An Interview with Ilana Kaufman, Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director, East Bay JCRC

Ilana Kaufman is a nationally recognized speaker, a Jewish community leader with twenty years of organizational development experience, and a published author of many articles, including, “What It’s Like to Be a Black, Gay, Professional Jew.” We interviewed her about her work for the Jewish Community Relations Council and how the Jewish community can more fully embrace its diversity.

Can you describe your position at the JCRC?

We support the community in response to antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and advocate for the safety for every person of different identities in the community. When an issue arises in the Jewish community, we offer guidance based on our areas of expertise. We’re a consensus-based organization, and we work to really reflect the diversity of the Jewish community, and the diverse perspectives of the Jewish community. We work on issues of “mutual and shared concerns,” spending time in partnership with other faith and racial and ethnic groups, advocating on issues that matter to all of us, like racial justice, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, access to safe abortion, controlling guns and gun violence, and sex trafficking. The major issues that are important to every community are important to our community and only by working together can we actually have justice in a strong way. My day could be responding to an issue of antisemitism that’s come up in a local high school, and working with that high school student and their parents on how to be in a position where they can feel safe. The same day, I might be on a phone call with major Jewish organizations talking about the how they can work with non-Jewish organizations around themes of justice, and then I’ll be in a set of meetings where I’m working with community members on their desire to partner with other communities around relationship-building. One of the things we’re doing today is working with our local federation to host a lunch for community leaders around acts of solidarity and community as we are in a time of civic change.

What do you think are the most critical challenges facing the Jewish community right now?

The Jewish community needs to deal with its own diversity and really create space for people to express who they are so that the community values them and gives them an authentic way to engage. Who is reflected in the projection of mainstream Jewish life? We need to honor everyone who wants to be engaged in the Jewish community, whether formally affiliated or not, by creating a very big tent for all Jews who want to be involved in Jewish life. Particularly in the U.S., what’s our next legacy in the Jewish community? Generally, we immigrated to this country just a few decades ago, and we found our place through hard work and assimilation: the Jewish community has really thrived. We’re facing a time where thriving in the Jewish community is in no way preventing antisemitism. Our success is not protecting us from being targeted, and it’s a wonderful, fertile, and fragile time for the Jewish community to focus on building alliances and partnerships that are meaningful so that we can operate in unity with a broad range of our brothers and sisters as we engage in the next set of years around civic change and the way that it’s going to affect the Jewish community.

Do any parts of your story help illuminate why you’re someone who is working for a more just and inclusive community?

As a Jew of Color, as a lesbian, as a mom, as somebody who’s engaged in her Jewish world and works in an organized Jewish community, I’m constantly reflecting on my own experience moving in and out of different spaces: the Jewish community that I work in is the same Jewish community that, in very marginal ways, reflects who I am. As far as I know, I’m the only Jew of Color working inside a JCRC on the continent, and there are around 100 JCRCs. I live on the cusp of all of this opportunity, in this intersectional space, all of the time. It’s both a wonderful opportunity and an intense challenge. I want my interns, my daughter and her classmates at religious school, to engage in a Jewish world that’s much more reflective of who they are, both in terms of their identities, and in terms of who they are in the world and what they think about. I’m intensely interested in Jewish communal leadership, and I find myself in a professional place in my life where I have the skills to help understand what needs to happen to build these bridges, and I have the privilege of being in a role where I get to reach out, and get reached into by lots of amazing colleagues and organizations, where they’re thinking about infrastructure, capacity, leadership, the future. Every day I walk into the building, and I’m generally one of the only people of color in the building, and every day I have the privilege of talking, training, writing, and speaking about the issues and opportunities that will help our community grow more robust, and hopefully more intact. I know success when I hear of religious schools with whom we’ve had the privilege of working, take on strategic planning about racial justice because they think, “While our current community is not reflective of the diversity of our region, we know who’s coming and we want to be ready for them.” That kind of organizational mindset is a way that I can measure success.  Often I don’t really get to see it because evidence of success is a couple of years out for the community. There are not many of us who choose to and have the privilege and the opportunity to hold the space between being an insider and an outsider all of the time. And I choose to do so, and I feel fully included in that insider/outsider reality. I hope over time more and more Jews of different backgrounds can be in the organized Jewish world and not feel like insider/outsiders but feel whole as insiders.

