Saying Yes

By Dr. Harriette Wimms 

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do something every day that scares you.” I am a person who relies on the comfort of structure and sameness. I enjoy the thrill of checking off items on my to do list and I find bliss in my garden, my home and my loved ones. 

However, COVID taught me the value of moving outside of my comfort zone . . . and the importance of saying yes to experiences, even when the thought of those experiences frightens me. The pandemic, social isolation, and the uprising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd taught me that there is growth outside of my comfort zones and that as a Jew and a community convenor, I am called toward growth and change. 

It was with this tension between comfort and new exploration that I read and reread an email that arrived in my inbox from the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Jewish Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) team. I was being invited to join a JEDI Leadership Mission to Israel. Me!!  

It was the middle of March, my passport was expired, and I was not prepared for international travel. Yet this felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There had never been a trip like this one: a mission to Israel bringing together Jewish Leaders of Color to explore the complexities of identity and belonging. 

Jewish Federations’ JEDI Initiatives exists to support the Jewish community in creating a culture of belonging for all Jews and their loved ones and to advance a transformation in the North American consciousness amidst political divides by centering social/racial justice, equity, diversity and inclusion with a Jewish lens. 

Prior to this trip, I’d been asked many times about my relationship to Israel. The truth was I didn’t have a relationship. Growing up the way I did, in Southern Maryland, by two parents who had shouldered the heavy weight of racism and classism in the United States, I was much more focused on finding safe places for me and mine here at home. 

Yet my passport arrived just in time, and I was able to join nearly 30 Jewish Leaders of Color from the United States and Israel in Tel Aviv. We celebrated our diversity and spoke honestly about the struggles we face as Jewish People of Color in the U.S.  

We learned from Yirmiyahu Danzig about the struggles facing Ethiopian Israelis, Arab Israelis, Mizrahi Jews and migrant workers. We visited an Ethiopian arts and heritage center created by Ashagar Araro and an Ethiopian olim center in Tzfat.  

We attended lectures about efforts to support peace between Jews Israelis and Muslim Israelis and spoke with Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, executive director of the Arava Institute for Renewable Energy and the first Palestinian to lead an academic institute in Israel. Additionally, we learned with Dr. Yifat Biton, President of Achva College, and Israel’s first Mizrachi woman to be considered for the Supreme Court. We also attended a dinner celebrating the last day of Ramadan and visited Feel Beit, a community of Palestinian and Israeli artists and musicians who work together to “bridge the divide in Jerusalem.” 

As the first mission to be curated and hosted by Jews of Color in Jewish Federation history, the experience allowed for Jewish leaders of color to foster collective understanding, self-love, authenticity and joy between who we are as people, as leaders and as Jews. 

The JFNA JEDI team created an experience that allowed for deep conversation, connection and safety.  

“The JEDI Leadership Mission to Israel set the tone for what an intersectional, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational, LGBTQ+ inclusive experience can look like in the future,” said Nate Looney, JEDI Director of Community Safety and Belonging and a member of the team that curated the mission, along with Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein and Stacey Aviva Flint. They shared that the mission was “focused on the historical context and nuance of diversity in Israeli society, interweaving opportunities for North American and Israeli Jewish leaders of Color to foster a deeper international community, while also creating space for both laughter and tears.”  

The JEDI team succeeded in creating a mission that was meaningful and life-changing. I feel blessed to have had this be my first experience visiting Israel. Moreover, as a person with disabilities who needed mobility accommodations, I felt fully supported by the JEDI team to ensure that I was able to be a part of the mission and have accommodations that allowed me access. 

The JEDI mission gave me an opportunity to create new relationships and kinships with JOCISM (Jews of Color, Indigenous, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish) leaders across the United States and in Israel. I was also afforded an opportunity to begin my discernment about how to continue my work as a Jewish leader of color, both as it relates to my experiences of comfort but also my growth edges.  

This mission reminded me of the importance of saying yes, and then listening for what I can learn next in community: in dialog, deep thought and care for ourselves and others. I will be eternally grateful for this opportunity. Thank goodness for the ability to say yes! 

This mission could not have been possible without the support of Paula Pretlow and generous partnership of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Schusterman Family Philanthropies, UJA – Federation NY, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, One8 Foundation and the Wexner Foundation. 

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