Picture the Jewish community. What do you see? Whom do you see? Did you visualize Jews of Color (JoC)? Do you see me, an East Asian American Jewish woman?
As program director of the Jews of Color Initiative (JoCI) New York Hub, I love that my job is to cultivate spaces of belonging where Jews of Color are seen, heard and centered. Yet when I step into professional or social spaces, the questions I usually encounter leave me feeling anxious. “What do you do?” is usually followed by “I didn’t realize you were Jewish!” or “Are there really enough Jews of Color for your work to matter?” At best these statements reflect well-intentioned curiosity; at worst they contain the assumption that the default of Jewishness is Ashkenazi and white. Regardless of the intent, I feel an uneasiness in my bones for implicitly being told “I don’t see you as Jewish.”
JoCI’s groundbreaking research Counting Inconsistencies (2019) shows Jews of Color comprise at minimum 12-15% of the American Jewish community. While this percentage reflects our present reality, multiple studies have shown that the general U.S. population will shift to a People of Color majority around 2042. These national demographic trends mean that the U.S Jewish community, too, will grow to become more racially diverse.
Unfortunately for our communal field, Jews of Color represent nowhere near these percentages in Jewish communal leadership, whether in professional or lay leadership capacities, nor in community member engagement. The Talmud promotes the holiness of each of us: “One who saves a single human life is as though he has saved an entire world.” For the continuity and thriving of Jewish peoplehood, we must see the beautiful worlds inside each human being. To do so means embracing our multiracial reality and intentionally uplifting those who have been historically pushed aside – particularly Jews of Color.
Aligned with educational research showing that students are more engaged and perform better when their unique cultural and racial identities are reflected in the coursework, JoCI provides culturally relevant and race-conscious curricula through our Leadership Fellowship and Incubator, two signature programs that pipeline and support the professional development of Jew of Color leaders in the Jewish communal field. Though the Fellowship and Incubator are not typical school environments, we design and facilitate ongoing curricula, replicating some aspects of schooling such as weekly educational sessions and learner-center pedagogy. As a result of directing the JoCI NY Hub, and underpinned by my educational background in Asian American studies and sociology, I have gained deeper understanding of what it means to create belonging through Jewish educational programming, much of which I believe can be applied to school environments.
Here are some principles to guide this work.
WE ALL MUST HAVE A STAKE IN THIS WORK.
My reason for doing work that centers Jews of Color is to create a kehillah kedoshah (holy community) in which I wish to participate. Your reason can be entirely different, but you must have your own North Star that guides you. Creating a culture of belonging is difficult work, and you will need something that enables you to power on through moments of disillusionment, despair and disappointment. Your reason should go beyond doing this for someone else and should incorporate how it impacts you as both participant and activator.
THERE IS ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE.
The pie is big enough for everyone to get a hefty slice and be well nourished! Oftentimes we believe there is a scarcity of resources (of funding, jobs, time, physical spaces), leading us to worry that letting new people have a seat at the table mans that there will be less for those who were invited to the table months or years ago. But the good news is that we do have enough. Just like slicing different portions of a pie to match individual appetites, let’s try allocating resources based on need and context; our resources should “feed” those who show up hungry and those who haven’t had a taste yet.
EDUCATORS ARE TRANSFORMERS.
The most effective teachers listen to their students and respond to their needs. Perhaps you spent hours designing a homework assignment for students to write a story about their family’s Jewish holiday practice. But what if this prompt creates too narrow a framework for the diversity of student’s experiences? What if your students don’t yet have all the tools and information necessary to do a stellar job? Maybe your students want to learn more about Jewish holidays or aren’t sure whether they can include elements from other holidays they observe with their interfaith family. Maybe the format of the assignment isn’t creative enough, and they could feel a greater sense of connection to the content of the assignment by creating a visual project instead of writing a story. Rather than prioritize the structure of the original assignment, you can reframe the homework assignment to create a written, visual, or oral story about a family ritual. Educators should be flexible and adaptable to respond to emerging needs and interests of their students.
ACCEPTANCE OF CHANGE.
To be an effective program director, I’ve had to release my hurt and anger from past incidents of racial trauma in the Jewish community. I work in a field and community that has harmed me as a young girl, as a teenager, and continues to harm me as a young woman. It can be difficult to see those who commented on the shape of my eyes now harping on the importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion because it’s incongruent to my experience of being hurt by them. I allow myself to process and feel my feelings, and I have learned how to release anger towards specific individuals and institutions so that I may engage with them anew. If I truly believe in social change, that means I must accept that those who have harmed me are willing and able to change, and I must be open to their transformation.
Educational research demonstrates that students thrive when they see themselves reflected in educators. It’s vital that we recruit, hire and retain a diverse faculty in Jewish educational settings. The JoCI Fellowship has invited many guest teachers over the last 8 months, and all have been JoC professionals who work in the Jewish communal field. This demonstrates to fellows that there is a whole community of JoC professionals like them and invites them to celebrate and engage with the accomplishments of our esteemed colleagues.
As Jews, we know how to keep and adapt traditions over hundreds of years. How might we channel our collective skills in longevity to the ongoing commitments that belonging and inclusion demand? Senses of belonging will shift over time as well. How can we use our skills in adaptability to adjust to the needs of future generations?
Now picture the Jewish community and our future. I hope you see us, Jews of Color.
originally published in Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools