Ilana Kaufman: black, Jewish and challenging ideas about the face of federation

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When Ilana Kaufman, a program officer at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, arrived at a local prison for a meeting with the Jewish chaplain, 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 — looked left and right trying to figure out who was the federation official.

“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.’ ”

Ilana Kaufman with her daughter, Noa photos/jta-courtesy ilana kaufman

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 has seen her fair share of jaws drop when she walks into a Jewish communal space. Kaufman is black — the daughter of an Ashkenazi 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 JCF. 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-à-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 hardworking single mother who sometimes spoke to her in Yiddish. Kaufman, who is a lesbian, now lives with her almost 9-year-old-daughter, Noa, in Berkeley 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, including a stint as director of Windrush School, a private elementary school in El Cerrito that shut down in 2012 as a result of financial and enrollment woes.

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 part of a 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 in Berkeley and encountered the shop’s co-owner, Nell Mahgel-Friedman, an old friend from the Jewish Student Union 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 federation.

“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.”

Ilana Kaufman

Kaufman’s portfolio at federation 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 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 national federation 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 the S.F.-based federation. In 2010, it 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 found that 12 percent of the city’s Jewish population is non-white.

These figures reflect wider demographic changes, according to Diane Tobin, Gary’s widow and the CEO of Be’chol Lashon, an S.F.-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life. Diane 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.

“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 in Philadelphia 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.”

Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel.