Paula Pretlow (right) with her daughter Alison in Jerusalem.
Paula Pretlow (right) with her daughter Alison in Jerusalem.

Jews of color, once sidelined, now being recruited by Jewish agencies

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During her 13 years as a lay leader in the Jewish community, Paula Pretlow couldn’t help but notice the obvious: When decisions were being made, she usually was the only Jew of color in the room.

As a retired executive of an investment management firm, Pretlow was a “catch” for Jewish organizations. She was well versed in the language of finance, and she had impressive professional experience and connections.

Shortly after she joined Temple Isaiah in Lafayette in 2007, her rabbi suggested she serve on its board of directors. Later, when she moved to San Francisco and joined Congregation Emanu-El, she was asked to join that board. And then a major national philanthropic organization, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, invited her to become a trustee.

Other leaders in the Jewish community sought her counsel. She was a macher, a person of influence. But as a Black woman, she rarely saw other Jews of color in similar positions of power.

That’s begun to change in the past year.

In the 14 months since the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer transfixed and transformed the nation, Pretlow has seen local and national Jewish organizations not only reach out to Jews of color but start to grapple with the racism that has festered for years in corners of the community.

Some synagogues have set up affinity groups for people of color and brought in diversity, equity and inclusion professionals to train their leaders and staff. Camp Tawonga, the Jewish summer camp in the Sierra, this year launched a Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship program to bring awareness of racial justice issues and empower people of color on its staff. Philanthropies are creating grant opportunities to address racial justice issues and to better serve Jews of color.

Some Jewish organizations are working actively to bring Jews of color into lay leadership positions. In July, the Jewish Community Federation based in San Francisco added four Jews of color to its 29-member board, likely making it the most diverse Federation board in the country.

These steps toward recognizing and embracing diversity in the Jewish community are giving hope to Jews of color in the Bay Area and around the nation who have felt marginalized for years.

Lindsey Newman, director of community engagement for Be’chol Lashon
Lindsey Newman, director of community engagement for Be’chol Lashon

“In the last year, I think that there has been a groundswell of energy within the Jewish community to focus on racial diversity and inclusion and belonging,” said Lindsey Newman, one of the new members of the Federation board. “It’s about serving the diverse community that has always existed, as well as understanding that our diversity is increasing and considering what that means for our future.”

Newman, who is Black, is director of community engagement for Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates for the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of the Jewish community. She notes that in the past “whenever race came up within a Jewish context, it was assumed that it was an external issue. Now, there’s much more consciousness and acceptance that racial diversity is an issue that is relevant and inherent to the Jewish community.”

Andy Cheng, a Chinese American who grew up in Millbrae, is another new member of the Federation board of directors. It’s not his first lay leadership role in the Jewish community; He is a former president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and serves on a racial justice task force at the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement.

He said the new, more diverse Federation board is bringing a racial equity lens to discussions of how the organization operates and which initiatives it supports. “We’re asking questions like, ‘How do we adjust the systems and workflows that will encourage even more diversity and more awareness around race and equity?’”

But some worry that the statements of solidarity, the invitations to Jews of color to serve on organization boards, the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings and the Juneteenth Shabbat services could just be a fleeting fad.

Andy Cheng (left) with his wife and their sons.
Andy Cheng (left) with his wife and their sons.

Eric Greene, an L.A.-based board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network, a national group founded in 1997 to support multiracial Jewish families, says the recent outreach efforts by the organized Jewish community are encouraging. “But,” he said, “there’s a real question that a lot of people have, which is how deep does this commitment go? And how much staying power will it have? How much is it just the flavor of the month? How much is it serving the emotional needs of people who want to feel like they’re on the right side of history versus real long-term commitment?”

Pretlow shares Greene’s concerns. “I do hope that this is not just a moment, that it is a movement,” she said. “I hope that organizations are not doing this because they have to or because they need a token. I hope that when [Jews of color] are invited into a room it is with the expectation that they will have a full and equal voice.”

An increasingly diverse Jewish community

Recent surveys suggest that between 6% and 15% of the American Jewish community are people of color. The estimates vary so widely because it’s hard to identify Jews for population studies — some people see themselves as Jewish by religion, others by ethnicity, while some with Jewish heritage don’t identify as Jewish.

The term “Jews of color” is also subject to different interpretations. It’s generally used to describe Jews who identify as Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American or of mixed heritage. Some Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews from North African and Arab lands self-identify as “Jews of color” while others don’t.

In a random sampling of 4,718 Jewish Americans surveyed in 2020, the Pew Research Center found that 92% of Jewish adults identified as white (non-Hispanic), and 8% identified with all other racial/ethnic categories combined.

