It was the Spring of 2005. I had just arrived in the Midwest and was so excited for what I thought was my dream job: the Director of Youth Services for a Jewish nonprofit. But, what started as a dream turned out to be a nightmare.
Out of 50 staff members, I was the only Jew of Color (JOC). Microaggressions from colleagues, interrogations of my Jewishness by program participants, and outright racism from staffers throughout the organization made every single day a monumental challenge. The janitor—the only other Black employee in the entire organization—routinely checked in on me during his rounds because I was often hiding in my office crying. Not only did the experience ultimately turn me off from wanting to work in the Jewish community, but it also left me not wanting to be in the Jewish community. It was four years of hardship, pain, and healing. My desire to reenter the community only came when I finally developed a close friendship with another Black Jewish woman, who reinvigorated my Jewish engagement.
That first professional experience was daunting. Afterward, I felt I had to redefine my entire career plan, which was initially embedded in my faith. This shift, similar to my re-immersion into Jewish life, took several years. It was only during a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA on a university campus in Connecticut that I was able to finally realize what I actually wanted to do with my life. That year of service led to a master’s degree, which then led to a career in higher education where I discovered a love of advising emerging adults. In my work, we would hone in on identity development and I would help guide them to also discover their professional and personal goals.
This need all stemmed from my time at that nonprofit. That disheartening experience of my first job and the triumph of finding my professional purpose came together in work I am now doing at Avodah—an organization that runs a year-long service corps for early-career professional Jewish leaders. To see young JOCs not having to endure a similar first professional experience is exactly what excites me about the launch of a new program, the JOC Bayit.
For many of its participants, the JOC Bayit will be their first time engaging in Jewish community space without being othered as a racial or ethnic minority. In interviewing potential Corps Members, I asked an applicant why they had chosen to apply to the JOC Bayit. They responded that they have loved all their Jewish experiences at camp, in a high school youth group, and on their university campus, but they had only ever been the only Jewish person of color in those spaces. Then, they stopped and paused and said, ‘well, you know what I mean.’
As Jews of color, many of us know exactly what that means. It means that even as we sing camp songs, daven, do community service, bake challah and celebrate chagim with joy and love, we still also experience exclusion, invisibility and marginalization.
My hope is that for these young people, the experience of being in community with other Jews of color will be much like that friendship with another Black Jewish woman that restarted my Jewish journey. That they will get to be – maybe for the first time – their wholly authentic self, in community that embraces both their racial and Jewish identities. A Juneteenth Seder, tamales for Shabbat dinner, or adding a Malida offering to a Tu B’Shvat ritual may be some of the ways that this manifests in the JOC Bayit. But it will also be the discussions that they have at their nightly dinners or during programming that examines methods of social change or what’s Jewish about social justice.
Unfortunately, not everyone is attuned to the challenges of being both Jewish and a person of color. When learning of opportunities or programs specifically for JOCs, many white Jews object on the grounds that it is exclusionary or even racist. Suggesting a JOC-centered space is racist is difficult to take seriously for many reasons. Creating spaces where people of similar backgrounds and experiences can learn and grow together provides them with safety and inclusivity — especially for those who are often marginalized in majority-white and majority-white Jewish spaces, to grow and form community.
Even at predominantly white colleges and universities, there is an incredible amount of research that shows how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Color) students are more engaged and have higher retention and graduation rates when they are part of BIPOC spaces and are able to form meaningful connections with other BIPOC students and BIPOC faculty and staff. And women’s colleges, too, report more alumni positions of leadership and power than alumni from mixed-gender institutions. As JOCs,–we are seeking spaces that allow us to exist as our whole selves in a community where the “typical” Jewish experience may bear little resemblance to our own.
We need faith-based spaces where the participants are not seen as the ‘other.’ Spaces where we are not told ‘you don’t look Jewish’ or asked, ‘no, where are you really from?’ Many folks will say that JOCs are new to them or that they haven’t met us at their synagogues. But we are not new – and those questions can hurt. I think of my own experiences at a shul where I attended Shabbat services every week, taught Hebrew school and was the youth group advisor. Yet, I was still asked on a regular basis why I was there. It will take time to rewrite a different story about who we are, in all our glory and richness as a diverse faith and people. Until then, creating the space for JOCs to freely be Jewish is critical. There is much work to do to make sure that we can become the best version of who we already are.
Readers can learn more and apply to the Avodah JOC Bayit here.
Jennifer Turner is Avodah’s New York City Service Corps Program Director and the Program Director of the JOC Bayit. She is passionately committed to sparking a lifelong love of service and commitment to social justice in emerging adults. Prior to joining Avodah, Jennifer was the Student Activities Coordinator at SUNY New Paltz and was prior the Civic Engagement Coordinator at University of Bridgeport. Jennifer is also a four-term AmeriCorps VISTA alum. She holds an M.S. in Counseling from University of Bridgeport and a B.L.S. in Politics and Religion from the University of Memphis. Jennifer lives in New York with her dog, Zora. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and entertaining friends.