Rabbi Dev Noily
Maybe you’ve seen our recent postings, looking to hire a ¼-time organizer to work with Kehilla’s POC affinity groups. I’m excited to share a little background about our Belonging and Allyship: Racial Justice Initiative, about how this position came to life, and about our hopes for the coming year and beyond. This hire marks a significant step in our work.
Over the past two years, we’ve been surfacing and challenging the ways white supremacy operates in our world and in our hearts, and looking to build our community’s capacity to be a fully affirming, embracing and nurturing Jewish home for People of Color. Initially, SAM Luckey and Penny Rosenwasser joined me to envision a process to move us forward. With the wise counsel of Eveline Shen, Hillary Brooks, Aurora Levins Morales and Remedios Cantu Martinez, in March 2018 we convened an Experts’ Circle made up of a majority of People of Color Kehilla leaders. In addition to Eveline, Hillary and Remedios, the circle included Paul Kivel, Rochelle Towers, Avi Brooks, Lisa Feldstein and Debra Guckenheimer. The Circle was beautifully facilitated by Elizabeth Seja-Min.
We asked the Experts’ Circle for guidance to design a process to address our goals, and to share their wisdom about how Kehilla might approach this work. Always in the front of our thinking was a commitment to center the voices, perspectives and leadership of People of Color, while not burdening People of Color with the work of undoing the harm that systemic oppression has led to in our community. There was also a broader group of people who had responded to Kehilla-wide outreach to participate in the racial justice initiative. We invited those people to come and witness and listen to the conversation the Experts’ Circle engaged in. (The Circle was videoed with the intention to make the conversation available to everyone, but the video was lost on a corrupted thumb drive.)
The thing that emerged most strongly from the Experts’ Circle, and the conversation among everyone who came to listen and to share, was a desire among People of Color, Sefardi, Mizrahi and Indigenous heritage people in our community to be together, to share stories and experiences and to build connection. Among white people, we identified desires to do the internal and communal work of decentering whiteness, and to support the gatherings and network-building among People of Color.
The Affinity Group model that we have now was developed in response to these needs and desires. There are six Affinity Groups – five POC, and one for people with white privilege. Each of the five POC-focused groups (People of Color, White Parents of Kids of Color, POC Families/Kehilla School-Involved Kids of Color, Sefardi/Mizrahi-heritage Jews and Indigenous-heritage Jews) has a facilitator who identifies with that group, and is also assigned a support person from the Folks with White Privilege affinity group.
To hold this multifaceted web of people and groups, we formed a Belonging & Alllyship/Racial Justice Coordinating Committee, which includes Julie Aronowitz, Hillary Brooks, Susan Schulman, Penny Rosenwasser and me. Matt Leber also joined us for the first several months. The Coordinating Committee holds the larger vision of our racial justice work, while supporting the Affinity Groups and being a clearinghouse for questions, concerns, ideas and strategies.
Last year by High Holy Days, we were ready to invite the entire community to participate in one or more of the affinity groups. Aurora Levins Morales offered a stunning Racial Justice Invocation on Yom Kippur to extend that invitation.
This past Hanukkah a number of the POC affinity groups collaborated on Kehilla’s first-ever POC Hanukkah party. For the first time in my experience at Kehilla, I saw Jewish kids of Color celebrating a Jewish holiday in their synagogue in a gathering that was majority POC. To me, that evening was a turning point. My heart was filled with joy for the present and the future, and I also felt the loss that too many kids and youth of Color in our community’s history had never had an experience like this.
In addition to the Folks with White Privilege affinity group, two other important initiatives are challenging white supremacy in our community. Chaplain Laura Fitch and Rabbi Shifra Tobachman facilitate a monthly Tikkun HaNefesh group, helping people with white privilege to explore and heal from the internalizing of systemic racism. And under the leadership of Karen Cohn, our Board Co-chair, Kehilla’s Board of Trustees has reserved a segment of most of its monthly meetings over the past two years to examine white supremacy, building the Board’s capacity to view our community through a racial justice lens and to welcome People of Color into Board membership.
Independent of our racial justice work, a few years ago, an extremely generous anonymous donor made a significant gift to Kehilla. The gift was intended for initiatives that would increase our organizational capacity, and not for things like regular operations or our mortgage. Over time, we’ve used funds from that gift to build a new database, to improve our building’s entry systems and lobby and to support the bi-annual Leadership Retreat. Our Board also decided to set aside a portion of that gift to support the Belonging & Allyship Racial Justice Initiative.
As the affinity groups rolled along, each at its own pace, a shared need emerged among the POC affinity groups. All of them needed more logistical and administrative support and facilitation. All of them needed backing to bring the groups’ aspirations to life. After consultation with all of the affinity group facilitators, we saw that the greatest need was for a POC Organizer– a part-time staff person whose job is to facilitate the development of the POC affinity groups, and support the goals of the Belonging & Allyship initiative. The money set aside from the anonymous gift is making it possible for us to fund a ¼-time POC Organizer for one year, and we’ll be looking for grants to help fund the position for at least an additional year or two.
If you haven’t already, please consider joining one or more of Kehilla’s affinity groups! And stay tuned for news about our new POC Organizer! The Coordinating Committee also welcomes input and feedback about Kehilla’s Belonging and Allyship: Racial Justice Initiative. Please be in touch with me, or other members of the committee.