How can the Jewish community do things or think differently in order to more fully embrace the diversity that it already has? How can we support people of color in the Jewish community?

We need to have a transformative moment of honesty in the Jewish community about the distance between who we are and who we reflect we are, and who is leading our organizations. In a very strategic way, we need to transform the entry points of our organizations and communities so that everybody has not only a space there, but that space is authentic to who they are. In the same way that organizations big and tiny do reflective practice about what’s working and what’s not working, we need to bring some of that same reflective practice to who’s missing and who’s not missing. Issues of racism, issues of homophobia, issues of sexism, are very real in the United States because we are a country built on some of these institutions, and they certainly exist in the Jewish community. I don’t think there’s shame in having our community recognize the racism within, or the homophobia within, or the sexism within, the shame is not responding to it when we know it exists. The other thing is that we need to have an active response to those things that are marginalizing members of our community and keeping folks away. I think there’s this commitment to preserving Judaism in ways that are reflective of and meaningful to certain segments of the Jewish community, and I think we have to balance our commitment to who we’ve been with a commitment to who we are, and who we’re going to be. In the United States, the data tells us that the Jewish community is diverse and becoming much more so, and that is not going to be a reversing trend. Along with preserving aspects of Judaism and Jewish life that have sustained us for thousands of years, we need to figure out how to parlay these aspects of Jewish life into things that will sustain us for thousands of years to come. We may have to think more pragmatically about the reality of these things, because they’re coming, and we want our Jewish community intact. We have to open our tents and welcome all who come, instead of judging those who come and making them feel like they’re not Jewish enough, or that this isn’t the place for them. We need to open the tent and say, “This is the place for you, what do you need?”

What are some of the signs of hope that you see for the Jewish community, in terms of coming on board with a community that has multiple identities?

Everything from our biggest organizations taking on, in a very focused and honest way, issues around racism on the inside of the Jewish community and its impact on Jews of color, collaborating with racial and ethnic groups around racial justice themes, and creating real, strategic plans around moving these conversations forward. I see student organizations in Jewish community high schools working on issues of social and racial justice and empowering their Jews of color, their Sephardic Jews, their Mizrachi Jews, around leadership development, and I think that’s super hopeful. I see amazing organizations creating leadership pathways for Jews of color to cultivate leadership among other Jews of color. I see foundations dedicating dollars to supporting Jews of color, elevating the field of study around Jews of color, supporting Jews of color in leadership roles. Across the country, I see synagogues inviting amazing speakers to talk about these issues in ways that are authentic, provocative, confusing, and critical in all the right ways. I see Hillels bringing in trainers and speakers to really think about this work. I see entire regions of Hillel directors spending time with people like me and others, really getting into these issues and thinking about it from a strategy level and a leadership level and at the level of, “how does it affect our students?”. I see many pockets of hope, and even more than hope—I see pockets of strategy, engagement, curiosity, and action. I see foundations that don’t generally support working on issues of racial justice stretching themselves to bring grant money to organizations. I see very traditional Jewish organizations in the mainstream ecosystem creating educational opportunities for their staff and leaders across the continent, around themes of racial justice and intersectionality. I see all kinds of little plumes of hope, energy, and effort across the continent, and I think that, yeah when I step back and I look at it from 30,000 feet, there’s a lot happening.

What are the biggest obstacles you continue to see?

