Ilana Kaufman On The Upside


On a recent episode of The Upside, a weekly show where JMore and The Associated meet with members of the Baltimore Jewish community, hosts Beth Goldsmith, Chair of the Board, and Dr. Scott Rifkin, Publisher of JMore, sat down with Ilana Kaufman to talk about racism, its role in America as an institution and what we can do to learn from it. Kaufman is the executive director for the Jews of Color Initiative, which focuses on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color.

Of the seven Million people who identify as Jewish in the United States, about one Million of those identify as a Jew of Color. According to The Associated’s 2020 Community Study conducted by Brandeis University released last year, in our own community of Baltimore about 6% of our Jewish community identifies as a Jew of Color. But what defines a Jew of Color, according to Ilana Kaufman, isn’t easily defined – and for the Jew of Color Initiative, that is intentional.

“We loathe to define it. So we have a conceptual framework – at the end of the day, it’s important for people to be able to racially self-identify. It needs to be fluid and,” she adds “it depends on context.”

Kaufman points out that Jews of Color have been in the United States since the 1600s, practically since the Country’s founding, and compares it to the lens through which we often view Jews, that of Eastern European migration.

“The way we tell our own story, it’s been rather narrow,” explains Kaufman on the topic of Jewish history, “But that’s because learning about events such as the Holocaust have been so central to our history.”

But just like every group, Kaufman explains, the Jewish community has been impacted negatively by racism in the United States.

On the subject of racism, Kaufman refers back to the social construct of race, and its use to create opportunities for stratification, for the genocide of America’s indigenous people, of the enslavement of Africans and even its rationalization to allow the indentured servitude of other minorities over the centuries, especially as it relates to the history of the United States.

“I want to invite everyone to, if you haven’t accepted it, that we are all racist because we are part of the United States structural fabric. I know it’s uncomfortable. Racism transcends racial boundaries.”

Kaufman urges that we learn to accept racism for what it is, and that we use it to learn and move forward.

“Let us not be hard on ourselves for being racist, let’s be hard on ourselves for reacting or responding when we know we are racist. Come to terms that we are all in this together. After we do that, we can engage in some kind of learning.”

“We have to understand that we act in ways that push people away,” tells Kaufman. “But let’s not be excited about being called out on our behavior, let’s be excited on being called in. If someone tells you you’ve done something to offend them, that means they care enough about you to let you know. It’s in invitation and a privilege.”

As for further steps, Kaufman urges communities and their leadership to create inclusive opportunities. She encourages leadership to partner with what she calls “bridges,” Jews of Color in the U.S. Jewish Community who want to be in partnership with larger organizations, who want to help and strategize.

“When I visited Baltimore last year, I had the chance to meet with 20 Jews of Color in advance of one of our conversations at a synagogue. In that conversation, I met an individual who has now partnered with a number of community entities in Baltimore to bring a national U.S. community Shabbaton for Jews of Color and multi-racial Jewish families in May.”

“Over the arc of one year,” says Kaufman, “you move from creating inclusive opportunities to having a national event in Baltimore in May of 2021.”

Kaufman went on to explain that “If we don’t have diverse people informing how we do our work; we know our work will be narrow as a result.”

View the video below to watch Ilana Kaufman’s full interview on The Upside.

In addition, Ilana provided a number of resources that people can look into if they want to learn more. These are a few:

Also, please visit JCC to experience their Amplifying Voices Series, where Ilana Kaufman spoke in November. Upcoming events are scheduled for January 31 and February 21.

Sign up for Jews of Color Initiative’s newsletter to receive information on the national Jews of Color Shabbaton, planned by Dr. Harriette Wimms, later this year. Dr. Wimms recently participated in BJC’s exploring racial justice.

You can enjoy more episodes of The Upside by joining Beth and Scott every Tuesday at 12:00 p.m. Visit associated.org/upside or like us on Facebook to be notified when episodes go live.

Founded a little over three years ago, Jews of Color Initiative is a national organization based in the California area. Through grant-making, research and field building, community education and other programming, the organization focuses on building and advancing the professional, organizational and communal field for Jews of Color. Within the past couple years, Jews of Color recently released a research study called “Jews of Color: Who Counts, What We Ask, and Why It Matters” where it sought to answer those questions.

Prior to joining the Jews of Color Initiative, Ilana Kaufman was the Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director, East Bay for the San Francisco, Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council. Today she is the Executive Director at the Jews of Color Initiative, focusing on Jewish community, racial equity and justice.


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