Changing our institutional structures can be an overwhelming task. Perhaps many of the innovations that come from brainstorming sessions, workshops, and meetings end up as crumpled paper, forgotten, or labeled too challenging to legitimately undertake. We want to change that.
Encouraging words and progressive mission statements can only get organizations so far. We live in a time of diversity statements claiming Black Lives Matter and public relations campaigns that assure people of color that they will be included and welcomed, often with little or no substantial policy or practice change to back up such claims.
As an organization led by and focused on Jews of Color, the Jews of Color Initiative (JoCI) knows—through personal experience and as field builders—we must support statements and plans by working hand-in-hand with organizational leadership and all of our colleagues to design and build the type of change our community needs.
A few days ago, on November 2, 2020, the Jews of Color Initiative and the Rodan Family Foundation, a preeminent and intensely thoughtful Jewish philanthropic institution, led a groundbreaking convening for Jewish leadership in the San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay.
Designed by our innovative colleagues at UpStart (yes, the same organization that partnered with the JoCI on the Jews of Color Career Development Program), the event encouraged Executive Directors, senior professionals, lay leaders, funders, and Jews of Color at every level of organizational hierarchies to (virtually) gather for learning, community building, and action planning.
The first part of the event featured Jews of Color Initiative’s very own Executive Director, Ilana Kaufman in the most dynamic conversation with brilliant colleagues, Dr. Valerie Feldman, the Director for the Center for Applied Learning and Impact at GLIDEsf, an organization dedicated to breaking cycles of poverty and marginalization in underserved areas of San Francisco., and Dr. Analucía Lopezrevoredo, Founder and Executive Director of Jewtina y co., an organization committed to raising awareness of Jewish-Latinx communities (highlighted in our October issue of Galim). The conversation, focused on the intersection of demographic data, leadership insights and professional experience. The speakers informed, energized and empowered the Convening’s nearly one hundred participants.
Ilana Kaufman began by sharing key data points about the JoC community that framed the conversation, discussing demographic realities of the East Bay Jewish community. For example, she shared a statistic that 1 out of every 7 Jews in the East Bay are Jews of Color. From this single statistic, Kaufman encouraged participants to consider what structures are in place that prevent their institutions from reflecting the multiracial reality of the community in which they reside.
Kaufman stated that her goal in bringing anti-racist work to Jewish institutions is to “disrupt the physics of racism that keep some leaders in, and some leaders out of rarified space,” one of the persistent barriers for Jews of Color in Jewish institutions. She added that having our institutions mirror our multiracial people is particularly salient for young Jews of Color; “If we don’t have diversity” in institutional spaces and among leadership “then we aren’t giving our young people the mirrors they need to see themselves in those roles.”
The event next turned to the reflections and thoughtful insights of the two invited panelists, Dr. Lopezrevoredo and Dr. Feldman. Lopezrevoredo explained that the first step to building an anti-racist community might more accurately be conceptualized as “pre-work,” in which Jewish leaders delve into their own conscience and the collective conscience prior to undertaking the complex work of institutional change. She also emphasized that this process can be done Jewishly, using our knowledge sets and values, particularly the concepts of achrayut (responsibility) and teshuvah (return or repentance, which we emphasize during the High Holy Days.
Lopezrevoredo listed a series of questions for participants to consider, modeling the type of introspective work in which Jewish leadership must engage regarding their institutions’ histories and current structures of racial inequities: “How do we make teshuvah? How do we handle responsibility? How do we atone? How do we heal?” Lopezrevoredo’s questions encouraged attendants to recognize the damage white supremacy inflicts, and to dedicate time and effort to repairing that damage as the first stage of anti-racist institutional restructuring.
Feldman agreed that major institutional change does not happen overnight. Calling to mind the often-cited Pirkei Avot passage, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (2:21), Both Lopezrevoredo and Feldman said that anti-racism should be seen as lifelong work. Feldman believes it will take “many lifetimes of work” to tear down structures of racism. She asserted that anti-racism “is not something you do once and you’re done,” but that “you commit to it” as an ongoing practice. Lopezrevoredo similarly said that “we’re not at the end” of the story of racism, but must nevertheless remain “active players that are going to be working in a lifelong effort.”
Part of this lifelong effort is challenging the cultural norms that have been fostered by overwhelmingly white Jewish institutions. Lopezrevoredo helped listeners digest how Jewish institutions, which are steeped in the larger US society’s racism, have internalized many of the racialized assumptions about leadership and professionalism. She encouraged attendants to ask questions such as “where do our notions of professionalism come from?”
Digging into these questions and the collective conscience of one’s institution can be challenging work, and many white people, including white Jews, have been socialized to step away from the discomfort of engaging in conversations relating to racism. Feldman explained that some of this discomfort is exacerbated in institutional spaces because of our notion that professionalism and vulnerability cannot coexist. She said that “being okay with being uncomfortable, being okay with being vulnerable” are essential to the process of building an anti-racist institution even if these traits “might not be standard in professional spaces.”
After hearing from the inspiring panel of leaders, the second portion of the convening was an interactive workshop in which all attendants engaged in brainstorming and planning for more inclusive Jewish organizational structures and programs.
Such workshops are vital for making real structural change attainable. Too often organizations feel stuck in their existing structures and practices and are unsure of how to embark on the seemingly gargantuan task of working toward racial justice, inclusion, and equity. By workshopping alongside prominent JoC leaders as well as Jews of Color who are already part of East Bay Jewish institutions, the workshop fostered a climate of doable change, encouraging workshop attendants to develop equity-guided conceptualizations of Jewish institutions, and the groundwork for concrete plans to restructure their organizations.
The workshop sessions asked participants to reflect on statistics about Jewish racial and ethnic diversity in conjunction with data on the institutional support Jews of Color receive. While 12-15 percent of Jews in the U.S. are Jews of Color, less than 1 percent of funding from the Jewish ecosystem goes towards the JoC community. Engaging with the data on inequity helped attendants focus their conversations not only on the theoretical need for justice but on the very real consequences structures of racism have on Jews of Color.
The workshop also built an environment of accountability among East Bay Jewish leaders. The workshop portion of the event ended with a compilation of personal commitments and visions for community collaboration in the fight for racial justice, inclusion, and equity.
One participant wrote that they would like to share Tema Okun’s piece about the characteristics of white supremacy culture with their institution’s Board and build an environment where they are encouraged to call out instances of conforming to white supremacy culture. Another attendant wrote that they aspire to “holding other white people accountable when they use language that posits whiteness as the norm for the Jewish community.” A JoC participant committed to “being transparent and authentic when talking about my JoC experience.”
Participants brainstormed ideas for collaboration, such as working alongside other organizations with a strong JoC leadership presence, like Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy, building educational curriculum that is informed by a racial equity and justice lens, and promoting community programming “in new ways/places so that JOC feel welcome, wanted and appreciated.”
Once event attendants had envisioned plans for change and formed connections among one another, the Jews of Color Initiative announced a new Request for Proposals (RFP) for grants that are focused on “Empowering and Engaging Jews of Color.” The second RFP the Jews of Color Initiative has launched within approximately a month’s time, the release of this RFP offers the structural support for workshop participants to truly turn their plans into reality.
As both Dr. Lopezrevoredo and Dr. Feldman said, transforming our Jewish institutions into anti-racist and multicultural is a long road. But working in community with incredible leaders and a sense of collective commitment to change—that’s a powerful place to start.