Throughout the ten months of the Jews of Color Initiative’s Leadership Fellowship, members of the first cohort experienced both a professional and personal transformation. On August 2, the Fellowship ended with a powerful commencement ceremony in which Fellows, who worked at placement organizations in the Jewish nonprofit sector in New York City, reflected on the program. This article shares excerpts from each of their speeches, including words of wisdom on identity, professional development, and leadership.
Tova Harris, Hannah Senesh Community Day School, Repair the World
“In Hebrew school, I watched my peers learn the Torah, its teachings, its wisdom. Yet I, in turn, never seemed to offer G’d the right sacrifice to be given His blessing. I saw the other children praised for looking Jewish, for having the right hair, the right skin tone, the right nuclear family structure, while my brother and I were dropped off at Hebrew school by my African-American father…Hebrew school became a strange and scary place. I was surrounded by girls who looked at my frizzier hair, my darker skin, my fuller lips. They said I don’t look like any Jewish girl they’ve seen before. I soon learned to hide my history, clinging to the notion that I was just like them. In trying to blend in, I memorized the holidays, the Hebrew alphabet, as if with this knowledge, I too could finally prove that I was of the same tribe… Twenty years have passed and I still remember the sting of these moments. Twenty years have passed, and I found myself participating in the first Jews of Color Initiative Leadership Fellowship, which devoted itself to opening closed doors for people like me. In this year, I saw a new generation of Jews of Color make their way in the world.”
Kavi Subramanian, JCC Harlem, Lab/Shul
“When I’m in a room full of people where the only thing I share with them is being in this big mysterious club of Judaism, there’s a part of me that wonders, am I really part of this club? That’s not how I felt at this Fellowship…everything I did felt plenty Jewish. It’s a natural extension of what I said [earlier]…Judaism is what we want it to mean at any given time…putting on a dance class for toddlers or working on harm reduction for opium use can be a Jewish act for me. And it was…I want to put a real emphasis on this pronoun of “we.” Nothing is Jewish in a vacuum. And what I’ve had the opportunity to do in this Fellowship is to see the different Jewish “we’s” that exist and to make a choice about where I belong.”
Jules Duze, JCC Harlem, Repair the World
“It was a really powerful experience for me to explore areas of growth as well as reinforce areas of strength. In the past 10 months, JoCI helped to facilitate more growth and discovery than I thought possible, along with providing experiences beyond my younger self’s wildest dreams. Being granted access, and being affirmed that I am, you are, and we are worthy and deserving of love and support has warmed and exponentially grown my heart and my faith in the Jewish community as a whole. Change is possible. As cliché as I feel saying it, it starts with us and understanding ourselves. I’m not the same Jules who started this Fellowship. And I’m proud of the versions of me that I cycled through to be the one here in front of you today.”
Maryam Chishti, Hannah Senesh Community Day School, Lab/Shul
“My two placements, which were so different, strengthened my knowledge of event planning, communications, community outreach, and Jewish ritual that I know I will carry forward. During my time at my placements, I also stepped up from Community Organizer to Director of Community Engagement to now Co-Executive Director of LUNAR, which is a JoC organization for Asian Jews. Both of my Fellowship placements supported me…answering clarifying questions and offering words of encouragement. And I know that I can and will go to them for their support as I continue this work leading LUNAR. This fellowship came into my life at a really hard time. I had just left a job that was really strategic in breaking me down…JoCI’s Fellowship was really instrumental in building me back up. They were loving and supportive, and so focused on giving me the skills that I wanted to learn. It’s almost a Gd send how perfect this opportunity was…the kind of individualized attention I received here is so rare. The chance to just reflect on who I really am, with others who understood, was just so special.”
Haftam Heathwood, Repair the World, JCC Harlem
“When I first started, I thought I was going to be a fish out of the water, or not be the most competent person. When I met my colleagues at JCC Harlem, I began to tune out that fear and realized what I’m capable of. My fear of thinking ‘I cannot do this’ melted away when I saw how much I had done and the response I was receiving from my wonderful colleagues. I started believing in myself. Now the first thought in my head wasn’t fear but how I could use this position to help more people. When asked what kind of a leader I hope to be, my answer is one who will use their position to influence the public. I would want to use every advantage for good. Too often, leaders are too concerned with themselves or their own status. But I do not care about any of that. I don’t want to keep any of the things that I achieve for myself. I want to share them with as many people as I can, but most importantly, those who need them the most…Today, for most people, being Jewish should just be part of who you are, but for Jews of Color, we have it turned into something we have to prove to others and ourselves. The Leadership Fellowship built my confidence. I no longer entertain the premise that I need to prove my Judaism to anybody…I will never apologize for who I am and the things that I believe.”
You can view the bios for cohort 1 Fellows here.