Leading for Others: Supporting Inclusion in Jewish Spaces

Campers at Camp Pinewood sitting together with arms around each other.

By Eli Cohn-Postell, MA/MA'15

A couple months ago I was chatting with a co-worker about our career paths and naturally found myself reflecting on my time in the Hornstein Program. He asked me about some of the defining experiences that are common to Hornstein students and I brought up summer camp. As we were growing up, many members of my cohort and those around us attended summer camp. It is possible that for us, summer camp was our most commonly shared Jewish educational experience.

I loved summer camp and felt very comfortable there and in other Jewish spaces. For that, I am thankful. Now, as I become increasingly aware that this is not everyone’s experience, I believe it is important for our communal leadership and for myself as a Jewish leader to think about how to change those spaces so they are comfortable for everybody.

In early June, Masha Kisel published an article in The Forward detailing her experience at summer camp as a new immigrant from the Former Soviet Union. In her first summer living in the US, Masha attended a summer camp in the Midwest and had a profoundly negative experience defined by isolation and bullying. The next summer she attended a different camp with more Russian-speaking Jews and had a vastly improved experience. In both cases her experience at summer camp was different from my own. I never had to worry about whether there would be other campers like me.

Summer camp aside, there are entire groups of people who feel left out of Jewish spaces. A new study from the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative and Bay Area researchers concludes that there may be as many as 1,000,000 Jews of color in the US, 12-15% of the total American Jewish population.

The report states that Jews of color have been systematically underrepresented in population studies, creating a vicious cycle: 1) Jews of color are generally not joining traditional Jewish spaces and are therefore undercounted in population studies; 2) Jewish spaces are therefore not designed to meet the needs of Jews of color; 3) which then produces spaces which are unwelcoming to Jews of color.

I think about this phenomenon often when it comes to my own family. My daughter has a mixed race background, and based on this alone, I know that she will feel differently than I did as a white person in the Jewish spaces that meant so much to me when I was growing up. I worry that because of her color, she may be treated differently, that her mixed background will be a cause for exclusion, and that this may cause her to distance herself from the Jewish community. I want my daughter to feel just as comfortable as an American Jew as I do, at summer camp as I did, but the reality is she probably won’t. Her experience won’t be mine.

The demographics of the American Jewish community are changing. We most often discuss demographic changes by referring to the increasing percentage of American Jews who define as Orthodox. I suggest that there are other categories that are equally important for us to consider. What about the demographic trend indicating that Jews of color may be as much as 50% of the American Jewish population in the coming decades? What about changing numbers of Jews who do not speak English as a first language? What about other groups who do not see themselves as comfortably woven into the communal fabric of American Judaism?

In the Hornstein Program we learn that effective Jewish leadership presents in many different ways. I believe that this period of changing demographics requires a particular type of leadership, one that requires those of us who are white Jews to seek to understand experiences different from our own. As leaders, we have an obligation to probe our own experiences and those of others — to better understand the structures and systems that either embrace or exclude, and to work towards creating inviting, supportive spaces for all Jews.

Eli Cohn-Postell is an MA/MA graduate of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program in the Class of 2015 and the director of Israel Engagement at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

Photo credit (top): Camp Pinewood, Flickr. This photo is for illustrative purposes only. It has not been altered and is free to distribute according to its CC license.