By Rudy Malcom
The largest-ever survey of American Jews of color, or JOC, was released earlier this month. Two-thirds of respondents said Jewish leaders were either “poorly” or “very poorly” addressing racism in Jewish spaces. Many reported being asked intrusive questions about their backgrounds or being mistaken for non-Jewish nannies or security guards.
“There’s something so powerful about seeing myself in the findings,” said professor and psychologist Harriette Wimms, who came to Baltimore in 1986 and began her Jewish journey about a decade ago. “It actually brings tears to my eyes because there’s a validation there, even if the validation is that 80% of JOC experience discrimination.
“But we are still showing up, over and over again,” she added. “This feels blessed to me.”
The survey included 1,118 respondents. Thirty were from Maryland, and another 16 were from Washington, D.C. In addition to its findings on the number of and experiences of Jews of color, the study also put forth four recommendations for how American Jewish communities can be more inclusive: Support organizations and initiatives led by and serving Jews of color; shift organizational leadership to more accurately reflect the diversity of American Jews; prioritize creating spaces and places for discourse and dialog with and among JOC; and promote further research by and about JOC.
Last year, Wimms launched the JOC Mishpacha Project, a space for Jews of color and allies to learn and grow together. The project is funded in large part by the nationwide Jews of Color Initiative, which produced the study. In May, Wimms spearheaded the project’s first National Shabbaton. Hundreds of Jews from around the world attended, which gave Wimms a “sense of family.” Another Shabbaton is planned for Nov. 19-21.
In 2010, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore found that Jews of color make up about 8% of the city’s Jewish population. According to Wimms, the percentage should be at least three times higher.
Wimms agreed with the JOCI study’s recommendation that there should be further research about Jews of color. Wimms proposed an additional study of JOC in Baltimore or the DMV area.
“It would be wonderful if an organization or two would follow the lead of JOCI and figure out exactly what JOC want and need and are experiencing here at home,” she said.
Alexandra Rodriguez, a Latina designer, is participating in Na’aleh: The Hub for Leadership Learning, an agency of The Associated, to be able to better support fellow JOC in Baltimore — proactively, rather than reactively.
Promoting diverse leadership is another recommendation of the report. Urban planner Justin Orlando Fair, who is half-Black and half-Ashkenazi Jew, said Jewish organizations must change their hiring and recruitment processes to advance racial equity.
Fair, who helped Wimms create a Facebook group for JOC in Baltimore, wants Jewish organizations to create informal and formal opportunities for conversations with and among JOC, another recommendation of the report.
“I can’t fully be present if the space I’m in isn’t designed to welcome me,” he said.
KeSean Johnson, a Black filmmaker and military veteran, urged white Jews to listen to JOC. The entrepreneur noted that he personally has “not experienced any maltreatment” at Bolton Street Synagogue, where he is part of the social action committee.
While Fair believes that many “white Jews are waking up,” he said, “inclusion is new.”
For Rodriguez, many Jewish spaces are “Ashkenormative,” meaning that they center around Jews of Eastern European heritage.
Because she enjoys combining her Mexican traditions with her Jewish practices, she once brought enchiladas to a potluck at her old shul. Two people asked her “if it was okay, if it was Jewish,” she said.
Given that Hispanic Heritage Month begins Sept. 15, Rodriguez said synagogues could take this opportunity to do programming on the history of Judaism in Spain and Latin America.
As the census shows, the U.S. is diversifying, and “JOC should not be seen as additions or exceptions, but as reality,” Rodriguez said.
She added that there is an incorrect assumption that the term “JOC” refers only to Black Jews, excluding Asian and Latinx Jews.
According to the report, “JOC” is an “imperfect, but useful umbrella term” rooted in Black feminist activism and scholarship.
Johnson, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter Interfaith Coalition last summer, said the term is “offensive” because it “doesn’t allow me my full identity.” According to Johnson, the term, though meant to combat racism, counterproductively holds being a white Jew as the norm.
Regardless of race, he said, all Jews’ different experiences should be celebrated.
“If I just say ‘Jew,’ does that mean I’m only talking about people who don’t have melanin? The descriptive phrasing ‘of color’ has been used to segregate for years,” he said. “I should get treated like a regular person.
“My skin just happens to be darker,” he added. “The only way for us to be inclusive as a society is to be exposed to different people and just share stories.”
Rudy Malcom is a freelance writer.