At “United Colors of Jews — A Storytelling Event,” members of the community got an opportunity to share stories of their diverse backgrounds and to meet their “multicultural mishpacha” at The Braid in Santa Monica.
The Jan. 31 event was organized by Next @ The Braid (the Jewish Women’s Theatre’s group for young performers) and Jews of Color and supported by The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles Cutting Edge grant. It was co-hosted by IKAR, the egalitarian spiritual community.
“Jewish people come from everywhere and many are descendants of parents of mixed-heritage families,” said Abbe Meryl Feder, producer of Next @ The Braid. “Current events have brought diversity to the forefront, and many people from diverse backgrounds want to share their histories.”
According to GlobalJews.org, 20 percent of the U.S. Jewish population consists of persons of Africa American, Asian, Latin, Sephardic, Mizrachi and mixed-race descent.
The event’s charismatic emcee, Joshua Silverstein, a Jewish and Black performer who refers to himself as a “He-Bro,” was the first of the evening’s eight storytellers, each of whom stood before a photo of their family and presented intimate, moving, humorous and inspiring tales from their past and their current life. Silverstein shared his own sad story of his dysfunctional relationship with his father who, ever since Silverstein adopted his Jewish wife’s two children, has never wished his son a happy Father’s Day and still hasn’t met the kids, who are now 5 and 10 years old, respectively.
“More than half of the slaves stolen from Africa came from ancient Jewish tribes, so 50% of today’s blacks are their descendants.” — Benny Lumpkins
Marissa Tiamfook Gee, the product of a Jewish mother and a half-Black/half-Chinese father from the Caribbean, told how, after her mother died when she was 10, her father encouraged her Judaism. “It turned out my mom married a nice Jewish boy after all,” said Gee, who introduced her Ghana-born husband in the audience. (She noted that, for Hannukah, he had given her a handmade tallit made from his grandmother’s African tribal cloth.)
Another speaker, Benny Lumpkins, a black Jew, stated, “More than half of the slaves stolen from Africa came from ancient Jewish tribes, so 50 percent of today’s blacks are their descendants.” He spoke regretfully of leaving his synagogue after having been made to feel “that I was a unicorn.” He affirmed to the audience, “You are my family; I am a member of your tribe.”
Negin Yamini’s story, read by Eric Green, dealt with her Iranian Jewish parents’ bitter divorce, 16 years of no contact with her father, and then re-establishing a relationship with him after her mother’s death. As it turned out, her father’s very close best friend, a fellow security guard, was a Palestinian. “Some paradoxes cannot be explained; they can only be lived,” Yamini wrote.
Meridythe Amichai spoke about how she adored her grandmother and her grandmother’s lifestyle: “By 8 [years old], I knew that I loved the life of a senior citizen.” After her grandma’s death, Meridythe felt the woman returned in the form of a dove trapped in her home’s atrium.
Courtenay Edelhart told the audience she identifies as a Black Jewish liberal feminist single mother. She spoke with gratitude of one memorable Hanukkah in Bakersfield when an unusually generous stranger provided unexpected holiday gifts for her and her children that Courtenay would otherwise not have been able to afford.
Emily Bowen Cohen’s family story was about having a Jewish mother and an Native American father. After falling in love with an Orthodox Jew and throwing herself into that life, Cohen said she began feeling physical pain for not acknowledging her Native American heritage. So, she searched out members of her father’s side of the family and made amends. “I stopped trying to be acceptable for other people’s comfort,” Cohen said.
Ingrid Gumpert — a psychologist who is Black, Jewish, Mexican and Indian — had a unique way of describing her diverse heritage. “I’m not fragmented; I contain multitudes,” she said. She noted that diversity has always been part of her life. At the rehearsal dinner for her wedding to her Jewish husband, a mariachi band played; and at their wedding they played Louis Armstrong’s version of “Sunrise, Sunset.”
“My superpower,” Gumpert said, “is seeing the divine nugget of potential in people.”
Mark Miller is a humorist, journalist and author of the humor essay collection “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”
Until now, I had not paid much attention to the proposed nation-state identity bill, figuring that it stated the obvious but was being done for emphasis (“Red Lines,” Dec. 5). But in reading this article, I discover that part of the bill is to discontinue Arabic as an official language. Among other things, it makes the Arab population second-class citizens, and as the article says, undermines the message that Israel is a democracy with full rights to all citizens. On what basis can you tell 20 percent of your citizens, who, by the way, are indigenous, that their language can no longer be used in the public sphere? I do not see a compelling reason for this, especially since the Declaration of Independence already declares the country a home for the Jewish people. I cannot think of a more powerful tool right now to hand to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement with which to prove that Israel is an apartheid state. They are experts at PR and will exploit this at every opportunity.
I admit that reading this article was painful and I was resisting its message about the red flag, but I have to agree that its message is powerful and should be taken very seriously, and I compliment Rob Eshman for sharing this message with us.
