At the peak of the pandemic, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Tameika Minor and Tonia Respes came together with a vision to transform how their community supported Jews of Color and the Black community more broadly. With support from the Jews of Color Initiative’s New York Hub’s Incubator, Minor and Respes developed a new initiative at their New Jersey synagogue to center Jews of Color and multiracial families, and to create a children’s graphic novel featuring a young Black Jewish boy.
Minor, a professor of clinical mental health at Rutgers University, met Respes on her first visit to their local synagogue, where Respes’ husband was leading a Shabbat morning program. After striking up a conversation, the two women developed an immediate friendship, which would ultimately blossom into a collaboration to lead Achim Sheli, the JoC and diversity initiative at their synagogue.
“After the murder of Mr. George Floyd, our rabbi reached out to us to ask how the synagogue could better support the Black community and also Jews of Color,” Minor said. “His exact wording was, ‘I don’t want just a task force. I actually want you all to be an arm of the synagogue.’”
“It was the peak of the pandemic, so we were not able to have a lot of in-person support. Everything was virtual. It was also a time of civil unrest and we thought, okay, where do we fit in?”
Neither Minor nor Respes had ever authored a children’s book, yet they were keenly aware of the absence of Black Jewish characters in Jewish children’s literature. Drawing upon experiences of raising their young sons as well as a desire to create positive representation, they began a mission to create a graphic novel that celebrated the nuanced, intersectional identities of Black Jewish families and young Black Jewish boys.
At first, Minor and Respes thought they would write a book for PJ Library, a nonprofit that ships children’s books to members every month for free. Though PJ Library has become increasingly diverse, they had not yet come across a story that featured a Black Jewish character. “I’m someone who thinks really big,” Minor stated. “At first we just wanted to have books in hands, whether through PJ Library or somewhere else. But no, this is something broader than that. We want all children to be able to have this book, and for it to be in libraries and day schools and public schools all around so folks can see Black Jewish characters and families.”
Weaving this passion for representation with creative vision, Minor and Respes developed a character and storyline rooted in authentic Black Jewish experiences—with a supernatural twist.
“JewFro is about a little boy who’s Black and Jewish, and he’s growing up in New York where there’s a lot of Jewish people, but really not a lot of Jewish people that look like him,” Minor explained. “And he’s from a military family and is always trying to fit in, but now it’s a whole new world because he’s moving down South. When he moves down South, he finds out a lot about his family’s Judaism, the heritage that they actually hid, and also he finds a superpower within himself.”
The JoCI New York Hub’s Incubator has equipped Minor and Respes with strategic planning skills as well as a powerful network of JoC leaders. “The Incubator has been amazing. To see so many JoC-led organizations that are either up and running or in the beginning stages, I just love to be in the room with so many creative people and so many people that are working towards the visibility of Jews of Color,” Minor shared. “There are so many interesting organizations and projects in our cohort, and for me it’s been an amazing support system.”
This support system has been indispensable not only for their graphic novel, but also for Minor and Respes’ vision to build Achim Sheli into a more expansive initiative. “The Incubator has helped us solidify a lot of ideas or come up with new ideas. One of the main things that we want to do is to grow outside of our synagogue walls,” Minor said.
Beyond providing professional guidance, the Incubator convenes and cultivates a community of creative, intellectual leaders who enrich each other’s projects and lives. “The Incubator has connected me to individuals who have not just fueled but also fanned and sparked my fire for a lot of the different initiatives that Tameika and I have envisioned,” Respes said. This became even more apparent when Incubator participants gathered in person for a cohort retreat. “I can’t speak to another cohort, but I definitely feel that the Incubator has curated a group of people with fire and passion. It’s amazing to see the ways we feed off of each other. It was definitely a powerful experience to connect in person.”
“The Incubator helped us with so much strategic planning for writing JewFro,” Minor said. “At our last in-person retreat, I wanted to focus on how to find time to write this. And I came back so refreshed, ready to write, ready to do all of this.” The Incubator has also helped Minor and Respes grow their vision for the graphic novel; “Tonia and I now see it as more than just one book. It may be a series of books! Who knows where it can go? And I wasn’t really thinking that before joining the Incubator.”
Minor also expressed that the Incubator has opened their eyes to possibilities of collaboration across the field that could strengthen other programming for Achim Sheli. “It’s just amazing to see how far Achim Sheli can grow, and to know how the Incubator has helped that happen.”