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Why Jews of Color Are Gathering as a Family This Weekend

This weekend, Jews of Color, their families and allies across the world will log on for a trailblazing virtual Shabbaton under the umbrella of the JOC Mishpacha Project. Encompassing everything from prayer to mindfulness to educational talks, the Shabbaton is spearheaded by Dr. Harriette Wimms, a Baltimore-based psychologist, organizer and soon to be ordained Kohenet Priestess. In the midst of her busy weeks preparing for the event, Dr. Wimms hopped on the phone with Lilith’s Sarah Seltzer to talk about her vision, her plans and the spiritual significance of this gathering.

SMS: You have a lot of responsibilities! What made you decide to found this new organization and event on top of everything you do?

HW: I have been calling myself an accidental leader. I already have two full-time jobs. I’m a professor at two universities and I’m a psychologist with my own private practice. I had previously started a Jews Of Color chavurah at my synagogue in Baltimore, and I had been looking forward to connecting with Jews of Color. And when Ilana Kaufman, the director of Jews of Color Initiative, came to Baltimore in January 2020. At that event I saw more Jews of Color in one room than I’d ever seen before. I said to the room, “There are so many of your here, and I don’t know you. But we’re family. Let’s get together!” I will be grateful forever to Ms. Kaufman for saying to Baltimore, “Jews of Color count!”  Seeing so many of my kin in that room made me feel like I have to do something. We’re all right here–yet we’ve all had those othering experiences in Jewish spaces. I wanted to build a space that was centered on our belonging.

If you take a look at me you can tick off boxes: a person of color, a Jew of Color, a Kohenet, disabled, queer, fat. And yet what I wanted was for all of these aspects of me–of all of us–that could make us separate–that we could break down the silos and come together and be together and feel whole, even in all of those identities.  So one day this past fall, I went online and said, “hey! I’m interested in building a little Shabbaton in the Maryland/DC area.” Suddenly, visionaries across the country were responding with resounding yeses, and I was encouraged to apply for a grant. We got the grant. I was shocked; and that’s how the JOC Mishpacha Project came to be.

How did that seed of an idea blossom into something as far-reaching the JOC Mishpacha Project?

I think I had been taught to dream small. I had been going to write a small grant, just to cover organizing. But JOCI said we want you to dream big. Rabbi Jessy Dressin of Repair the World, Baltimore took time off from work to write the grant for us, as an ally. In the end we got funding from JOCI, UJA and Schusterman. And as it came into being, I thought: this has to have a fitting name. So the “JOC Mishpacha Project” was born, Mishpacha meaning family, in Hebrew.

As a Kohenet, I have to say I feel that Shekinah has had her hand in this the whole time. Because doing a major Shabbaton and starting a new organization was not initially in my vision. My Kohenet training has led me to understand that it may be time to put down being a professor and to take up being a Jewish leader locally and nationally. I don’t think I would have had the self-esteem to do that myself. Kohenet has given me that strength. 

Covid has cast a shadow over everything this year, but also allowed us to connect in new ways, hasn’t it?

Last year, I had to make peace with the fact that we will probably still be in this place this spring. Yet that has made it novel. There have been a number of JOC shabbatonim in the past, but folks had to travel to participate. Now, because of our virtual world there’s a higher level of accessibility. We have really tried to support people who are shomer Shabbos to those who identify as just Jewish. We have clergy people from multiple observance levels and from across the country helping support. And we are currently trying to do outreach to Jews in Uganda, Ethiopia, Israel and South America.

I joke that every day is brand new in “Quarantime.” But the virtual nature of this Shabbaton means that even though things sure are hard, and people including myself sure are lonely, this is one blessing. 

Do you have thoughts on how the Shabbaton might take place in a future without quarantine?

My hope is next year, Goddess willing, we will be at Pearlstone Retreat Center. And maybe even folks could meet at Isabella Freedman and other retreat centers across the country at the same time, while connecting virtually, so we can still be together and accessible while being apart. We’re never going back to the way things were. 

Is there something about the weekend you’re particularly excited about?

One thing I’m excited about is to be with JOC all day, into the night. People have told me they are planning to just check in and be present all day, until two in the morning because they want to drink it in. There will be a special JOC elders and trailblazers ceremony because elders in our community have not always gotten the honor that’s due.

We’re going to be having a yahrzeit for George Floyd, including a reading of Eric Green’s Kaddish for Black Lives, memorializing those who have been killed at the hands of systemic racism and oppression. In these moments of joy, preparing to receive the Torah, we want to be able to lift up the light that was shone on this tragedy when everyone was at home last year. George Floyd wasn’t Jewish, but we are JOC who have similar experiences and fears. So there will be some mourning. And there will also be a whole lot of celebrating, and I’m looking forward to the joy of it all.

It would be wonderful to have 360 registrants. I just want to gather folks in and lift us all up, in joy that we’ve made it through this difficult passage–a different kind of desert. We’ve lost a lot of people. We’re also right here. That’s my hope. And next year, may we all be together.