Sumner Lewis’ experience as a leader in the Jewish community began in high school through NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement. There, for the first time, she met other Jews of Color and felt called to amplify JoC voices in predominantly white spaces. Her desire to see a multiracial Jewish community led to her career advancing racial justice at Jewish organizations. She currently holds a dual role as the Young People Organizer & JoC Caucus Coordinator at Dayenu, a climate advocacy group deeply rooted in Jewish spirituality and values. In her roles, Lewis mobilizes communities to fight for a more just and sustainable future, and creates a path for Jews of Color to have their voices amplified in the fight for climate justice, which is inextricable from the fight for racial justice.
One of Lewis’s roles is to run the JoC Caucus, a space where the climate crisis is discussed through the lens of its racialized impact: “The JoC Caucus at Dayenu is “a community-building space for Jews of Color because we definitely acknowledge that the climate crisis hits People of Color first and foremost, as many of them are part of frontline communities,” explained Lewis. Because of this reality, the perspectives and leadership of Jews of Color in the climate advocacy space is crucial in developing campaigns that are racially equitable in their scope and impact. “When JoC are given the opportunity to build up their leadership and become voices in the climate movement, we get to show the beautiful tapestry that the Jewish climate movement is,” said Lewis.
One element of JoC leadership takes the form of an emphasis on community care. “This incredible culture in PoC communities of community care comes from the fact that injustices are so visible within our communities, so it is really important that we take care of each other. The JoC caucus is a space where we can do community care and take action for climate justice at the same time,” she said. Hence, one of the JoC caucus’ primary functions is to carve out leadership opportunities and resources for one another.
The JoC caucus’ ability to address both environmental racism as well as racism within the Jewish communal ecosystem, which is predominately white, lends it a dual purpose that has great potential to impact change. “When we speak about frontline communities and environmental racism, we always talk about that as happening outside Jewish life when it’s actually happening within Jewish life too,” she said. “And this happens with pretty much any organization within the Jewish world. There is so much racism within the Jewish community and it’s never talked about.” Creating the caucus, which hosts quarterly meetings, provides a crucial infrastructure for systemic injustices to be discussed and incorporated into the Jewish climate justice movement.
Lewis’ vision for a future where JoC have more agency within the Jewish Climate Movement also involves creating more resources and opportunities for Jews of Color to take leadership roles in the climate justice space. Lewis has met with rabbinic fellows at Dayenu to create opportunities for JoC to initiate their own circles and events, ensuring their voices are heard and valued. This is crucial to provide a lifelong pipeline of opportunity and community for Jews of Color in activism spaces, and to foster new leaders who can continue impacting racially equitable change in the Jewish community, as well as in the climate justice community. Lewis described “ladders of engagement” that would allow Jews of Color to remain engaged in Jewish racial justice spaces, and to close what she perceived as a programming gap for JoC between high school and parenthood. “This community has always been someplace that I feel most myself and always embraced,” said Lewis. “Every job I have had has been in the Jewish communal space. The work that I do comes from wanting to strengthen our community, not only for myself, but for future generations. All the kids coming up now, any kids who haven’t even been born yet, I want this Jewish community to still be around for them and to be even better than it is now.”