On a cool Saturday evening, just as the moon and stars began to peek out, 10 Jews of color gathered for a ceremony to celebrate religion and togetherness. The group shared Ladino music and feelings from their hearts. The Aug. 1 Havdalah was part of a larger project by Baltimore psychologist Dr. Harriette Wimms to create a havurah, or a family of building, in Baltimore.
Wimms and Rabbi Ariana Katz of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl had been in talks about their dream to create a sacred space for Jews of color. Last year, Wimms, a member of several local and national JOC groups, found May Ye, a rabbinical student and Chinese American who drives an initiative to create JOC havurot across the nation. Wimms took it upon herself to create one for Baltimore that will bring cross-denominational Jews of color together. The Baltimore havurah will offer Torah studies, meetups, Shabbatons and a Facebook page for prayers and resources.
Wimms had been thinking about building this space virtually, and then the pandemic’s overhaul of normality encouraged a virtual gathering.
May Ye led Saturday’s Zoom Havdalah. Participants brought scents to the meeting, such as Old Bay, to remind them of Baltimore, or spices from another country to remind them of diversity. After everyone shared their items, Ye led the group in prayer and song, followed by private reflections.
Wimms found these participants through networking and social media, which she said will be the key to create the havurah.
“Here in Baltimore, there is a big population of JOCs, but I think we’re very spread out,” Wimms said. “It’s hard to look at your congregation and not see anyone who looks like you. For me, in some spiritual communities before Hinenu, I was the only JOC. That started to feel lonely.” She hopes that this community will alleviate that feeling for others.
Wimms said she was drawn to Judaism when she was 7. But, she had a thought that she could not be Jewish because she is Black. Representation like this can help erase that stigma. Not only will it allow child versions of herself to see themselves fitting into the Jewish community, but adults will likewise question her identity less. For example, she sees a common problem where Jews of color are mistaken for “the help” if they’re at synagogue. “It’s very healing to be in a group where no one questions your ethnic-racial identity,” Wimms said.
Justin Fair, who leads Beth Am Baltimore’s BAYITT group for young adults, felt similarly. Fair, who brought mint to the Havdallah to remind him of his grandmother’s house, is eager to see more inclusive programs. “There’s been so many great interfaith dialogues, but when we have JOC congregants it’s important leaders speak up and be the change they want to see. To ask those congregants, ‘If you are comfortable, please be visible.’”
Above all, Fair is excited to have such a welcoming space. “We can finally have a space where we can belong,” Fair, who is mixed, said he had grown up in Baltimore but only recently realized the value of having a community where he doesn’t feel othered. Fair loved that, in the words of one of the Havdallah participants, everyone on the call was a hue of brown. “Usually, it’s always a bit of activism just to exist,” Fair said.