By Tova Ricardo
“We had a responsibility and an obligation for the organization to reflect the full diversity of Jewish life. It only enriches it,” said SooJi Min-Maranda. Min-Maranda is the Executive Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, and she has dedicated her career to creating a welcoming, diverse Jewish community. As a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization, ALEPH focuses on deepening Jewish connection and spirituality through a trans–denominational approach known as Renewal. ALEPH is a community for Jews of all observance levels and backgrounds, and Min-Maranda referred to it as “progressive and pluralistic and non-triumphal.“
Renewal Judaism was created by the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z’’l) in the mid-to-late 90s. Since then, Renewal has spread internationally, with Renewal communities not only in the US but in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Peru, and the UK. In the U.S., the hub of the Renewal Movement has been ALEPH, which houses ordination and certification programs, a Jewish learning and mentorship fellowship, and network building. Min-Miranda described ALEPH as an environment for Jews to explore their faith and purpose through awareness of “Four Worlds Judaism,” a Kabbalistic-inspired unity of worldly, bodily, and spiritual elements for the betterment of one’s self and all that exists outside the self. The Four Worlds include: Atzilut (Being), Briya (Knowing), Yetzira (Relating), and Asiyah (Doing).
On ALEPH’s website you can find their list of Eighteen Principles that guide the movement, divided into sections based on their Four Worlds. Among these principles is a repeating theme of justice, inclusion, and the disruption of power imbalances. Found under the World of Asiyah, the thirteenth principle reads, “In order to heal the world, we seek to re-balance the power relationships among human beings and all other species and aspects of the Earth, as well as among races, peoples, faith communities, classes, genders, age groupings, and other human groups so that each can live in shared peace and dignity. We will ourselves treat with respect and open-mindedness those who belong to other peoples and walk other paths than our own, even if we feel compelled to oppose their actions in the world. These efforts we view as integral to Jewish spirituality and action.”
Min-Miranda recognizes that the thread of justice that is woven throughout the Renewal movement can offer so much possibility for making Renewal multiracial and inclusive. “I feel like Renewal has always been a big tent, more of an approach to Judaism in terms of enlivening Judaism, being a bit counter-culture,” Min-Maranda explained.
One of Min-Maranda’s dedications at ALEPH has been to expand access of Renewal Judaism to Jews of Color, including providing JoCs with ordination and educational opportunities. Historically, there has been a lack of accessibility to Jewish educational and institutional programs for Jews of Color for multiple reasons, including varying levels of discrimination against non-white Jews and the high financial costs.
“Being who I am, as a Jew of Color, it’s very important to me personally that we have increased representation of Jews of Color in every aspect of ALEPH.”
Min-Maranda has been actively working to increase both individual participation and leadership representation of Jews of Color in ALEPH programs. At the same time, she also acknowledges that increased participation of Jews of Color is dependent upon hiring more teachers and leaders who can reflects the experiences and understand the cultural sensitivities about being a Jew of Color, especially in spaces that have previously been so heavily dominated by white Jews.
“What’s going to attract Jews of Color into seminaries or programs is to have teachers who look like us, who have similar lived experiences. But it’s a chicken and egg question, right? Until you have more students coming through, they’re not going to come out and be teachers.”
In order to ensure that Jews of Color are both represented in and have access to Jewish learning and ordination programs, Min-Maranda and ALEPH realized that they needed funding to help them recruit students and reduce the program costs.
ALEPH recently received grant support from the Jews of Color Initiative to reduce the costs of earning their certificate in Earth-based Judaism for students who are Jews of Color. Min-Maranda shared how helpful it was to receive this funding to make these structural changes a reality. ALEPH hopes that this will serve as a steppingstone for JoCs to not only receive their certification but to eventually have improved access to their rabbinical ordination program.
Min-Maranda‘s dedication to uplifting Jews of Color in ALEPH and Renewal spaces in general addresses a deeply personal mission to make entrance into Jewish environments easier for JoCs—partially so she does not feel like a stranger in her own community.
“Specifically, for me, I feel very much like an outsider. So just selfishly, I feel like I want more people to look like me and have similar experiences so that I don’t feel so alone and that I feel supported.” While Min-Maranda highlighted her personal motivations for helping ALEPH become more inclusive and representational of our multiracial Jewish community, it is clear through her actions that her efforts to create a more equitable future will enrich the entire JoC community, and by extension the entire Jewish ecosystem.
As someone who converted to Judaism later in life, Min-Maranda spoke of not having the “traditional” or mainstream Jewish experiences as some of her peers, who grew up going to Jewish Community Centers or to sleepaway camps. She knew nothing of Jewish organizations or that she could become a leader in these spaces. Now, the Executive Director dedicates her career to facilitating inclusivity, accessibility, and a connection to Judaism, hoping that all who come in contact (whether in person or virtually) will feel less alone and more united with others.
“If I in my leadership position will be able to be someone on the inside who can support and hold them while they’re with us, that’s also a gift and a blessing for me to part of their lives and their experiences.”