With the success of the Jewish community in the United States, and particularly for the West Coast, you get more evidence to the assimilation by the Jewish community. The new civic area has created a new sense of urgency and concern for the Jewish community, so I don’t want to act like the Jewish community is not engaged, or not paying attention. But I think that we have experienced as a community some real privilege over the last couple decades. And with that privilege, I think, has come a level of comfort and a level of maybe lesser engagement in themes around justice that the Jewish community maybe thought were not so important to them in a major, organized, national way. I think that comfort is an obstacle, and that lack of engagement has created a level of inaction, or inertia, that I think is changing.  I think we would benefit from and are benefiting from, a greater level of being awakened. Because all of the issues that affect other communities: they affect the Jewish community, too. And we need to be awake to be able to respond, and I think we’re doing a fair job, in being engaged that way, but I think we could do more. There was a time in this country when Jews were not identified as white. And then since the mid-1960s until the current time, Jews who have Ashkenazi backgrounds have developed a privilege around perceived whiteness. This perception of Jewish identity as white has created a number of challenges. One is that it works against the authentic narrative about the racial and ethnic diversity of the Jewish community, so the Jewish community is not as aware as it could be around racial and ethnic diversity.  And our partners, who are racially and ethnically diverse do not know how diverse we are, which in some ways is a liability because it doesn’t reflect the expansiveness of our community and the authentic nature of the diverse perspectives of our community. It also sometimes gets in the way of us being perceived as credible—if we’re not dealing with the racism in our own community, how can we be in partnership dealing with racism outside of the Jewish community? I think it’s a challenge to build coalitions when most of the organized power is in the domestic Jewish community and most of the resources are rolled up into certain organizations or an organizational ecosystem that is largely connected to those who are formally affiliated, and those who have relationships with those organizations. And those organizations, those leaders—they can be outstanding and still just represent just a sliver of the broad Jewish community that’s in the United States. And so again, how do we really reflect all of the voices and perspectives of the Jews who are engaged and participating in Jewish life in the United States—even if not affiliated, when the organizations are doing a terrific job at what they’re doing, but only connect with a small swath of Jewish community.

Keshet does a lot of work with Jewish leaders and professionals to be more LGBTQ inclusive, what advice do you have for LGBTQ inclusion work from an intersectional perspective?

I think Keshet does really important work and has a powerful opportunity to take its success in creating a much more hospitable and inclusive Jewish community for those who are LGBTQ—and to use those tools and strategies of success to help build up other organizations and other groups, whether that be Jews of Color, or Jews with physical disabilities, or whomever, so that they are also elevated and empowered to a place of equality and equity within the Jewish community.

If you had a million dollar grant to make the Jewish community more inclusive, what would you do?

I’d do an amazing, multidimensional demographic study of the Jewish community. I would send a team of people out to hit the streets across this country, collecting stories, identities, and numbers, of every Jew we can find, however they identify themselves. And build a multidimensional perspective on who our Jewish community is, who’s inside it, how they express Jewish life, and how they feel valued as Jews, and use that information to inform our larger institutions. I would develop leadership programs for Jews of Color and Jews of different racial, ethnic, and identity backgrounds. I would create pathways, runways, and portals that connect between leadership development, the personal self, the spiritual self, the professional self—while holding as a central value that people must intact and whole with all of their multiple identities.   I would encourage programs that have Jewish organizations do strategic, reflective work related the diversity of their leadership collectives; boards, staff, leadership team–recognizing that in the absence of authentic Jewish diversity in those roles we have an enormous responsibility to channel what’s best for the whole Jewish community. I might create community environments that are interfaith and interracial and intersectional—where we work and come together to share space, resources and expertise.  I’d support models that find systematized, ongoing, equitable, institutionalized ways for the Jewish community to work in authentic and meaningful collaboration and cooperation with other diverse groups. And finally, I’d support the many Jewish organizations who have been and are doing great work around racial justice and Jews of Color for example—and are simply under resourced. I would want to find ways to support their work and leadership.  Sure it’s important to see who’s emerging as leaders, but it’s also very important that we are aware of current excellent work, and show Kavod, honor to those who’ve been at the lead for a good while.  I’d want to support our leaders who have been at the forefront with hardly any resources.  Imagine what they could do with proper funding.

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