Ilana Kaufman Talks Racial Justice and Jewish Philanthropy
Ilana Kaufman has some important news: one million Jews are missing from population counts of American Jewry—a million Jews of color (JoCs). Kaufman, 47, is director of the San Francisco-based Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. Under Kaufman’s leadership, the initiative conducted the first-ever analysis of national and local Jewish population studies to determine the number of JoCs in the country. The study, “Counting Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies, with a Focus on Jews of Color,” found that at least one million Jews have not been included in previous surveys. The Jewish community, like the United States in general, is growing browner. By 2044, says Kaufman, half of all Americans will be people of color. But JoCs are not participating in communal life at the level they might because they feel unwelcome, she says.
Before heading the initiative, Kaufman worked as a program officer at the San Francisco Jewish Federation and as director of public affairs and civic engagement at the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council. Prior to her career in the Jewish world, she served as an administrator and educator in middle and high schools for two decades. Along with her twin brother, David Kaufman, she was raised by their white Jewish mother in a Reform community in the Bay Area. Their African-American father wasn’t involved. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What drew you to working in the organized Jewish community?
I thought working in the context of Jewish values would be great. I thought there would be other JoCs in the space and went in saying, “Where are my people?” When I was a program officer at the federation in 2015, I had a very hard time when young black men were being killed in the streets. I’d go from an urban setting into the federation offices and the doors would whoosh closed behind me. I felt isolated. One day, I looked out the window and saw a Black Lives Matter march walk by and I thought, “What the hell am I doing in here?” I realized I wanted to find a way to bring together racial justice and Jewish philanthropy. That was my spark.
How do you explain racist views some white American Jews possess?
Our orientation to black-Jewish relations [during the Civil Rights era] was as white Jews helping black people, which created a hierarchical dynamic that feeds into racism and otherness. The Jewish community has enjoyed upward mobility and, with it, some of the trappings of structural racism. Why would we escape the racism that’s part of the U.S.?
Can you describe a time when you felt “othered” in a Jewish setting?
I experience racism all the time and try not to talk about it, but let it inform my work. I’m one of the very few people of color in these spaces. I live in a multiracial community. The only time I’m in all-white spaces is at work. People’s facility with difference outside is broader than what I experience in traditional Jewish spaces.
I had a colleague at the federation raised in a predominantly white town who went to a Jewish college who said, “You’re the first Jew of color I’ve met.” In 2017, I was hired to give a talk about diversity in the Jewish community. A man stood up and said, “I don’t buy it. I think you’re a unicorn.” He thought I was the only JoC who exists. It happens all the time. Ignorance is hard.
Looking ahead, how will you measure the initiative’s success?
If b’nei mitzvah students can look at clergy and Jewish role models and see reflections of themselves. I would like to see JoCs on the bimah, in classrooms, on Jewish farms. I hope our leadership reflects more racial diversity and the community around them celebrates that. What will look different is when people just give them kavod [honor] because they know so much Torah and not wonder why they know so much Torah.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. She is a columnist for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles and the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy.