Ilana Kaufman’s community education sessions often revolve around two major goals. First, reconstruct assumptions about the U.S. Jewish community. Second, motivate listeners to answer the call to action in the fight against racial injustice. We know from the long history of racism in this country that anti-racism will not succeed if it only focuses on changing the hearts and minds of those with white privilege, but that it is through a dedication to action—seeing anti-racism as a verb—that real change will come about.
“Being an anti-racist is both so complex and so simple…it means moving from inaction toward ‘let me do something about it,’” Kaufman, Executive Director of the Jews of Color Initiative, told a predominantly white gathering of nearly 170 people. The group had come together virtually on November 9, 2020 for the second of a three-day United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) event, “Kol Tzedek: A Conference on Racial Justice.”
Since the Jews of Color Initiative first began in 2018, Kaufman has repeatedly faced questioning, including “how many Jews of Color are there, really?” and other assumptions that Jews of Color are so few in number that they are merely an anomaly. Our research study Counting Inconsistencies revealed that there are at least 1 million Jews of Color in the U.S., and that this number is growing. Kaufman has learned to restructure such assumptions and ask predominantly white Jews to turn this belief on its head.
“The anomaly is not Jewish People of Color—we exist in significant numbers. The anomaly is that we’ve spent all these decades believing or being led to believe that our community is white, not understanding that, like every facet of the US, of course the Jewish community is racially diverse.”
Flipping the script leads listeners to question existing structures of racism and exclusion, rather than unjustly assuming a “deficiency” of those who are marginalized.
In a similar vein, Kaufman said that we shouldn’t wonder why Jews of Color aren’t showing up to synagogues or community events, but should look inward at structures of inequality that prevent the full inclusion of our multiracial Jewish people. “We shouldn’t wonder ‘what’s keeping Jews of Color away?’ I would wonder, ‘what’s going on internally that’s creating those headwinds keeping Jews of Color out of our communities?’”
While there are certainly higher numbers of Jews of Color in particular pockets of the country, such as New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area, our study and our ongoing grantmaking efforts have also taught us that Jews of Color are spread across the country and found in every region. The paucity of Jews of Color serving on Boards, participating in community programs, or davening at Shul tells us more than the simple fact that Jews of Color are often missing from communal life. The paucity, when examined reveals underlying forms of exclusion and erasure that happen at not only the interpersonal but at the structural level.
Kaufman spoke about the lack of presence of Jews of Color in decision-making spaces in the Jewish community. Because of the decades of work from leaders like Yavilah McCoy coupled with recent activist pressures on white-led organizations to confront the reality of racism, many synagogues are indeed having discussions about racism and anti-racism, some going a step further and developing diversity task forces, anti-racism book clubs, and the like. These efforts are important, but won’t result in systematic anti-racist intervention.
Kaufman believes that until decision-making spaces represent the diversity of the Jewish people, communities will not be able to mend the gaping wound of racism in our very own community. “Even with the best of intentions we can’t represent those whom we are not,” Kaufman told the USCJ audience. In other words, predominantly or entirely white Jewish community Boards and leadership will not be able to fully understand or adequately tackle racism so long as structures keep Jews of Color away from the table.
Kaufman operates from the perspective that white supremacy has stolen something from white Jews as well. She explained to the listeners that “moving into whiteness was an evolutionary process” for those we now call white Jews, and that “the concept of Jews being white is socially constructed and conditional.” This understanding is repeated among scholars of Jewish identity and race as well. Karen Brodkin, author of How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998), suggests that Jews of European background became white through vehicles of upward mobility, particularly the GI Bill. Brodkin notes on pages 50-51:
“The myth that Jews pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps ignores the fact that it took federal programs to create the conditions whereby the abilities of Jews and other European immigrants could be recognized and rewarded rather than denigrated and denied. The GI Bill and FHA [Fair Housing Act] and VA mortgages, even though they were advertised as open to all, functioned as a set of racial privileges. They were privileges because they were extended to white GIs but not black GIs. Such privileges were forms of affirmative action that allowed [male] Jews and other Euro–American men to become suburban homeowners and to get the training that allowed them—but much less so women vets or war workers—to become professionals, technicians, salesmen, and managers in a growing economy. [European] Jews’ and other white ethnics’ upward mobility was due to programs that allowed us to float on a rising economic tide. To African Americans, the government offered the cement boots of segregation, redlining, urban renewal, and discrimination.”
Through a combination of anti-Black racism, economic opportunities granted to those classified as white, and pressures of assimilation, white Jews have, perhaps subconsciously, accepted the terms of and tumbled into whiteness, Kaufman asserted. This means that white Jews have simultaneously lost something as ethnically-diverse Jewish people and also gained a whole host of privileges.
“The self-view of Jews in the United States is largely white and Ashkenazi. Are we ready to move beyond that, not to close the door on the past but to begin a second chapter?” This second chapter is not about forgetting the struggles or experiences European Jews have indeed faced, but about reframing the understanding of who the Jewish people are and what the full range of struggles and experiences have actually been among our people in the U.S. Kaufman believes this shift into our multiracial selves is anything but a loss to white Jews; it is a pathway to something better—a second, expanded chapter. “Resilience is the second chapter of the story,” she affirmed.
As we move forward as a multiracial people, it will be crucial to center the needs and viewpoints of Jews of Color. Building pathways for Jews of Color to be decision-makers in Jewish communities—not only for matters of diversity and equity, but all facets of Jewish life—can ensure that we build a beautiful second chapter that will sustain and transform the Jewish people.
Kaufman sees that the potential for change is rising, perhaps like never before. “We are on the precipice of something better. And we have to hold onto it.”