Embracing our Diverse Jewish Community

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I recently had a troubling conversation with a colleague. I selected a photo of a young interracial family for the cover of a fundraising brochure. She came to me, a bit sheepishly, worried that our Jewish Federation donors –  who are overwhelmingly older in age and overwhelmingly white – would not relate to the image, and would ignore the brochure thinking it wasn’t meant for them.

Might we alienate current donors who aren’t used to seeing people of color in Jewish spaces? Perhaps.

But, as leaders in the Jewish philanthropic space, we need to step up to help our donors and our community confront implicit racial bias in our institutions.

Many inspiring organizations have been fighting for racial inclusivity for years from Be’chol Lashon to the Jewish Multiracial Network to Jews in ALL Hues – there are experts leading the way. And yet sadly, in other Jewish nonprofits, whose missions don’t explicitly state a desire to include Jews of color, I do not see the diversity of the Jewish community represented in organizational marketing and fundraising materials.

It’s time for ALL Jewish organizations, regardless of who they currently serve, to catch up. Traditional Jewish organizations must alter our marketing and fundraising strategies to embrace the diversity of the Jewish community in order to remain relevant.

Last year, the San Francisco based Jewish Community Federation released “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” the first ever comprehensive study of the entire Bay Area Jewish population. According to the study, 25% of Bay Area Jewish families have at least one member that is not white. As we recently learned from the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, nationwide, researchers estimate that at least 12-15% of American Jews are people of color. We also know that American Jewry will only become more racially diverse over time.

Our community IS diverse. But a quick perusal of synagogue websites and nonprofit annual reports reveals only a few token photographs of people of color. In regions outside of the Bay Area, too often, even those token photographs are missing.

Much has been written and spoken about the ways Jewish institutions, often unintentionally, make Jews of color feel like outsiders. There is still more work to do.

Certainly, representing diversity in our community is an engagement tool to involve a more diverse group of community members in our work, but it’s also a smart donor acquisition strategy. Our traditional organizations may not yet have many non-white donors, but representing them in our materials is an important step toward welcoming and better serving their interests.

For many funders, this is a critical issue of our time. Ruth Ann Binder was one of the first donors to make a grant from her Donor Advised Fund housed at The Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, to the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. “Growing up, I thought most Jews were white. Only in recent years did I realize the great diversity of our community,” Binder said. “It’s important to me to use philanthropy to help lift up the voices of Jews of color in our community who have often been made invisible by the majority white population. I think it’s critical to recognize, celebrate, and create space for Jews of color.”

As a white Jew from a privileged background, I am aware that I am a gatekeeper. I choose the images that represent my organization, and so it is my responsibility to step up and work to address our greater community’s racial bias.

In my recent work as a director of marketing and development at a local Federation, I actively sought out images of diverse families for our material, and when these weren’t available, advocated for creating our own. My colleagues and I have arranged photo shoots showing multiracial families doing typical Jewish activities – lighting Chanukah candles, wearing a kippah, putting a coin in a tzedakah box. This homemade stock imagery helps us represent the community we want to engage, both as program participants and as donors.

Locally, a successful model is reflected in the partnership between Building Jewish Bridges and Lehrhaus Judaica. “This is Bay Area Jewry” is a photo and essay exhibition showcasing the diversity of the community, with 23 portraits of individuals and families. The exhibit has been displayed at Temple Sinai in OaklandTemple Emanu-el in San FranciscoPeninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, the Osher Marin JCCCongregation Beth El in BerkeleyTemple Isaiah in Lafayette and is currently on view at Congregation Beth Am.

The more frequently we use diverse images of Jewish community in our outreach, the fewer double-takes Jews of color will get when walking into a synagogue and the fewer “So, how are you Jewish?” questions they will have to answer.

I encourage every Jewish organization to take incremental steps and risk challenging racial bias to enable our organizations to be as welcoming and inclusive as we hope them to be.

As individuals we all have the power to celebrate the rich diversity of Jewish life. Let’s make this change on a communal scale.

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