Waking up and showing up for our Jewish youth of color

I was sitting across the very large desk of a nationally respected Jewish organizational leader. As we closed the meeting he picked up the only picture not facing forward on his bureau and handed it to me. “This is my grandson,” he said in a quiet, cautious tone.

“He’s amazing! Where is he in religious school?” I asked.

My colleague’s voice cracked.

“It’s complicated.”

More than five times now, nationally regarded Jewish organizational executives have come out of the closet to me about their family members of color. And when I’ve been able to ask about this hesitance to share, these leaders, despite their significant formal power inside of the mainstream Jewish community, feel powerless and afraid when it comes to race and racism.

When I was 20, my friend Wanjiru and I went to see art at Washington, D.C.’s famed Phillips Collection. We were greeted by security guards who escorted us to a private room where they searched our small bags. The museum was filled with women carrying big bags and purses. They just all happened to be white.

When I told my mother what happened, she quite literally was on the next train from New York. I stood behind her as she sat at a small desk across from the collection’s executive director. She named the racism and articulated the unacceptable nature of our treatment. I was floored at her power to convene this meeting and to elegantly dress down an uppity racist.

When we left the museum I thanked her for the intervention. She turned to me and said, “It can be subtle or in your face, but only white people know how racist white people can be.”

It is this internal knowledge of white racism that makes those thinking about resisting it fearful. Never mind the times my mother had to endure my stories of refused restaurant tables, racist comments at Jewish summer camp and the suggestion that I park my car “in the back,” even though my hosts were expecting me to come through the front entrance. Racism makes you tough, but it is also like a slow drippy leak. After a time it corrodes the spirit of people of color, and also wounds the spirit of those white folks who love them.

When I was sitting on a JCRC panel discussing the role of Jewish advocacy in 21st-century social justice movements, specifically race and racism’s effect on the organized Jewish community, one of my colleagues asked the audience of 70 to raise their hands if they had people of color in their families. Half the hands went up. When I was teaching about Jewish identity and racial justice in a local shul on Yom Kippur I asked how many of the 50 participants in the room — all of them white — had family members who are non-white. Again, half of the hands went up. And when I ask colleagues around the country if they have people of color in their families, at least half of them say — with all of the awkwardness and fear of a queer adolescent coming out — that they have next-generation family members of color.

Yet when these same people were asked how many of those family members of color attend shul, engage in mainstream Jewish life or connect to the organized Jewish community in any meaningful way, not one — not a single person — could point to such connections. One of my colleagues said, “I set national policy, but I can’t get my grandson to come to shul because last time he went an older white woman kindly suggested he was somehow lost or confused when he was trying to find our seats. It was subtle, but the subtle experiences add up.” And then he said, “Going to synagogue is like trying to kill my spirit by 1,000 racist cuts.”

On a recent afternoon I sat with Jewish leaders of color talking about the youth of color in our community. While acknowledging some level of acceptance, we noted that the community has done next to nothing to strategically address its internal racism. One colleague said, “The Jewish youth of color who thrive are the ones who, when racist things happen, they talk about it. And then their parents come and handle it. Until the rest of our community wakes up and shows up, that’s our obligation as Jewish leaders of color. We are in loco parentis. Because not only do we know how racist our community can be, we know how to thrive.”

So, when that nationally respected Jewish organizational leader told me his grandson didn’t feel welcome at religious school, I understood what he meant and told him I was sorry. But then I asked, “Don’t you want him to love our community?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Then saying ‘It’s complicated,’ isn’t enough. Too much is at stake.”

Ilana Kaufman
Ilana Kaufman

Ilana Kaufman is the director of the Jews of Color Initiative. She is a Schusterman senior fellow, public speaker, occasional author, strategic designer and problem solver. Ilana works with Jewish organizations and philanthropic entities navigating the intersection of Jewish community, Jewish identity and racial justice.