Janu Mendel, a board member of the Jews of Color Initiative (JOCI), said that he found a lack of representation and familiarity in the American Jewish world when he immigrated from Jamaica. Even though he feared being casted as an outsider in a new country, he was united with diverse Jewish communities who inspired his dedication to a service-oriented career.
As the Executive Director of Repair the World Miami, Mendel oversees the organization’s mission to affect change in the world by training and elevating Jewish individuals to be leaders. He noted programs that address food and schooling inequalities through education and service-based partnerships with other non-profit organizations.
“It’s really about service, and it’s no coincidence I think that I am working with a service-led organization like Repair the World because that’s where my heart is and that is what I’m called to do.”
By holding leadership roles in JOCI and Repair the World Miami, Mendel tackles some of the most critical issues impacting the Jewish community today, such as diversity and racial awareness.
“For me, having the opportunity to sit at the table and positively contribute to the future experience that JOCs [Jews of color] who are coming up after me will have is a calling almost,” said Mendel, who learned the necessity of providing leadership and resources to JOCs while a member of Bend the Arc’s Selah Leadership program for diverse Jews.
“I find it so important to give back and to serve on this board because I was once a young JOC who did not necessarily have a clearly defined path in the larger Jewish community or in the Jewish professional world where I know work.”
Mendel also explained that his experiences as a JOC who did not see his culture echoed in the American Jewish community inspire him to advocate for change.
“When I moved to the United States, I did not really have much Jewish community, and as I started to seek it out on my own and started to work in the Jewish world, it still didn’t really reflect my own personhood, it didn’t reflect my own synagogue that I grew up in,” said Mendel. “and I thought that I might have been destined to a life of being an anomaly in the American Jewish community.”
Yet, Mendel eventually realized that he was equally an important member and leader in his new Jewish environment.
“I am not only an anomaly, but part of a really beautiful force of diversity.”
Mendel highlighted that being on the JOCI board taught him that Jewish communities should be invested in racial equality within and outside their service fields.
“We are at this kind of watershed moment where we have a really beautiful opportunity to bring large institutions and large organizations along a path of greater equity for our [JOC] community”, explained Mendel. “I really believe that the entirety of the Jewish community is best served when JOC have an equitable seat at the table.”
Even amongst the disparities of inclusion and equality that exist in the Jewish community, Mendel highlighted that JOCI teaches the most prominent and influential Jewish stages to rethink how they understand racial diversity in the Jewish world.
“I’m already, as part of being on the board, seeing the ways in which we are poised to springboard even further thought into having a really great impact in the American Jewish landscape.”
Tova Ricardo is the Communications Intern at the Jews of Color Initiative. She is a senior at Columbia University studying English and Sociology.