Front row, left to right: April Baskin, Lacey Schwartz, Yavilah McCoy, Shais Rishon, Courtney Parker. Back row: Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, Yehudah Webster, Tiffany Harris, Ilana Kaufman. (Photo/Courtesy Ilana Kaufman)
Front row, left to right: April Baskin, Lacey Schwartz, Yavilah McCoy, Shais Rishon, Courtney Parker. Back row: Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, Yehudah Webster, Tiffany Harris, Ilana Kaufman. (Photo/Courtesy Ilana Kaufman)

How we’re making the Jewish community safe for Jews of color

Against the backdrop of a nation strained by senseless, race-based police killings and the most serious wave of racial injustice seen in 50 years, more and more Jewish community leaders have been awakened.

They have been moved to both wonder about their role in advancing racial justice and to deeply reflect on how daily and institutional expressions of racism affect Jews, specifically Jews of color who navigate the world in brown and black skin.

Out loud, leaders have begun to wonder about our lives — are we Jews of color safe? Do we feel welcome? Are we treated with fairness? Are we able to move through our Jewish community without obstacle, with comfort and ease? Do we feel valued? Are we seen? Are we heard?

And beyond the immediate, they wonder about our community network. How do we connect and plug into the community infrastructures in ways that are purposeful and powerful? Do we feel like this is our Jewish community, too?

To help answer these questions, in September 2016, the Leichtag Foundation, in partnership with other funders and organizational leaders, convened 12 African American Jewish community leaders for a two-day, bring-your-whole self, problem-solving partnership for serious think-tanking, strategic conversing, teaching, learning and, ultimately, activating.

The think tank was not without its awkward and intensely uncomfortable moments.

We hadn’t even finished developing the ground rules when one of the guidelines — “assume good will” during the confab — fell flat as a black colleague very gently explained that black people in the United States have no reason to “assume the good will” of white people given the institutionalized racism that is endured on a daily and pervasive basis — Jewish community most definitely included.

I think we were all uncertain if we’d make it to the end of the two days, when the funders were challenged to respond to questions about how racism plays out in Jewish funding efforts and decisions.

However, what could have been a difficult and fruitless gathering did not go bust. Everyone involved met the awkwardness and discomfort with warmth, humor, an inquiry posture, (cautious) openness and optimism and collaboration. In fact, when the entire collective decided our experience together needed to be more like graduate school than a retreat, we developed mini-courses in real time on African American history, Jewish history and the history of Jewish philanthropy taught by the leaders in the room. You can imagine the conversation was robust.

In retrospect, the gathering was such a gutsy thing for funders to initiate and for Jewish leaders of color to say “yes” to. And it proved to be a watershed collaboration moment for both the Jews of color and the Jewish philanthropic leaders — resulting in the nation’s first-ever philanthropic fund and grant activity expressly dedicated to responding to racial injustice through helping further establish, fortify and build-out the field for Jews of color.

Are we Jews of color safe? Do we feel welcome? Are we treated with fairness?

Roughly a year ago, infused with resources from the San Diego County-based Leichtag Foundation, the S.F.-based Walter and Elise Haas Fund and the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, the Fund for Jews of Color Field Building awarded its first six grants:

Bend the ArcSeleh Cohort 15. For a leadership program for Jews of color.

Dimensions. To develop a cohort of Jews of color that will work with allies at the intersection of critical conversations and racial justice.

Courtney Parker. For the national educational leader to partner with Dimensions to provide training for leaders who are Jews of color.

Jews in All Hues. To focus on organizational development.

The Jewish Multiracial Network. For hosting the Second National Jews of Color Convening, to be held in the Berkshires in June.

JewV’Nation Fellowship, Jews of Color Cohort. Funding for a leadership development program for visionary Jewish leaders.

We are halfway through the current grant round, and it’s stunning to hear back from the grantees about their work and experience so far.

As a result of those six grants, right this very moment there are three separate cohorts of Jews of color leaders being developed. By the fall, more than 100 Jews of color connected to the Jewish organizational ecosystem will have gained new leadership skills and their organizations will have additional capacities developed.

By the close of the grant round, vital organizations led by Jews of color and their leaders will be stronger and better positioned to continue and to amplify their already excellent work.

And this work really matters. By 2042, at least half of the U.S. population will be people of color. And given that way back in 2003, the American Jewish community was already 13 to 20 percent Jews of color, and that intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews is higher than 70 percent, it’s safe to assume that the next generation of baby Jews will be going hued.

Racial diversity is all around us. And Jewish racial diversity is not a dilemma or a challenge to be solved — it’s simply a fact.

The challenge to be solved is how to successfully build the bridges, pathways and highways needed to more meaningfully, purposefully and effectively connect the diversity of our community.

The Fund for Jews of Color Field Building is taking on some of that challenge. Inspired by a team of racially diverse Jewish community leaders, and anchored by the voices and experience of Jews of color, this fund is one example of partnership-based, equity and reality-informed philanthropic activity that is strengthening our Jewish community for today, and building and reinforcing our community for tomorrow.

This piece first appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

Ilana Kaufman
Ilana Kaufman

Ilana Kaufman is the director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. She is a Schusterman senior fellow, public speaker, occasional author, strategic designer and problem solver. Ilana works with Jewish organizations and philanthropic entities navigating the intersection of Jewish community, Jewish identity and racial justice.