Thomas Solomon via jewishjournal.com
The Chabad Way
It is a matter of inclusion with no expectations (“The Chabad Secret, Dec. 5). Recently, the Knesset Synagogue in Israel proclaimed that if you are not a practicing Orthodox Jew, you are not welcome in their synagogue. This would never happen in any Chabad. They recognize that people are people and life is messy. It is a mitzvah to have them in our community.
Steven M. Levy via jewishjournal.com
Made for You and Me
As a born Jewish Black American, I can tell you that during the mid-’60s, my brother and I did a whole lot of walking on Shabbat (Saturday) along the Pico-Fairfax corridor of Los Angeles (“God Gave This Land to Them,” Dec. 5). Israel is our promised ancestral homeland. Period.
Arthur Killum via jewishjournal.com
As a young Jew living in America, I was glad to find this article to inform me of what happened in my home country a few weeks ago (“Fear Thy Neighbor,” Nov. 28). This is an attack that took place when a Jew was at his or her most vulnerable moment. Wrapped in tefillin and ready to pray to their God, these innocent people were ambushed by surprise. It terrifies me to hear that in a place that you feel safe, you could be terrorized in any given moment. This article helped me realize the importance of social media and the Jewish Journal, because you don’t need to be physically in Israel to be terrorized, like the woman in the story said.
Maytal Madmony, Los Angeles
UCLA and the BDS Debate
The recent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions issue at UCLA spotlights a more serious underlying problem, one that goes further than the politics of Israel on campus (“Reframing the BDS Debate at UCLA,” Dec. 5). As Natalie Charney, Eytan Davidovits, Omer Hit, Gil Bar-On and Tammy Rubin explained, the outcome of the vote at the Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC) meeting that night was pre-determined. The reason for this is, unlike other universities and colleges, the UCLA student government is run by a relatively small, 14-member council.
Once elected, USAC is funded by mandatory fees. Individuals do not have the option of refusing to pay, and most are probably unaware what the fee is for. With this guaranteed budget, most of which is appropriately spent on student cultural activities, councilmembers and commissioners have no incentive to make themselves available to the general student population.
In some universities (especially abroad), where membership is voluntary, student politicians must persuade individuals to pay their dues — not so at UCLA.
The result is a body that is often neither transparent nor accountable to ordinary students, and easily hijacked by well-organized groups with agendas. This is nothing new — Jewish student activists from Zev Yaroslavsky to those of today have had to work within this system. As the student activists pointed out, there are better ways for USAC to spend its time. UCLA should consider reforming its undergraduate student government to create a wider base of representation, more transparency and more accountability.
Meanwhile, the fact that the pro-Israel activists were able to collect 2,000 petition signatures in four days speaks volumes.
Miriam Caiden, Los Angeles
There are other flavors besides strawberry (“Homemade Sufganiyot Brighten Chanukah Celebrations,” Dec. 5)! Where is it written it has to be strawberry? Some people hate strawberry! I’m one of them! I’ve had chocolate sufganiyot and plain sufganiyot, and they are awesome!
Eliot Schickler via jewishjournal.com
When Ilana Kaufman, a program officer at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, arrived at San Quentin State Prison for a meeting with the Jewish chaplain at California’s oldest correctional facility, the chaplain couldn’t seem to find her — even though Kaufman was standing in plain sight.
As Kaufman waited in the receiving area, a security officer by her side, the spiritual leader of the prison community — largely composed of men of color — turned her head left and right trying to locate the federation representative whose name she knew but whose face she had never seen.
“Finally the officer says, ‘Chaplain, this person standing right next to me,’” Kaufman recalled. “And the chaplain says, ‘You know, you are not who I expected.’”
It wasn’t the first time that Kaufman, 42, had heard such a comment.
In her two years as the federation officer responsible for regional grant making in Marin and Sonoma counties, Kaufman had seen her fair share of jaws drop when she walked into a Jewish communal space. Kaufman is black — the daughter of an Ashkenazic Jewish mother and an African-American father.
“There is a deeply established set of assumptions about who represents federation,” said Kaufman, who stands nearly 6 feet tall. “So when I walk into a space where they’ve seen my name, which is a very traditional Jewish name, they cannot fathom that a person of color is going to walk in the door.”
North America’s central Jewish charities employ many non-Jewish people of color — some at high levels of management, including an Asian-American chief financial and investment officer at the San Francisco federation. But Kaufman, having reached out via email and social media to colleagues across the federation system, has yet to identify any other Jews of color working in forward-facing programming roles.
The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of 153 federated charities, does not track the racial and ethnic composition of its approximately 2,700 employees. In response to questions about the role of racial and ethnic diversity at Jewish federations, a JFNA spokesman said, “Jewish federations enjoy a tremendous commitment to inclusivity and diversity, one that is highly reflective of the different kinds of Jews there are in our communities, vis-a-vis Jews of different ethnic origin, Jews across the religious spectrum and interfaith families, among others.”