What’s more, 17 percent of the U.S. Jews surveyed said they lived in households in which at least one child or adult was Black, Hispanic, Asian, some other non-white race or ethnicity, or multiracial.

The 2020 Pew report found that the U.S. Jewish population, like the country as a whole, is growing more racially and ethnically diverse and noted a pattern of rising diversity by age. Among Jewish adults under age 30, 15% identified as a race other than non-Hispanic white.

The Jewish community in the Bay Area is even more diverse, according to a study commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation and released in 2018. It found 25% of Bay Area Jewish households include a person who is Hispanic, Asian American, African American, biracial or multiracial, or other non-white ethnic or racial background.

Those numbers are expected to rise as more white Jews marry spouses of another race and transracial adoptions increase.

Confronting racism in the Jewish community 

But the increasing diversity of the Jewish population doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy for people of color to move in Jewish spaces. Nearly all the Jews of color interviewed for this article told stories of microaggressions — quizzical looks, awkward questions, offensive comments — and outright discrimination they have faced in synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Marcella White Campbell, the executive director of Be’chol Lashon since January, said she’s commonly asked, “Are there really that many Jews of color?”

Marcella White Campbell is the new director of Be'chol Lashon, the first Jew of color to hold the position. (Photo/From file)
Marcella White Campbell is the director of Be’chol Lashon.

“The question is, how many would there need to be for you to care?” said Campbell, who is Black. “And having that conversation over and over and over again, we are making the case that racism exists in the Jewish community, that race exists in the Jewish community, that diversity and race are Jewish issues.”

Angel Alvarez-Mapp, director of programs and operations for the Berkeley-based Jews of Color Initiative, said he has frequently been subject to aggressive questioning when he’s entered synagogues or Jewish spaces.

Jews in America, he said, “sometimes perpetuate racism in the name of security. ‘We’re just trying to secure ourselves and you don’t look like us. So therefore, we need to ask you questions, right?’ The real underlying [message] there is, ‘Actually, we are all white Jews; we all have the same origin story in Eastern and Western Europe. So therefore, if you don’t look like us, you must not actually be Jewish.’”

Ruthie Levin, who is Black, said she’s also been typecast. In her 18 years as a member of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, a shul known for its progressive politics, she has on numerous occasions been mistaken for a service worker. “People have said things like, ‘Could you get me a bowl from the kitchen?’”

The mother of a 25-year-old biracial son, she cringes when she observes young Jews of color treated differently than their white peers.

“I’ve seen young people of color tapped on the shoulder or yelled at by congregants when other kids they were with were talking during services,” she said. “All sorts of things happen to folks of color.”

Last year, Levin was hired by the synagogue as the first people of color organizer. In that role she has coordinated monthly Shabbat services, holiday celebrations and other events specifically for Jews of color.

Ruthie Levin is the first people of color organizer at Kehilla Community Synagogue.

“These are events where folks of color can bring themselves authentically, where they don’t have to navigate the ‘How are you Jewish?’ question,” Levin said. “What I’ve come to understand is that just by hiring me — or it could be any Jew of color — it has opened up so much possibility for folks who have been attached to the community for a while but have stepped back or flown under the radar. It’s provided a way for people to imagine themselves in the community more fully.”

Levin is also helping with Kehilla’s Arc of Change initiative, a yearlong, intensive anti-racism program that engages about 80 spiritual and lay leaders across the community to reflect and learn together about the profound effects white supremacy and racism have had on individuals and on their community. The program is led by Yavilah McCoy, an African American Jew and CEO of the diversity and inclusion training company Dimensions Educational Consulting in Boston.

“With her leadership we are able to dive into our feelings and share openly what we’ve experienced in a way that we feel really heard and seen,” Levin said of McCoy, who is leading similar DEI training programs with synagogues and Jewish organizations around the country.

Levin believes Kehilla’s racial justice efforts over several years and the passionate involvement of many people in the synagogue, including Senior Rabbi Dev Noily, have helped build a sense of trust in the Jews of color the synagogue serves.

Tonda Case, a Kehilla member who has been active in other synagogues, said leaders of Jewish organizations need to prepare before inviting Jews of color to serve on boards and take leadership positions.

“I think that more organizations are becoming aware that there are steps that need to happen before you start reaching out to Jews of color to ask them to come on a board and do other work,” said Case, who is moving from the East Bay to New York later this summer to lead the Wexner Foundation’s first-ever Jews of Color Cohort within its longstanding Wexner Heritage Program. “However, many are still not considering the time, the energy it takes, and the commitment it takes for us to even consider being engaged.”

When Jewish organizations have sought her help, she says, “I would first ask, ‘Have you done your work? Or did you just start reaching out to bring us into an environment that is unwell and unsafe for us? Have you first thought about what you’re asking us to step into?’”

