Speaker Urges Community to Count Jews of Color

Ilana Kaufman.

The Bolton Street Synagogue and Repair the World Baltimore hosted Ilana Kaufman for her talk “Jewish Community, Race, and Who Counts,” Jan. 30.

Kaufman, the director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, spoke to an estimated audience of 135 people about her personal experience as a Jew of color, and the difficulty she has had to be truly accepted by her community.

Early on in her talk, Kaufman told the story of a conversation she had with a Jewish community professional she met at a JPRO conference who approached Kaufman while crying. “She said I’ve been a Jewish community professional for about 20 years,” Kaufman recounted, “and I loved my job and my community until I met my [African American] wife.”

The woman told Kaufman that the attitudes of people in her Jewish community toward her and her spouse began to noticeably and negatively change, but the couple resolved to tolerate that negativity as best they could.

“But then we had a baby,” the woman told Kaufman, “and I wanted to bring our child to work, or our child to synagogue. And then you figure out how racist the community is.”

It is an attitude that does not appear sustainable, as according to Kaufman the number of Jews of color is far higher than the community appreciates and is set to explode in the coming years.

“There are 7.2 million Jews in the United States,” Kaufman said. “But that number doesn’t include young people age 18 and younger. Why is that important? Because in the United States, every next generation of Jewish children born is more brown and black and Asian and Latin and multiracial than the generation prior.” According to “Counting Inconsistencies,” the report commissioned by Kaufman’s Initiative, 12% to 15% of all American Jews are Jews of color.

“Counting Inconsistencies” states that “Continuing to inconsistently account for Jews of Color in population studies means ignoring a significant minority of the population — one that will likely grow in size and significance in the coming years.”

Kaufman then asked the audience to wonder, “How far off are we as individuals from being ready to be part of a multiracial Jewish community?”

“Ilana is one of the greatest teachers in the American Jewish community right now,” said Rabbi Jessy Dressin, director of Repair the World Baltimore. “Ilana’s commitment to the Jewish people is to create a narrative that is reflective of what the Jewish people look like. And I think that her contribution to the conversation of American Jewry is to challenge those who think that the majority, that the Jewish community is just made up of white Jews who are descendants of the Ashkenazi kind of region of the world.”

Speaking after the event to the JT, Kaufman stated that an ideal American Jewry “would reflect the beautiful diversity that we are. Our organizational ecosystem would be thriving. Our leadership would be composed of the broadest ranges of the Jewish community, infused with the perspectives of the Jewish community. … And because we saw ourselves as more diverse, more people would feel more connected and engaged.”

Kaufman stressed the importance of including Jews of color in positions of leadership within the community, and to include Jews of color in discussions about security procedures to ensure those procedures are anti-racist and that “all Jews can go to synagogue and be safe.”

“Our young people are relying on us to get this right,” she said.

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