For generations, different communities and institutions have operated on their usually thoughtful core values, norms, systems and structures. Although these long-standing values and structures help maintain tradition, the groups not included in the community at the time of creation can subsequently encounter barriers when trying to engage with it.
For Jews of Color, we can see these barriers in the past-president photos in Federation boardrooms, in the Black-Jewish taskforces in community relations organizations that seldom include Black Jews and in a synagogue’s law enforcement-informed security procedures that often tip toward racial bias. In the midst of a tumultuous, tense and scary first month of 2021 — when the need for strong Jewish communities is more important than ever — breaking down these barriers and opening our doors is both challenging and some of the most important work we should do.
Like every community, the U.S. Jewish community has core values and structures that once served us well but now can keep Jews away from communal life. One in seven Jews in the United States identifies as a person of color. That’s a huge proportion of the U.S. Jewish community that is almost entirely under-represented in communal spaces, especially in leadership roles. Take a look at the boards and executive leadership teams of any U.S. Jewish legacy organization. While many are engaged in Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Justice efforts, including centering Jews of Color, there is still a lot of distance between the leaders and those they support and serve.
It’s time to learn more about the lived experiences and perspectives of Jews of Color (JOC) to inform our work for and about them. For example, we need to know how JOCs think about Jewish identity. How do we each self-identify? What have been our experiences in Jewish communities — both terrible and wonderful? How has systemic racism affected JOCs in Jewish spaces?How can the Jewish community better embody the range of experiences and identities of all people, so all Jews see ourselves in Klal Yisrael?
It’s time to learn more about the lived experiences and perspectives of Jews of Color.
But we need to hear the voices of JOCs to make real progress on inclusion and countering racism. To that end, eighteen months ago, the Jews of Color Initiative — a national effort focused on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color — released “Counting Inconsistencies,” a report that helped us better understand how many Jews of Color there are in the United States. That report also taught us how to ask better demographic questions and design more inclusive studies.
Today, I am inviting all self-identified Jews of Color in the United States to let your voices be heard and participate in “Count Me In,” a research project aimed at understanding the lived experiences and perspectives of Jews of Color nationwide. “Count Me In,” led by a multi-racial research team housed at Stanford University, has developed a very strong survey that centers on Jews of Color, our diversity and our experiences. In addition to the questions I posed above, the survey also asks what we didn’t ask, should have asked and failed to ask. We expect the “Count Me In” study to be completed in July. Then, following analysis by the research team, we will share the findings to facilitate important changes in the wider Jewish community.
We know from prior research that there are 1,000,000 Jews of Color in the United States, and we know that wherever there are Jews in the United States, there are Jews of Color. The initiative has set a goal of 1,000 survey responses. We want “Count Me In” to accurately reflect the broad and beautiful diversity of Jews of Color in the United States today. Jews of Color are not monolithic; we each have unique stories to tell, experiences to share.
We all want to be connected to, engaged in and part of Jewish communities and Jewish communal life. As the diversity of U.S. Jewry expands, so too must our community capacities and core values. “Count Me In” is one important way we can ensure our ecosystem of organizations, day schools, synagogues, program partners and funders hear directly from Jews of Color. We need to tell them who we are, how we feel and what we’ve experienced as Jews of Color.
We know “Count Me In” isn’t a panacea for making our community more inclusive and less racist. But we know organizations, synagogues and program partners are waiting to hear from each of us about lived experiences, perspectives — what’s worked, what has not and where change needs to take place. And we are going to do everything we can to ensure our voices are not only heard but deeply considered and powerfully acted upon. So, if you self-identify as a Jew of Color, take 12 minutes to fill out the survey and join the hundreds and hundreds of other Jews of Color around the country who are saying, “Count Us In!”
Ilana Kaufman is Executive Director of the Jews of Color Initiative.