“Being with each other as Jews of color is a radical act,” says JYCA East Bay program coordinator Sarah Gladstone.
JYCA, which stands for Jewish Youth for Community Action, is piloting a program called JAM in which Jewish teens of color participate in bonding activities and discussions about their cultural and religious identities. JAM stands for Jews Against Marginalization.
The program is for Jews between the ages 13 and 18 who identify as black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Mizrahi, Sephardic and/or mixed. JAM’s first flyer said the program will allow the teens “to chill, chat and smash systems of oppression.”
“JYCA is a safe space where young people from any walk of life and affiliation with Judaism can come together and be led by adults who care about them,” said Jennifer Esteen, a board member at JYCA, which serves the East Bay and Peninsula from offices in Piedmont and Foster City.
“My youngest son likes JYCA, but traditionally he has felt like an outcast,” added Esteen, who is black. “He has felt isolated in white spaces at synagogue. He went to religious school and he didn’t know anybody. He totally felt ostracized by the big group” of students at the religious school.
JYCA is a social justice organization that empowers Jewish youth with social action education, leadership training and protest involvement. Participants mobilize around issues such as land fracking, voting rights, community problems or bullying.
Gladstone said Jewish community engagement largely centers on the involvement of white Ashkenazi Jews even though there are other identities in the Jewish spectrum.
According to the 2018 study “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” sponsored by the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation, there is a non-white adult (Jewish or not) in close to 25 percent of Bay Area Jewish households.
Thus, with a local Jewish community that is more racially diverse than popular assumption, JAM is aiming to provide an environment where Jewish youth of color can be “laid back and have a healing, conversational space to explore identity,” Gladstone said.
“The main thing that we’ve heard is that they [JYCA youth of color] are looking for space to have community with other Jewish people who share their identities,” she added.
JAM’s initial steps include hosting informal meetings every six weeks to generate program ideas from teens. The first occurred in July at Mosswood Park in Oakland, where teens had discussions during an afternoon picnic.
Gladstone said students expressed interest in outings such as going bowling and having Shabbat dinners together.
Eitan Camacho of Oakland, who will begin high school this year, said he wants JAM to be a place where he can “hold down my roots and stay grounded in my culture. My mom is Mexican and my dad is Jewish.”
Camacho said he wants JAM to engage participants in identity-based conversations and recreational activities “because the two would compliment each other.”
Nathan Hasegawa, a JYCA youth leader, said he wants JAM to be focused on “identity development” and intercultural education. “I want to be aware of being a Jew of color, and I want to be more knowledgeable about other Jews of color,” he said.
Ultimately, JAM organizers want to facilitate a community in which Jewish youth of color are free to be themselves with no explanation.
“I think JAM is trying to fill the gap,” Esteen said. “Young people can show up and not feel that what they see around them is different.”