Coming soon: A new leadership pipeline for Jews of color

Ginna Green, chief strategy officer at Bend the Arc. (Alexa Curran)

Is the leadership of major Jewish institutions too white?

The short answer is yes, according to a number of Jewish activists and nonprofit leaders, who are launching a new program designed to help change the status quo.

Project Shamash: Sparking the Leadership of East Bay Jews of Color, scheduled to begin later this year, will aim to propel more Jews of color into positions on Jewish boards of directors, into nonprofit executive suites and other influential staff positions within Jewish community institutions.

Announced in mid-January, the project will be part of the Bay Area chapter of Bend the Arc, a national organization advocating for progressive causes from a Jewish perspective. It will launch as a three-year pilot program and is funded in large part by the East Bay-based Rodan Family Foundation.

The program’s key grant is for “up to” $1 million over three years, Bend the Arc said. The Rodan foundation is continuing to seek other funding partners. Bend the Arc plans to hire a program director and a program assistant to help run the program out of the organization’s Bay Area branch offices.

The Bay Area “has one of the most diverse Jewish communities in the country,” said Ginna Green, chief strategy officer at Bend the Arc, a national organization that advocates for progressive causes from a Jewish perspective. “We want Jewish institutions to actually reflect the diversity and vibrancy of our community.”

Green said Jews of color, or “JOCs” in today’s parlance, often are “inundated with questions” or face “disbelief” in synagogues and other Jewish spaces. Many JOCs feel unwelcome in the Jewish community, and as a result have “retreated from Jewish life,” or never participated to begin with.

Naturally, “it’s hard to be a leader in a place where you don’t feel welcome,” Green said.

Project Shamash is slated to launch before the end of the year in the East Bay. It will run alongside the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, a Berkeley-based program that also aims to build and advance the professional and communal aspirations of nonwhite Jews.

The JCFBI — founded in 2018 with support from the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, the Schusterman Family Foundation and a number of other organizations — makes grants, conducts research and runs community education events dedicated to supporting Jews of color.

Executive director Ilana Kaufman said JCFBI will serve as an “adviser and partner” of the Bend the Arc project.

Ilana Kaufman
Ilana Kaufman

“There is a constant need to see Jews of color in leadership roles, particularly in senior roles” within Jewish organizations, Kaufman said. “Any initiative trying to help develop Jews of color who want to be leaders in the community is wonderful.”

Headquartered in New York, Bend the Arc in recent years has been on the front lines of political debates and protests advancing progressive policy aims. In 2015, it launched a political action committee that last year raised about $209,000 mostly for Democratic candidates.

The organization also spearheads protests and mobilizes support against conservative policies and politicians. In October, for example, a group of activists that included Stosh Cotler, the CEO, were arrested in Pittsburgh for blocking the road during a visit by President Donald Trump, who was to speak at a pro-fracking energy conference.

Green said the new program will focus on the East Bay, but organizers hope it will become a national model. Part of the aim, Green said, is for Jewish institutions to “become places where Jews of color can actually work, lead and thrive.”

JOCs represent a growing percentage of the overall American Jewish population, but the exact number is hard to determine. That’s partly because demographers have not asked the right questions, according to some. Studies designed to learn about Jewish communities often leave out questions about race and ethnicity entirely, or ask them in confusing ways that are not uniform and do not lead to broad insights, according to a recent research paper commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative and prepared by four Bay Area academics at Stanford and the University of San Francisco.

“It’s hard to be a leader in a place where you don’t feel welcome.”

Released in May, “Counting Inconsistencies” approximated that Jews of color (“anyone who identified as nonwhite”) represent “at least 12-15 percent of American Jews.” And since more younger Jews identify as nonwhite than do older Jews, the study found, American Jewry is expected to continue to change shades in the years ahead.

A 2015 demographic study by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University estimated that 11.2 percent of American Jews were nonwhite, compared with 35 percent nonwhite in the overall U.S. population.

The Bay Area’s Jewish population is particularly diverse. According to a landmark population study commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and published in 2018, 25 percent of Bay Area Jews said their household included a person of color, defined as “Hispanic, Asian American, African American, or of mixed or other ethnic or racial background (other than white).”

And, yet, many community leaders do not see the Bay Area’s diversity reflected in positions of leadership atop Jewish organizations — such as federations, day schools, synagogue boards and a patchwork of other Jewish institutions that hold sway in setting priorities for the Bay Area Jewish community at large.

“As a Jew of color myself, with four JOC children, I have had a tremendous experience in the Jewish community, with lots of options and opportunities made available for me,” Green said. “But I also know that’s not the norm for JOCs. The norm is for JOCs to feel excluded as participants in Jewish life. And if you feel excluded as a participant, there’s little chance you’re going to feel empowered to be a leader.”

Acknowledging that the program is still in the planning stages, Green was able to disclose that it will have three prongs.

The first will be to organize “JOC-led programming” and events. The second will involve a “fellowship” or a “cohort” of Jews of color who are determined to be a good fit for the program.

“Where are they in their career path? What are the skills and talents they bring to the table?” Green said, of how potential participants would be assessed. “We’ll make sure we are putting JOCs in situations where they can succeed.”

The third prong likely will involve working with Jewish organizations to make them more hospitable to Jews of color. In other words, Green said, “preparing historically white-led Jewish institutions to be places where JOCs can thrive.”

The Rodan Family Foundation doesn’t give exclusively to Jewish organizations, but does make significant contributions to the East Bay’s Jewish community. Since its establishment in 2018, it has made grants to dozens of Jewish nonprofits including the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, PJ Library (a children’s book and reading program) and Moishe House (communal living for young, Jewish adults).

The foundation was started by Katie and Amnon Rodan; Katie is a dermatologist and entrepreneur who co-founded Rodan + Fields and the acne product Proactiv, one of the most popular skin-care brands of all time.

Elana Rodan Schuldt, president and CEO, said the foundation wants to fund programs that “strengthen the East Bay Jewish community for the next generation.” Saying that Jews of color continue to be overlooked by some Jewish organizations, Schuldt added, “We just felt like this is long overdue.”

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