Moving Forward Together as a Multiracial Jewish Community

Smiling group -  Jews of Color Initiative

March 18, 2019

  • Jewish Community
  • Jewish Life and Values
  • Racial Equity

In August 2018, Ilana Kaufman stepped into a new role as the founding Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative—a national effort to build and advance the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color. Now, more than six months into her work, I caught up with Ilana to learn about some of the key challenges, successes and opportunities she has encountered along the way.

We’ve endured many crises over the past year: The horrific shooting in Pittsburgh, an intensified immigration crisis, the deadly massacre at the Christchurch Mosque in New Zealand and much more. How have these events affected Jews of Color?
Jews of Color have always been finding our way to civil rights, regardless of which crises play out on the national or global stage. Yet in the wake of recent events, we’re at a unique inflection point. We are always dealing with racism. Since Charlottesville, and certainly since the terror in Pittsburgh, we’re feeling a range of expressions of anti-semitism that are punctuated in ways different than just a few years ago. We’re aware that anti-semitism and Islamophobia are often animated by white supremacy. So we are figuring out how gently or boldly to push for change as we move through the world with multiple identities and multiple experiences of oppression. That’s an ongoing challenge that will most likely exist for a long time. We’ve come to expect that progress is often followed by backlash or pushback. So we’re navigating that tension and learning every day how to repair and build relationships to create the world we want to live in. 

Why does the Jewish community need the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative?
It’s helpful to explain the need by offering some broader context: By 2042, the United States will become a majority people of color. Our ever-increasing multiracial U.S. context, coupled with the fact that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States will likely marry non-Jews, tells us that the U.S.-based Jewish community is, and will become, increasingly multiracial. 

Right now, at a minimum, 11 percent of Jewish Americans in the U.S. are people of color and, in some regions, that number is as high as 38 percent. That means, at the very least, approximately 650,000 of the 5.2 million Jews in the U.S. are Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American or multiracial. What if it were 38 percent all across the U.S.? That would mean that 2 million members of our community are people of color. 

It’s clear that our U.S. Jewish community is racially diverse. Yet the dominant story of the North American Jewish community, our leadership and our programs is Ashkenormative—falsely suggesting that American Jews are entirely white and of Eastern European descent. The Jews of Color Field Building Initiative works to raise awareness about our multiracial Jewish community. We believe that to catalyze the change, we need to embrace and operate though multiracial lenses and to build out and fortify our community infrastructure so that there are more pathways and opportunities for Jews of Color to be part of, lead, engage and thrive in the Jewish communal landscape.

This is about Klal Yisrael—the idea that we are all responsible for each other. The Jews of Color Field Building Initiative helps knit together our community so Jews of Color can be whole as people of color, and as Jews, and have access to all aspects of our community, including Torah.  

What has surprised you most since you stepped into your role? 
I grew up not seeing many white Jews advocate for racial justice. At my childhood synagogue of 2,000 members, only five were people of color. Racial justice wasn’t really on my synagogue’s radar. So, I’ve been really heartened and surprised by the extent to which white Jewish allies have shown up and spoken out against racial injustice in recent months.

People sometimes assume that conversations about racial justice and multiculturalism won’t be well-received in the organized Jewish community. But my experience is that people are ready for these conversations to happen—and they want to participate! There’s a real appetite to engage with questions and content related to multiracial dynamics in Jewish life. And I’ve been surprised by how many white Jews are coming out about being part of multiracial families. When I’m speaking at or training institutions, white Jews regularly come up to me and say, “My partner is African American” or “My daughter is Latina.” That’s an encouraging shift and it signals to me that people are excited about the work we’re doing and want to be part of it.

How do you want the organized Jewish community to move from awareness to action in supporting Jews of Color?
First and foremost, I think it’s important for Jewish institutions to understand that the leadership of the organized Jewish community does not reflect our multiracial reality. So it’s necessary for Jewish institutions to apply a multiracial lens to everything they do: from offering programs about racial diversity, to re-envisioning HR policies and staff recruitment efforts, to creating new opportunities for Jews of Color to see themselves reflected in our Jewish communal story. I also want to encourage a more organic exchange of ideas between Jews of Color and white Jewish leaders so that, together, we can talk about racism, racial injustice, our multiracial community, our institutions and what we need to move forward side by side, in strength.

What are some key successes of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative thus far?
We’ve led more than 40 trainings with different kinds of institutions—federations, service-learning organizations, foundations, universities and day schools—to spark conversations about Jews of Color and to ensure that pursuing diversity, equity, inclusion and justice are central to how these institutions operate. We’re helping federations re-vamp their community studies to ask more nuanced questions and build a more holistic Jewish narrative that includes Jews of Color. And we’ve been working with Jews of Color of all ages—young adults, students in high school, middle school and elementary school—which has been absolutely amazing. Thank goodness the young people will be leading someday! They’re incredible.  

How are Jews of Color leading in ways that excite you? 
Jews of Color are always leading in exciting ways! On the one hand, it can be hard to see Jews of Color because there are so few of them in leadership roles in the organized Jewish community. But we need to remember that leadership takes many forms: people lead from the classroom, people lead when they deliver babies, people lead from C-suite offices, people lead from the bimah, people lead from the archives when they’re curating and caring for our history. Jews of Color are occupying all of these roles in our country right now. I think we need to widen our vision and have a more expansive understanding of what leadership looks like. Knowing that there are so many phenomenal Jews of Color who are emerging leaders gives me a lot of hope for the future. 

You can learn more about the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative here.

Ilana Kaufman is the Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative and a nationally recognized leader, author, speaker and trainer with 20 years of organizational development experience. A 2017-2018 Schusterman Fellow, Ilana previously worked as the Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director for the San Francisco/East Bay Jewish Community Relations Council.