In an effort to provide a gathering space in which Jews of color can feel a sense of belonging, the Jews of Color Mischpacha Project inaugurated the first national Jews of Color Shabbaton, scheduled virtually for the weekend of May 14-16.
A dream of Harriette Wimms, a Baltimore-based psychologist and organizer, the Shabbaton also came at a good time for the Atlanta Jews of Color Council Inc., a partner of the Mischpacha Project. Launched about six months ago by executive director Victoria Raggs, AJCC was created because there “was a real absence of representation for Jews of color,” she said.
“Instead, there were a lot of white Jews speaking for us,” she said. “The Jewish community still doesn’t have a good grasp of what it means to have real inclusion in the Jewish community. Most organizations have put out wonderful statements, but almost zero actionable change” has followed.
Raggs suggested that the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, philanthropists and donors “should require that grantees make efforts to increase diversity,” including metrics that would measure inclusion. “Include Jews of color on staff or on the boards. Encourage Jews of color as participants,” she said.
Raggs, who has lived in Atlanta for 18 years and whose children attend Jewish day schools, said she decided to launch AJCC after the murder a year ago of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “There was a global shift in the mental outlook on racism worldwide, a realization that we needed to do better.” With a background as a paralegal and work as an advocate – as well as volunteer work with Congregation B’nai Torah – Raggs decided to step up and be a liaison for more inclusion.
She pointed out that because of the outbreak of the pandemic last year, “we were stuck in the house so long. I always wanted to do this and realized, now I have the time.”
Focusing on educating and empowering, Raggs’ goal is to “make sure there’s representation [of Jews of color] at all levels of executive leadership.” Thus, in addition to planning to start newsletters and podcasts, Raggs wants to start a leadership development program so that organizations wanting to diversify their staffs or boards can turn to AJCC to find qualified Jews of color to fill those positions.
Raggs believes that the Shabbaton will empower Atlanta’s Jews of color. “My goal is to give Jews of color the opportunity to be in a community with each other. Usually, we are isolated in our various synagogues and we don’t know each other.” Too often, she added, “Jews of color have felt unwelcome, so many have opted out of the regular Jewish” community.
The Shabbaton also fulfills a dream of Wimms, bringing together individuals, communities and Jewish institutions from around the country. The weekend snowballed, starting off with 20 people responding to an invitation to build a Black-Jewish chavurah in Baltimore. Encouraged to expand and apply for greater funding, Wimms reported in mid-April that nearly 200 had registered for the weekend, with a goal of reaching 360.
The weekend programming was to include not only prayer services across denominations, but also workshops. “I feel the Divine put this in my head,” said Wimms, a self-declared Jew by choice. “The virtual aspect is phenomenal. We hope to connect to Jews of color around the world, including Israel. But next year, we hope we can do this in person.”