Moni Frances/shutterstock
Moni Frances/shutterstock

In recent years, Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists have come to recognize that the American Jewish community—widely presumed to be white-skinned and Ashkenazi (from Central and Eastern Europe)—is far more diverse than they imagined.

With the help of philanthropic partners, the Jews of Color Initiative, a Berkeley, California-based fund led by Executive Director Ilana Kaufman, is raising consciousness about underserved Jews of color and working to create a more inclusive and welcoming ecosystem in the organized American Jewish community.

Though Jews of color have been undercounted in Jewish population studies for decades, data from several reputable studies point to the fact that Jews of color represent at least 12 to 15% of the American Jewish population. That percentage does not include Jews of Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) ancestry—and it is growing.

Yet the majority of Jews of color, aren’t showing up in synagogues, Jewish community centers or religious schools. One reason for their absence is that they don’t feel welcome, says Kaufman, whose organization is committed to building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of color.

“As the Jews of Color Initiative was being founded, we heard from Jewish community members of color, our families and friends, that often when attending services and community programs, they might be racially profiled,” says Kaufman. “Sometimes when freshening up in the restroom, they might be asked to change an empty paper towel dispenser; when picking up a daughter from religious school, they might be assumed to be the nanny; when attending a program in a community space, be asked if they need help or if they know someone in the community or why they are there that evening,” says Kaufman. “Each example is an expression of racism that is seen and heard.”

Such blatant instances of racism, adds Kaufman, occur in addition to more subtle examples, such as “looks of wonder; the pervasive use of language and customs that exclude Jews who are neither Ashkenazi or white; the resistance, on the part of some, to come to terms with and deeply understand the impact of racism and white supremacy in the United States, including in our Jewish communities.”

In 2017, Kaufman was part of a group of 12 Black Jews invited to the Leichtag Foundation to discuss issues around racial justice. “It was a sincere, curious and sometimes awkward conversation with a group of funders and colleagues coming together in the very heightened racial climate [during] 2016,” recalls Kaufman. “It was hard, because race is hard and talking about race and racism is hard.”

Yet the group persevered, with white funders and colleagues asking questions expressing concern about the experiences of Jews of color and seeking information about what needed to change.

“There was clearly a need for funding and there was also some curiosity about to what extent creating a hub of some kind would benefit, not only Jews of color, but the whole Jewish community,” Kaufman says.

After two days of discussion and soul searching, the Jews of Color Field Building Fund was created. Kaufman, who was then working as a public affairs and civic engagement director for the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council, came aboard as a contract program officer for the pilot fund, which started with just $60,000. The fund was held at the Coastal Community Foundation in San Diego and was supported by the Leichtag Foundation. The Jim Joseph Foundation and Walter and Elise Haas Fund soon joined the effort.

“We ended up with $160,000 and we gave away $110,000 in grantmaking that first year,” says Kaufman. “Fast-forward three years, and our name has gotten shorter and our budget has gotten larger.”

The JoCI’s fundraising goal for 2020-2021 was $450,000, but due to funders’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on people of color, Kaufman now expects to raise $828,000 this year.

In addition to the Leichtag and Jim Joseph foundations and the Haas Fund, the JoCI is currently supported by prominent philanthropies, including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Rodan Family Foundation.

This year’s grantees include Hillel International, Avodah, Reconstructing Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism.

“The Jews of Color Initiative’s grantmaking is limited to field building,” says Kaufman. “We’re informed by the Bridgespan Group’s field-building guide and we focus on resourcing, leadership development, establishing best practices, policy, identity and research.” Research, says Kaufman, is especially important, since most white Jews know so little about Jews of color.

“Every time I would go present about Jews of color, I would have a conversation and someone would ask, ‘Yeah, but how many Jews of color are there really?’ So, then I thought, OK, we have to go out and do research.”

The JoCI’s first demographic study, “Counting Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies, with a Focus on Jews of Color,” was funded by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and released in 2019. The study discovered significant irregularities in the ways previous demographic studies were conducted, which made it difficult to gain a full understanding of how many Jews of color actually live in the U.S. For example, many Jewish population studies failed to include questions about race or ethnicity.

Based on these inconsistencies, the researchers recommended that future Jewish population studies “adopt better and more consistent practices for sampling populations, weighting responses, and formulating more comprehensive and sensitively worded questions.”

In January 2021, the JoCI commenced the  “Count Me In” survey, which asks Jews of color to share experiences and perspectives on Jewish identity, systemic racism, and their aspirations for the Jewish  community. The JoCI hopes that the survey, which will close on Feb. 19 and be released in July, will garner 1,000 responses.

Strengthening the local Jewish community in the San Francisco Bay area for future generations is a funding priority for the Rodan Family Foundation, which was established approximately two years ago. Elana Rodan Schuldt, the foundation’s president and CEO, says that initially, the foundation wasn’t sure what that goal would mean.

“Frankly, I was thinking about my kids, and my peers’ kids, and what are they coming of age with and how will Judaism be relevant for them,” says Rodan Schuldt.

“We wanted to be very objective, so we looked at all the available data and were able to talk to most local organizations and leaders. What was glaringly obvious to us is that there’s a mismatch between who our Jewish community is from a demographic perspective and what the demographics of organizational Jewish life looks like.”

Considering trends such as intermarriage and the lifestyles of modern Jewish families, says Rodan Schuldt, “we felt it was imperative to start reaching people not showing up in our community, especially Jews of color, and bringing Jewish life to them.”

Rodan Schuldt hopes the Rodan Foundation’s support of the JoCI will “strengthen the field of practitioners and organizations supporting Jews of color and help current Jewish institutions and organizations to do that hard work of readying themselves to be places where Jews of color can thrive and want to show up.” She also hopes the Rodan Foundation’s investment in the JoCI “will catalyze other funders to prioritize this and start putting their dollars to it.”

The Jim Joseph Foundation has done just that. Jon Marker, senior program officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation, says they support the JoCI because of a recognition that “the dominant narrative of who Jews are in the United States, and who our institutions are made of, center around European ‘Ashkenormative’ Jewish experience, which is limited and does not encompass all the places where Jews come from.”

The narrative “doesn’t encompass the nuance and richness and memory that exists in multiracial and multiethnic families that have existed for generations,” says Marker. “If our goal is to focus on helping young Jews to find meaning and purpose through Jewish wisdom, we need to recognize that a purely Ashkenazic narrative is not going to resonate with everyone and it’s not going to speak to the complexity and richness and resilience of our narrative.”

Both Rodan Schuldt and Marker agree that partnering with the JoCI makes their work especially rewarding. “First and foremost,” says Marker, “it’s a tremendous joy to work with Ilana [Kaufman] and the team she’s assembled. They’re incredibly strong leaders who bring a rich wisdom and lived experience within the American Jewish community. They also bring a skillset for nonprofit management and how to grow a field and ecosystem that is important, not because they are Jews of color, but because they are talented leaders.”

Kaufman does her best to ensure that the grant application process is relatively painless. “We try to do grantmaking in ways that are excellent, low barrier, low labor, low panic and low stress because it just makes for a much better experience,” says Kaufman, who awards grants throughout the year.

“We’re here to support [communities and nonprofit leaders] but it’s not about us,” Kaufman says. “We’re just facilitators, we’re a pathway.… This is about the community becoming its next version of its best self.”

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