JoCI In Session

Working Toward A Multiracial, Antiracist Future: A Conversation with Ilana Kaufman and Dr. Harriette Wimms 

Our new study, Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color, set to publicly launch on August 12, 2021, is not only by Jews of Color but for Jews of Color. Though Beyond the Count has far-reaching potential to inform Jewish communities and institutions that are predominantly white, it also offers Jews of Color an unprecedented, large-scale view of the perspectives and experiences of others who share their identity. Before we even announced the August 12 launch date for the study, Ilana Kaufman and Dr. Harriette Wimms, Founder and Executive Director of the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project, held a conversation on why this study matters and how it might impact the Jewish community. 

 “[Beyond the Count] is both to inform the communal ecosystem and, maybe more importantly it’s to affirm the experience of Jews of Color in the United States. To say yes, this is your robust, complex, sometimes painful, beautiful Jewish life. These are all of the ways Jewish life expresses for Jews of Color,” Kaufman said. “And just like outside of the Jewish community we know Jews of Color experience racist headwinds inside of the Jewish community. Yet Kaufman emphasized that Jews of Color are deeply engaged and committed, despite the headwinds. This powerful fact speaks to the dedication Jews of Color feel to the Jewish community, Judaism, and the Jewish people. However, valuing their commitment in the face racism without working to dismantle it fails to value Jews of Color themselves. 

One of the reasons for that ongoing commitment is the hope that the next generation of Jews—who are more racially diverse than previous generations—can exist in equitable and just multiracial Jewish communities. “We’re doing this for our next generation, and they’re right here behind us,” Kaufman stated.  

Kaufman said that while more and more Jews are People of Color, previous research on the Jewish community often did not account for our existence, and in many ways was incomplete by not including questions about race or not doing so consistently. Kaufman says that because past studies didn’t measure the full racial diversity of American Jews, we “have missed so much information” about Jews of Color. And this goes beyond capturing demographics. Not wondering about Jews of Color and our experiences, not having reliable, consistent measurements of Jews of Color has likely impacted whether or not researchers ask other questions related to race, such as how Jews of Color encounter systemic racism in the Jewish community or how we construct our unique, intersectional identities.  

“We have to start asking more of these questions and answering them in better, more sophisticated ways,” Kaufman asserted. She believes this cannot be tacked on to existing research but must start with how researchers conceptualize the Jewish community and develop their research from the start. “We need to use inquiry, curiosity, and consciousness about race to inform research [on the Jewish community].” 

The conversation between Dr. Wimms and Kaufman then turned toward discussion of what communal leaders and allies can do to center Jews of Color, to see and understand ourselves as multiracial, to become more antiracist. Kaufman said that creating change will require that leaders across the ecosystem dedicate themselves to racial justice. “One of the things that moves forward those poised toward action is the (public) commitment of role models and leaders. It can be empowering.  It can be reassuring. And it’s an expression of leadership and the power that comes with it.    

Another necessary shift in our communal culture will be to rethink what it means to be an ally. “Allyship is not something white people do, but an identity that is granted because of work done,” Dr. Wimms explained. In other words, it is a lifelong practice. And it isn’t easy. “To be an ally, you have to put the wellness of People of Color ahead of the comfort of white people,” Kaufman asserted, adding that antiracism is not just learning about racism, but applying what one knows to “where they have levers of power.”  

Dr. Wimms knows that confronting racism is not an easy task, and that breaking down barriers of racial inequality and injustice can be exhausting for People of Color. “There’s an emotion weight to doing this work. It’s exhausting. And it’s beautiful.” If more white accomplices can take up some of the work of fighting against racism, the exhaustion of combatting racism could be lessened for those who are directly harmed by racial injustices. 

As our knowledge, datasets, and assumptions expand, Kaufman and Dr. Wimms continue to think forward to future generations who can hopefully benefit from the efforts of the Jewish community at this historical moment. “I want every Jewish person of color to have Jewish people of color be part of the air they breathe,” Kaufman said with cautious optimism. “I want [the next generation] to have that in the Jewish world.”