Early in the Covid pandemic, Ilana Kaufman and other leaders at the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative began hearing reports that Jews of color, like all people of color in the U.S., were suffering disproportionately from the pandemic and its economic effects. But it was only when they began seeking partners to establish a relief fund that they discovered how poorly equipped national Jewish institutions were to serve this vulnerable population.
“As I started to call agencies and asked where we can set up money so there’s a central place where people could get help, I realized there was no central place,” Kaufman, the executive director of the initiative, explained in the National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty’s July 7 briefing. “Because federations are a disaggregated, loose network, it means that when one vulnerable group needs services, there is no central location to align that group’s need with the services.”
The Jews of Color Field Building Initiative set up an emergency relief fund in May for people of color working in (or recently laid off from) the Jewish community, as well as Jews of color who are struggling as a result of the pandemic. The initiative quickly raised $100,000 from individuals, foundations and Jewish federations, and began to make grants ranging in size from $250 to $2,500. As of July 7, it had given away $94,500 to 47 individuals, and was continuing to raise new funds.
“We evaluate applications every Tuesday and will continue to do so until there are no more applications,” Kaufman said. Through the applications submitted so far, the initiative has learned that many Jews of color were unaware of other Jewish services available, while others found Jewish organizations’ processes of seeking help unduly onerous (one federation required applicants to answer 80 questions) or reported experiencing racial insensitivity when trying to access them. The process has also highlighted the diversity among Jews of color, and the financial difficulties many professionals and staff at Jewish organizations experience.
“So many applications we received were from people who were former or current federation or JCC or other Jewish organizational staff,” Ginna Green, a former Bend the Arc employee and consultant for the field building initiative said. “What was our situation like before Covid that created a situation where some people are more vulnerable than others? We need to look at the structure around who’s doing the work and how they’re getting paid. What does it say that in our nation’s major metropolitan areas that social workers, program managers, cantors -- all people that submitted applications -- are all in dire need of relief from this fund?”
Quoting her father who used to say, “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” Green called on Jewish communal leaders to think about “how our communities are set up all the time when it’s not a crisis. When we’re built well to handle the good times, we will be even more prepared and nimble to address crises. We want to identify the here and now, and put in structures for the future.”