Jews of Color in the Diaspora. Has racial diversity in our communities failed?

“Despite 10 years of promises, Jewish leaders have failed to make space for Jews of color.”

-Jews of Color Initiative

goodfreephotos CJNonline April 27 2022

COMMENT. Culture & Society

TORONTO, April 27/22 –   Jews of Color Initiative, is a Berkeley, California, USA-based fund that “raises consciousness about underserved Jews of color and works to create a more inclusive and welcoming ecosystem in the organized American Jewish community.”

As pointed out by Jews of Color Initiatives’ Executive Director, Ilana Kaufman in her comments that follow, she states today’s American Jewish community is more diverse and represents more backgrounds than ever.

We believe what she has to say is an accepted fact that applies across all strata of diaspora society, irrespective of what country one lives in.

Kaufman, whose work “sits at the center of Jewish Community, Racial Equity and Justice,” contends her organization “works to build a truly multiracial, anti-racist Jewish community in which Jews of color can experience joy and reach their full potential and belonging as leaders and community members. To do so requires creating structural and communal support…”

“80% of Jews of color have experienced discrimination in the U.S. Jewish community.

As Kaufman states, “Yet this diversity is not equitably reflected in our communal spaces. Based on national and local population studies, my organization found in 2018 that one in seven Jews in the United States identifies as a person of color. Other recent estimates have varied, but one thing is clear: Jews of color are underrepresented in organizational boardrooms, executive leadership teams and even in those groups whose explicit aim is to engage in the work of justice. This absence of Jews of color, and by extension the absence of knowledge about our experiences and perspectives, shapes — in truth, distorts — not only organizational missions, visions, values and programs, but how we see our Jewish world.”

She adds, “I always wanted for my family what I observe in so many other Jewish families: that feeling of deep connection that comes from being part of a Jewish community.

“Alarm, sadness, disappointment, even a sense of failure

“To build bonds, I said ‘yes’ when asked to teach a Yom Kippur study session at a local synagogue. I said ‘yes’ when asked to provide feedback to rabbis on diversity initiatives. I said “yes” to a shul’s search committee and to the invitation to plot and plan how to transform into a multiracial, anti-racist congregation.

“Ten years later — after all the diversity committees, reviewing of draft congregant surveys and sermons, I look out at my community and there is little, dare I say nothing, to show for these efforts.”

Kaufman believes, “The same affluent, cisgender, white men chant from the bimah. There are no former campers of color working at the shul’s summer camps. There are no Black, Asian or Latino Jewish teenagers behind the desk to welcome folks to the front office. And it’s not just the synagogues I’ve interacted with — there is essentially no racial diversity in leadership anywhere in our progressive shuls in our progressive towns in our progressive states.”

Kaufman doesn’t “see it changing any time soon, since rabbinical hiring processes tend to prioritize the rarefied, traditional training that few clergy of color have, to date, fully acquired.”

“Goodwill and intentions are not strategies

“I recently had a very difficult conversation with a senior congregational rabbi I’ve worked with for years. Beyond her good intentions, we talked about their failure to implement any tools or strategies that institutionalize efforts toward ensuring a multiracial, anti-racist synagogue community. I told them that goodwill and intentions are not strategies.”

She considers, “Lack of policies and practices to ensure a multiracial, anti-racist community, and failure to create and support pathways to diverse role models and diverse leadership reinforces a false narrative of who is a Jew and a Jewish leader in the United States, harming and arresting the development of us all.”

“Ten more years is too long for any Jew of color to further endure racism in our organizations, to not receive adequate and appropriate care from leaders, and to not see a reflection of ourselves on the bimah or in the C-Suite.

Kaufman says, “Last year, ‘Beyond the Count’ — a study commissioned by the group I lead, the Jews of Color Initiative — found that 80% of Jews of color have experienced discrimination in the U.S. Jewish community. Of the more than 1,000 Jews of color surveyed, just 13% said Jewish leaders are doing an adequate job responding to racism in our communal organizations.

She contends, “Decades and decades of quiet reinforcement of racism, a paucity of communal leaders of color, and a lack of bold, catalyzing public commitments has created communal hardship that our leaders can and must remedy and repair.”

Ilana Kaufman 002

Ilana Kaufman is a Senior Schusterman Fellow. She received her B.A. in Sociology from California State University-Humboldt and her M.A. in Educational Pedagogy from Mills College.

Ilana Kaufman’s in-depth remarks can be read in detail both at jewsofcolorinitiative and Forward.

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