“What is the cost of us not really understanding ourselves as diverse and multiracial, and what is going to happen to our Jewish community if we don’t get around this reality,” says Ilana Kaufman, the Executive Director of the Jews of Color Initiative.
Years of advocacy, leadership training, and education around Jewish diversity, and countless demands for inclusion in Jewish institutional life are being lifted up by the Jews of Color Initiative (JOCI), a Berkeley, California-based national organization that focuses on building and advancing the professional, organization and communal field for Jews of Color (JOCs).
“I get to find my people out there, and I get to create opportunities for our people to find each other.... that’s a gift,” declared Kaufman, who stated there has often been a lack of institutional support to serve Jews of Color and multicultural Jewish families.
Kaufman manages JOCI’s strategic fields of impact, which include grant-making, commissioning research studies on multiculturalism in the American Jewish community, and serving as a network bridge to organizations who support Jews of color and/or who seek to expand their commitment to racial equity.
“[One of the most fulfilling parts of my job] is seeing JOC leaders speaking from a place of confidence and not from a place of fear,” said Kaufman, whose leadership has initiated conversations with mainstream Jewish organizations and stakeholders about how to mirror the increasingly multicultural Jewish population.
From integrating more Jews of color into leadership roles, funding project ideas initiated by Jews of color to changing mindsets about race in the Jewish community through accessible data, JOCI is transforming conversations into action.
“Some Jewish organizations applying for grants, they are just dipping their toes in for the first time – or just in the beginning phases of doing DEI (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion) work and a small grant can kickstart a lot of that; to do a scholarship that can support a JOC chavruah program, to have more JOC in an executive leadership program,” says Riki Robinson, the administrative assistant and grants program manager at JOCI.
During the past several months in quarantine, Robinson helped coordinate JOCI’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, which provides monetary assistance to any person of color who is a member of the Jewish community.
Robinson explained that this project has been personally fulfilling and necessary work in providing resources to underrepresented populations of the Jewish community, including people of color in lesser compensated positions.
“They are able to apply to the emergency fund, and a lot of these people overlap into categories who are often seen as disposable and unimportant,” Robinson highlighted. “This has really opened up the conversation that Jews of Color, we care not only about Jews of color but about people of color, and I think that is something I have not seen on the institutional level by other Jewish organizations.”
Growing up in organized Reform Jewish groups during childhood, Robinson said that she drifted from the Jewish community in college because racism was all too prevalent as an Asian American woman learning more about her racial identity.
However, Robinson re-entered the Jewish world when she met Kaufman at a speaking engagement, inspiring her to work where she could make an impact for other Jews of color, in an organization of all Jews of color.
“The work she [Kaufman] was doing really highlighted to me that I could do this kind of work, that I didn’t have to choose between being a woman of color and queer and Jewish. I could be all those things in this one space.”
JOCI’s impact has laid a foundation for the recognition of diversity in a community often believed to be white and Ashkenazim, primarily through conducting research on Jews of color in America.
Counting Inconsistencies, a research study commissioned by JOCI and conducted by Dr. Ari Kelman of Stanford University, found that 12-15% of Jewish people in America identify as nonwhite or as a person of color.
Since releasing this data, JOCI has worked with mainstream Jewish organizations and stakeholders around the country, explaining that while this data is new, multiculturalism and Jews of color in the Jewish world are not.
“I didn’t know at that time the scale and the magnitude of what that study meant and what it would mean to not only the Jewish community but to JOCs,” says Angel Alvarez-Mapp, the Director of Programs and Operations at JOCI, who recounted when a Jewish scholar cited the study in a podcast about antisemitism.
Looking to the future, Alvarez-Mapp envisions JOCI expanding across the country into regional pockets where more concentrated community engagement can be facilitated for Jews of Color.
“I always say we work to end racism in the Jewish community, which means we have plenty of work to do for a very long time,” explained Alvarez-Mapp, who hopes JOCI can advise Jewish organizations in the recruitment of qualified Jews of color to serve on board member and higher-level roles.
Each of JOCI’s staff members are uniquely passionate about ensuring a bright and inclusive future for Jews of color. Under the leadership of Kaufman, the staff’s tireless dedication and brilliant visions make the Jewish community even a little more inclusive and accepting for Jews of color.
“Everyone has a right to Torah, everyone has a right to community, and it is our job to create and clear out the pathways.”
Tova Ricardo is the Communications Intern at the Jews of Color Initiative. She is a senior at Columbia University studying English and Sociology.