For Dr. Dalya Perez, it was a no-brainer to join the research team of our ongoing Count Me In study. Perez, a Jewish woman of Color who holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, is currently the Program Manager for Diversity and Inclusion of Mixed Reality at Microsoft. Perez finds satisfaction using her expertise, identities, and experiences to create institutional change. But being a researcher for a national study on Jews of Color enables Perez to experience the wholeness of her identities in new ways.
“As a Jew of Color, it’s rare to see myself reflected either in Jewish spaces or in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) spaces,” Perez said. “Most Jews of Color that I know don’t have other Jewish connections in their BIPOC community spaces…this intersection of identity is usually a lonely experience and is not given much visibility.”
As part of the research team, Perez combines her all-too-common experience of loneliness as a Jew of Color with her academic training and experience in professional diversity work to create knowledge to help bring equity and inclusion to American Jewish communities. This work also offers a place of healing for Perez’s own life experience navigating identities that are seen as incompatible.
“When [lead researcher] Tobin reached out to me last year to share this project with me and invite me to participate, I couldn’t say no. As a daughter of an Egyptian Sephardic Jewish refugee mother and a Filipino immigrant father, my life and identity have been deeply informed by the experience of navigating between my multiracial and Jewish identities.”
Perez also wants to build more accessible and inclusive spaces for Jews of Color in her own Jewish communities. “I think in every Jewish space and community I’ve been in, I’ve gravitated toward helping organize the JoC spaces,” she said, listing JoC Shabbat gatherings and affinity groups she’s been part of constructing.
Perez has, however, encountered some of the difficulties that many leaders who are Jews of Color face in predominantly white Jewish spaces. She has felt she was “called in too late” to a community’s anti-racist process, or was tokenized—treated “as a prop” for a community to showcase their anti-racism. Perez says tokenizing Jews of Color is “how racism shows up in Jewish spaces all the time in an effort toward increased diversity.” The experience for Jews of Color is burdensome and exhausting, she described.
Now, Perez hopes that her work on the Count Me In study can lead to a greater understanding of JoC experiences and identities among the larger U.S. Jewish community.
“The findings I think will have a big impact on the Jewish community. They’re sobering. It’s just real, undeniable, hard data about how Jews of Color feel in mainstream Jewish spaces.” How this data will be used has multiple layers, according to Perez.
“I think [the data] can be used in so many different ways. I imagine different leaders, congregations, and Jewish organizations could even utilize different pieces of the survey data and qualitative data as case studies for their communities.” Perez says she hopes predominantly white Jewish communities will read the data searching for reflections of their own contributions to the troubling experiences of Jews of Color, asking questions such as, “where does this show up in our work? Where are Jews of Color experiencing racial battle fatigue in our community? How might we be tokenizing Jews of Color in our efforts?
Perez finds Count Me In’s centering of JoC voices to be especially powerful, to “make sure we’re listening to stories, that we’re centering narratives of Jews of Color to lead this process.” At the same time, she wants people to know that this study isn’t only intended to get white Jewish communities up to speed on the experiences of JoCs.
“What I also care about is, what do Jews of Color want to do with this data? What do we want to do with this? How do we create more spaces that are by and for us to foster safer space, brave space, healing space?”
Perez said these questions are important for Jews of Color to hold onto as the findings of the research study are revealed. “So many of us are so used to navigating these predominantly white Jewish spaces as Jews of Color that it becomes almost normalized,” often leaving Jews of Color to feel they must accept their sense of exclusion or lack of belonging as something that just is. Perez wants to see a future where “soulful, deep, connected relationships” are fostered among Jews of Color. For Perez, the Count Me In study might be a start.
“This is such a kick ass research team…I love that JoCI is doing this. It’s just been an honor. [The research team is] a beautiful group and the data are incredible.” But more important than what the data say is how they compel the the Jewish community to move toward a more just and equitable place. “I hope we treat it almost like a holy text. I hope that we drash over it and make space to like really dig in and be Talmudic about it.” If guided by racial justice frameworks and an intentionality to center JoC voices, Perez believes that collectively working through the findings of this study “could be transformative.”