Kaufman was raised in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood by a hard-working single mother who spoke to her in Yiddish. Kaufman, who is a lesbian, now lives with her almost 9-year-old-daughter, Noa, in Berkeley, Calif., and has a long-term partner. While she was growing up, her struggling family often benefited from Jewish philanthropy, and Kaufman attended a Jewish summer camp on scholarship.
She spent 20 years working in independent school education and administration. Most recently, Kaufman served as director of the Windrush School, a private elementary school in the East Bay city of El Cerrito, which was forced to shut down in 2011 as a result of the economic downturn.
After the school closed, Kaufman embarked on a search to find a job that would “totally rock my world,” she said.
Kaufman was steeped in her Jewish identity: Her daughter had attended Hebrew school since the age of 6, and she was as part of a diverse Bay Area social network that included other Jews of color and LGBT Jews. But she had never considered a career in Jewish communal life.
That changed when she visited Afikomen Judaica, a Jewish bookstore and Judaica shop in Berkeley, and encountered the shop’s co-owner, Nell Mahgel-Friedman, an old friend from her Jewish Student Union days at Humboldt State University.
Mahgel-Friedman said she remembered Kaufman’s passionate commitment to social justice issues and deep spiritual connection to Judaism — as well as her role in bringing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to the Humboldt campus in 1994. She looked Kaufman squarely in the eyes and said, “I just want you to consider working in the Jewish community.”
The statement resonated so deeply, Kaufman said, that for the first time she could envision a career that would bring her social, spiritual and professional lives into tighter alignment. By October 2012, she had begun her work at the San Francisco federation, known officially as the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.
“Maybe it’s not coincidental,” Kaufman said. “But I came out of an independent school world that’s equally rarefied. My purpose in the world has always been to be a bridge.”
In her role at the federation, Kaufman allocates grants in Marin and Sonoma counties. Her program officer portfolio includes the Early Childhood Education Initiative and the Affordability Initiative, which provides federation scholarships for Jewish education from preschool to day school.
Jim Offel, the San Francisco federation’s interim CEO, said that Kaufman “brings a really keen intelligence, thoughtfulness and high level of commitment to her work.”
He also said that if it’s true that Kaufman is the system’s only program officer of color — it’s impossible to say with certainty, given the lack of data — it wouldn’t be the first “first” for their federation. In 2010, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation became the first big-city federation to hire a female CEO, Jennifer Gorovitz, who left in March.
“There’s a likelihood that the Jewish community will become more diverse in a variety of ways, and being inclusive of the full Jewish community is going to be important for any communal institution, whether it’s our synagogues or JCCs,” Offel said. “Diversity as a value is important, and I would hope that the federation system would reflect that.”
According to a 2005 study conducted by the late Jewish demographer Gary Tobin, 10 percent of America’s approximately 6 million Jews identify as black, Latino, Asian or mixed race. A 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, the American city with the largest Jewish population, found that 12 percent of the city’s Jewish population is non-white.
These figures reflect wider demographic changes, according to Diane Tobin, the CEO of Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life. Diane Tobin, the widow of Gary Tobin, pointed to the 2010 U.S. Census, which found that among American children, the multiracial population had increased by 50 percent in 10 years.
Informally, Kaufman works with Be’chol Lashon on capacity building, and it was the organization’s 2013 International Think Tank that sparked her search for other Jews of color in the federation system. In mid-November, Kaufman and her daughter attended the organization’s Family Camp weekend retreat in Petaluma, Calif.
“We’re gratified that the federation is making space for leaders like Ilana who bring a different perspective and experience,” Tobin said. “We’re also delighted that Ilana is serving as a role model for our diverse Jewish kids.”
Chava Shervington, president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, a volunteer organization that promotes diversity in Jewish life, said that mainstream Jewish communal organizations are finally starting to “get it.” Over the past decade, she said, an increasing number of synagogues and Jewish groups from across the country have contacted JMN seeking counsel on how they can be more welcoming to Jews of color.
Last summer, a JMN representative spoke at the UJA-Federation of New York’s day of learning dedicated to racial and ethnic diversity.
“Jewish organizations, whether they be large communal organizations like the federations or local community synagogues, are starting to see the changing face of Judaism in the American context,” Shervington said. “I think that people are starting to realize that they have to change their modus operandi to reflect that.”
There’s also the issue of a bottom line.
If the numbers are any indicator of the federation system’s future constituency, then the North American philanthropic network has a strong financial incentive to bring more Jews of color into the fold, Kaufman said.
“There are moral reasons mainstream Jewish organizations should be more inclusive, organizational development reasons,” she said. “And then there’s a strong business rationale for being inclusive of the broadest range of possible donors.”