Weaving Networks: How Dr. Bianca González-Lesser is Building Connections Among Jews of Color at Hillel International
Last winter, Hillel International opened a search for a Diversity Talent Manager, a new role that was designed to help recruit Jews of Color into a professional fellowship and various opportunities within the Hillel movement. Hillel is looking to expand their reach to the Jews of Color community, recognizing that Jews of Color are more highly represented among young adult Jews, their target population at their 500 university campus locations.
In February 2021, Hillel International hired Dr. Bianca González-Lesser for this temporary, six-month role. This was also an exciting opportunity for Dr. González-Lesser to enter the Jewish nonprofit sector. With a Ph.D. in Sociology focused on race and racism, identity, and culture, they had spent two years as an Assistant Professor before rerouting their career path to work for the Jewish community. It wasn’t long before they started having an impact.
“As soon as I started at Hillel, I quickly found myself jumping into much more than recruiting,” González-Lesser said. “I was instantly focusing on systems change in the overall hiring process.” They also found themselves actively working alongside Ari Levy, then the Associate Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
González-Lesser sourced over 30 Jews of Color as potential candidates for Hillel’s programming, including their Springboard Fellowship, a program in which young adult Jews are introduced to the Jewish nonprofit sector and given extensive professional development to support their career growth. González-Lesser also worked alongside Levy and the Springboard team to rework the application and matching process—where fellows are paired with specific Hillel locations—through an equity lens.
After months of engaging in DEI work without a formal position in the department, Hillel decided it was time to create a DEI team. At the close of the six-month recruiting role, González-Lesser was offered a permanent position as Associate Director of DEI, working alongside Levy, now the Director of DEI.
“One of my own personal goals as soon as I started at Hillel was to build my community of people that have similar lived experiences as I do. For me, that’s primarily Jews of Color and queer Jews—especially queer Jews of Color.”
González-Lesser started networking on LinkedIn and other social media platforms to build relationships across the field. Soon they began building organizational relationships, partnerships, and programming.
“Through the journey of getting to know people, I also connected with organizations like Ammud, LUNAR, Be’Chol Lashon, and the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project.” With this latter organization, González -Lesser initiated and developed a partnership and encouraged Hillel International to become one of the large, predominantly white institutions to show early support and partnership for the start-up’s National JoC Shabbaton.
These organizational relationships fostered personal friendships and close ties for González-Lesser. “I met amazing people that have become friends and even chosen family who support me in both my work at Hillel and just moving through the world as a queer Jew of Color.”
In their work at Hillel, González-Lesser strives to create the same type of communal support for the full diversity of college-aged Jewish students. González-Lesser views Hillel through its potential to create change in the Jewish communal ecosystem.
“Hillel sits in this very interesting space in the Jewish nonprofit world; we are the predominant organization that supports college-aged Jews.” Having previously worked with undergraduate students, González-Lesser knows the impact that a positive—or negative—campus experience can have on one’s identity development. “I’ve dedicated my last decade to working with college students, and I can say it’s a very transformative point in their lives. And a lot of times young Jews’ first Jewish experience is at a Hillel, is on campus.”
Today’s Jewish college students also reflect a trend in the Jewish community and nationwide: they are increasingly diverse. González-Lesser said working with college-aged Jews means “seeing the demographic shift in real time,” pointing to both Counting Inconsistencies and the 2020 Pew report that suggest that approximately 15% of young adult Jews identify as non-white or Jews of Color.
At Hillel International, González-Lesser also works on DEI efforts focused on many identity categories, including disability, gender, and sexuality to create inclusive environments on Hillel’s 500 campus locations. “Hillel’s mission is to engage every Jewish student on campus, and ’every’ means the student that converted, the student that is Orthodox, the student that has never been in shul, or the student that went to day school.”
Creating a big-tent Jewish community for college students means that Hillel’s DEI efforts have the potential to have a generational impact on the Jewish community.
“This has become my tagline,” Bianca said. “My hope is that when my children are 18, they can walk into any Hillel at whatever college they go to and know that it’s a space for them and that they belong there like any other Jewish person, irrespective of the fact that they’re Jews of Color, have two moms, one parent is a convert, etc. I want my children and my community to not have to experience the negative things that I’ve had to experience.”
Building a familial network of support among diverse Jews, González-Lesser wants other Jews of Color to know that “there are people working every day to make sure those experiences [of discrimination] don’t repeat themselves. It’s exhausting. It’s draining. But it’s also beautiful. There’s beauty in seeing when things work out…and weaving those networks in hopes that more and more people understand and join this journey.”
González-Lesser’s primary motivation is, like Hillel’s, to contribute to Jewish continuity. “I do truly and deeply love the Jewish community and I know we can do better. When we do better, everyone feels they are part of that endless stream of what Jewishness and Jewish peoplehood have been for millennia.”
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