Analucia Lopezrevoredo, senior director of Project Shamash, an East Bay-based racial equity and leadership initiative sponsored by Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, said there are many ways Jewish organizations can create supportive environments to help Jews of color in leadership succeed.

“Diversity is so much more than just hiring and bringing people on,” said Lopezrevoredo, who identifies as a Peruvian-Chilean, Quechua-American Jewtina. “It’s really thinking about how you are making your organization more actively anti-racist, regardless of who’s in the space.”

To be truly anti-racist, she said, organizations need to make shifts in fundraising, grant writing, program design and spending. They need to think about which vendors and contractors they use and consider buying locally rather than ordering from Amazon.

Project Shamash is working with a cohort of Jews of color from six organizations in the Bay Area, as well as the organizations they serve, in an 18-month leadership development program. The goal is to make these organizations places where people of color want to work and can succeed.

“We can’t just transplant a flower into unfertile ground or ground that has been damaging that flower,” she said. “We need to rework the land and fertilize the ground so that the flower can thrive and so that our future harvests are healthier.”

Creating a blueprint for change

Jewish organizations looking for guidance on how to make lasting and impactful change can find it at Not Free to Desist, a website created by Newman and two other racial justice activists, Aaron Samuels, co-founder and COO of the Black media company Blavity, and Rachel Sumekh, the founder and CEO of the hunger relief organization Swipe Out Hunger.

In June 2020, while the streets were still ablaze with angry protests after George Floyd’s murder, the three got together over Zoom to discuss how they could help bring about radical change around race within the Jewish community.

Together they wrote an open letter to the national Jewish community urging organizations to “re-imagine our sacred covenant to one another and to our collective future.”

The letter is named after the line “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either,” from the Jewish text Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers.” It laid out a clear blueprint for what Jewish organizations should do, including:

  • explicitly endorse the statement “Black Lives Matter”
  • establish racial justice and social equity as a pillar of their mission and invest in racial justice initiatives
  • commit to inclusive hiring and compensation and ensure that 20 percent of staff, senior leadership and board seats are filled by people of color
  • commit to anti-racist education initiatives
  • invest in leadership programs for people of color and allocate 20 percent of grant money to initiatives and organizations led by people of color
  • create racial justice requirements for grantee organizations, including “a commitment to replacing contracts with police departments with alternative structures of community safety” and mandating quarterly anti-racism training
  • join with other groups to develop a five-year, $1.5 million “communal accountability” initiative

The letter challenged all Jewish organizations to commit to fulfilling at least four out of the seven obligations within one year (by June 19, 2021) and to meet all seven within three years.

Newman admits the goals and timeline were “audacious,” but the letter set the Jewish world abuzz. More than 2,000 individuals, including people representing about 150 Jewish organizations, signed it.

None of the 148 U.S. Jewish Federations officially signed on, but several took inspiration from the document. The S.F.-based Federation released a statement of support and pledged to build “an anti-racist Jewish community and to do our part in the struggle against racism in the broader Bay Area community.” Last September, the Federation assembled a Racial Justice Task Force, mostly made up of people of color, to develop plans to better serve the diverse Jewish community, and invited Newman to join.

Based on the task force’s recommendation, the Federation now conducts quarterly diversity trainings for professionals and lay leaders and has granted over $900,000 to initiatives to support racial justice and Jews of color just in the past year. In addition to recruiting four Jews of color to its board, the Federation has hired two racial diversity, equity and inclusion consultants to assess its practices.

While the open letter provided a framework and specific goals, other people in the community also inspired leaders at the Federation to make diversity, equity and inclusion a top priority.

One of them was Paula Pretlow, who had several conversations about racial equity with Federation leaders last summer.

“I like to think I had some direct impact on actions taken by the Federation to reach out to Jews of color and recognize the vast pool of talent that we have in the Bay Area that was not being utilized,” she said.

Pretlow notes that when Jews of color are in the room, the conversation changes.

“We all live in our own worlds,” she said. “I live in a cross-section of worlds, where I am able to bring to the table things that might not otherwise occur to other people. Until someone else says, ‘Have you thought about this? Have you recognized that?’ nothing happens. That is why it is important to have people like me, people who have diverse backgrounds, people who are thinking differently because of their own experiences, who can add value to that table.”

Those voices, she adds, will be vital as the Jewish community continues to evolve.

“The future of our Jewish people could depend on recognizing that we are a multiracial group of people,” said Pretlow. “If we don’t recognize, accept and invite in the beautiful rainbow of diversity that we have as a people, then our very existence will be called into question.”

Rachele Kanigel
Rachele Kanigel

Rachele Kanigel is a freelance writer and chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University.