees and master’s degrees who attained these degrees while living in…as some people in my family call it, Jim Crow apartheid.”
Those histories are foundational to how Tova builds her motivation to continue her educational journey. “I think about being part of a multigenerational coalition of ancestors and future generations, of having a certain responsibility,” she describes. Tova knows that this is a weight not all students, particularly those with racial privilege, have to navigate. “Perhaps it’s a heavy responsibility and it’s one that a lot of marginalized people have to hold, but I feel that I owe it to all of the people who had to endure so much suffering in this country, and I have to do this so I can help set up, and hopefully better, the lives of those who will come after me.”
Because connectedness to ancestors, community, history, and dreams for the future inform Tova’s path, she describes her experience of education as a spiritual undertaking: “It’s not just about going to school to get a degree. Education feels a lot more spiritual to me and a lot more connected to history and my obligation to the future.”
Tova chose a particular path in education that would allow her to hone her ability to connect present-day realities to larger histories and systems while developing her passion for the written word. Focusing on English Literature and Sociology at Columbia University has helped her engage her commitment to writing as well as develop a “better understanding and articulation of the systems and structures that exist within American contexts.”
Examining these structures has shaped how Tova interprets the needs of the Jews of Color community and her future as a leader. “As a Jewish woman of color, I realized that I need to be equipped as much as I can with the tools to best represent myself and propel myself forward and also to propel my community forward.” She is certain that her future will include working within the Jewish community, and sees establishing her education now in her young adult life as a starting point to being able to best serve other Jews of Color as well as marginalized groups outside of the Jewish community. She shared that working with the Jews of Color Initiative has solidified her belief in the importance of self-sufficiency for marginalized groups.
Beyond Sociology classrooms and her internship with the JoCI, Tova regularly engages in deep thinking on topics of identity, oppression, community, and history in her poetry. “Poetry for me is one of the ways in which I feel like I can process some of the hardest things that go on in society as it relates to me,” she explained. “Whether that means I’m processing events and feelings in relation to myself and connected to the past, future, or present moment, my poetry is very personal.”
Tova’s poetry explores both Judaism and her identity as a Black queer woman. To do so, she often turns to seemingly mundane experiences and reveals how everyday moments hold deeper meaning. Whether talking about gardening, walking down a street, or doing her hair, Tova wants her poetry to convey how simple moments are “both extraordinary but also extremely ordinary as well.” Tackling religion and race, womanhood and queerness, Hebrew and Yiddish, Tova wants to use poetry to “cradle and nurture” her spirit.
Tova has also found spiritual fulfilment as she expands her individual relationship to the practice of Judaism and flourishes in the Jewish community of New York City.
“One of the most prominent things that has come out of being in New York and at Columbia has been how I’ve been able to explore my Judaism.” Tova continued to explain that having the chance to live on her own has allowed her to experiment with Jewish practice in whatever way felt right to her.
“I knew I started school wanting to become more observant and wanting to become more in tune with my Judaism, and that’s something that has happened. It’s honestly beautiful just being able to live on my own and decide how my Judaism looks for me.”
In addition to living on her own and engaging with the Jewish life on campus, being situated in New York City meant that Tova had entered a space with a large and vibrant JoC community. Tova recalled attending a gathering for Shabbat dinner and Havdalah with Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein and many other Jews of Color. In that moment, she thought to herself, “this is one of the first times in my life that I don’t feel so alone! I don’t feel like I’m the only one!”
“It’s meant a lot to me personally as a JoC, as a Black Jewish woman who’s trying to come into her Judaism and to feel like I belong more and taking charge of that sense of belonging.”
While Tova has yet to set her next steps in stone, the Jews of Color Initiative is proud to be part of this emerging JoC leader’s story, and excited for all she has in store.