Jews of color celebrate Shabbat in the great outdoors


The JOC Mishpacha Project recently held its second annual Jews of Color and Sephardi/Mizrahi (JOCSM) Shabbaton and Family Camp.

From May 6-8, at the Pearlstone Center, the event saw Jews of color celebrating the coming of spring, connecting to their religion through nature and engaging in discussion with others in their community about their religious and racial identities.

Participants in the JOCSM "We Are Family" Shabbaton (courtesy of JOC Mishpacha Project)
Participants in the JOCSM “We Are Family” Shabbaton (courtesy of JOC Mishpacha Project)

Planned in collaboration with Jewish Family Camp (JFAM), Jewish Multiracial Network, Khazbar and Mitsui Collective, the Shabbaton was a hybrid in-person and virtual event.

The original 2021 event was entirely virtual and was attended by Jews around the world. It was planned to bring Jews of color together during the pandemic, as well as to observe the yahrzeit of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer a year earlier. As early as last year, though, there were hopes that the next Shabbaton would take place in person at Pearlstone.

“The virtual Shabbaton was very important, as an antidote to the isolation that we all were feeling and that JOC people and our allies and families in particular [were feeling]. Additionally, offering the program online enhanced accessibility,” said Harriette Wimms, founder of the JOC Mishpacha Project and organizer of the JOCSM Shabbaton. “But the online nature of the program, taking place over Shabbaton, decreased access for individuals and families who are shomer Shabbos. That was a source pain for me, that a program designed to foster togetherness left out some members of our community.”

Harriette Wimms (courtesy of Harriette Wimms)
Harriette Wimms (courtesy of Wimms)

The Shabbaton is Wimms’ brainchild. A psychologist specializing in clinical care for children, young adults, adults and families, Wimms converted to Judaism in adulthood and has since become a Kohenet priestess. She founded JOC Mishpacha Project in 2020. Recently, she was appointed the Jews of color engagement fellow at The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.

The multidenominational event welcomed Jews of color in all age groups and backgrounds, as well as those in the LGBTQ community and white allies, in order to create an inclusive environment.

The theme of the Shabbaton was “We Are Family” and had a focus on inclusion. The event was set up as a family camp with both child-friendly and adult-only activities available. A total of 105 people from 12 different states attended, ranging from a 10-day-old baby to seniors.

Attendees participated in Shabbat services and outdoor activities that took advantage of Pearlstone’s 180-acre campus. They included hiking, yoga and caring for animals on the farm. There were family-friendly events as well as limmud (learning) sessions tailored to adults with a focus on social justice and the environment.

Justin Fair (courtesy of Justin Fair)
Justin Fair (courtesy of Fair)

“I’d never been in a room before with that many people of color who were Jews,” said city planner Justin Orlando Fair, who helped plan the 2021 Shabbaton but was an attendee this year. “It reminded me we were a people of multitudes, we are a people that come from all across the world.”

Fair was only able to attend the event for one day, but what he experienced was very impactful to him as a Jew of color. “To pray and not feel judged, to look in my periphery and see people just like myself who were not bothered or alienated or a bit offput by the fact that we were strangers, that was so magical for me,” he said of a minyan he attended at the retreat, where he prayed with other Jews of color.

With racially motivated and antisemitic hate crimes on the rise, the JOC Mishpacha Project stresses that it is more important than ever for Jews of color to have inclusive environments where they can gather and connect with people in their community. A sense of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has also driven them closer together, through virtual and in-person events alike.

“We all have those stories about being set aside, being marginalized,” Wimms said. “We have those stories for our children too. As we continue to be able to come together in JOCSM spaces with our children and our elders and everyone else in between, that for our children it will no longer be novel, that seeing a rainbow of people will be the norm.”

The JOC Mishpacha Project is already planning future Shabbatons and plans to hold a virtual one in January 2023 prior to the next in-person one in June of that year. When asked what she hoped attendees took away from this year’s event, Wimms said “a sense of belonging, respite and honor.”

“This took such a huge lift from so many people in the group,” Fair said. “It really takes a village, and I’m so grateful for all the people who made it happen.”

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