In this month’s newsletter, the Jews of Color Initiative is excited to feature the leadership and community activism of Rabbi Heather Miller—whose involvement in Jewish communal life defies category: she is a rabbi, the president of a synagogue, a school leader, the founder of DEI organization Mixed Multitudes, a USCJ Board member, an alumna of the Selah Leadership Fellowship, and also a member of the JoCI Grant Advisory Committee. Rabbi Miller’s experiences navigating and serving as a leader in different Jewish organizations—educational, religious, philanthropic, and DEI oriented—have endowed her with rich wisdom and perspective applicable to myriad issues that affect the Jewish communal ecosystem.
Many of the insights and values that guide Rabbi Miller’s leadership arose from the difficulties and challenges that she overcame as a Black Jewish woman in predominantly white institutions. The structural inequity she faced when deciding to pursue rabbinical school, for example, compelled her to engage in community leadership. “As a single parent, I’m not in a position where I can take five to seven years off without getting paid… so I didn’t have the flexibility to go to one of the traditional brick and mortar programs,” said Rabbi Miller. Instead, she attended a rabbinical school program that was specifically geared toward non-traditional candidates, and also had unanticipated benefits.
“I think one of the benefits of that challenge was that a heavy part of the program was what they called an innovation program… Each one of us had to have an innovation project, so half of our program was going to business classes so we know how to start a nonprofit, handle grants and budgets. These are tools that rabbis who come out of traditional programs don’t have.” Rabbi Miller found that her innovation project melded with the Jewish communal work she was already doing outside of rabbinical school. “Once I started doing speaking engagements, people wanted me to work with their communities one on one. That work ended up helping me pay for rabbinical school. When I started, it was a closed door, but then I was able to make it work, so that it wasn’t a barrier.”
Another core component of Rabbi Miller’s trajectory as a Jewish leader is her experience of motherhood. She has three sons and she wants them to experience a Jewish community that honors and uplifts Jews of Color. “When people would say terrible things to me, I could sort of swallow it, but I really wanted my kids to grow up in the Jewish community and live fully connected Jewish lives,” said Rabbi Miller, who cited her son’s experience of being called a racial slur at Jewish day school as a galvanizing force in her leadership.
“It was not acceptable that this was happening in their environment, and so it sort of forced me out of the shadows and into the center of the room to say, no, we’ve got to do something about this.” Rabbi Miller was on the board of the day school, and confronted the principal about the incident. She realized that, partially because of its whiteness, the school lacked the tools to compute the harm that was done to her son. “I think [realizing that] was really inspirational in my leadership. I am aspiring to be a parent who does not allow harm to come to my kids.”
Since that incident, which transpired roughly ten years ago, Rabbi Miller has continued to serve high level leadership positions at Jewish organizations where she continues to confront challenges and impact change on a community level. As the president of her synagogue, she was dismayed when none of her fellow board members reached out to her or proposed a statement in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Disappointed by her community’s silence, Rabbi Miller called an emergency board meeting which she intentionally did not attend. “I said, ‘You guys need to sit down and unite to discuss what it means that you have a Black woman as the head of the board of the synagogue, because it means a whole lot to me. And if you can’t stand behind me when something happens to another part of my identity, then we’re not on the same page about my identity as a Jew and as a Black woman being interconnected,’” she recalled.
As a board member at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, she also reached out, in what she described as “a moment of bravery” to fellow board members when she noticed a lack of JoC representation on their website. “One of the folks who responded to the email became a friend…[they] asked if I would want to come to a meeting to hear where they were falling short. That grew into a great friendship, and that person has developed into a huge ally. And that push connected me to other people who have been greatly influential and supportive of my Jewish leadership journey.”
Rabbi Miller’s unflagging desire to see the Jewish community become more equitable and multiracial has made her vulnerable to many of the communal ecosystem’s growing pains. But she also gets a front row seat to its progress. Throughout these experiences, Rabbi Miller has remained steadfastly committed to the idea that JoC representation in Jewish leadership has lasting impacts for generations to come. This belief is what motivated her to join the JoCI Grant Advisory Committee. Reflecting on her lack of financial or grant support during her time as a rabbinical student, Rabbi Miller said “I love being able to support JoC groups and ideas. I love being able to help build up all of the leadership potential of all of these folks who have existed on the fringes, who have tried so hard to maintain strong and connected Jewish identities, to let them know… that even when the rest of the Jewish world is pushing us away, we’re hanging on. I just love the idea that I get to be part of giving them those lifelines, and saying, ‘this is a really fantastic idea. Here’s what you need, how can we help you?’ Then it’s not just giving them money, it’s also giving them leadership training and support.”