This blog originally appeared on the Jim Joseph Foundation website.
The Jim Joseph Foundation is pleased to share a series of reflections from beneficiaries of some of its newly-supported programs in leadership development and educator training. Leili Davari reflects on her experience in the Selah Leadership Program for Jews of Color who are social justice leaders working in Jewish and secular organizations.
I’ve lost count to how many times people make assumptions about my ethnicity and what type of Jew I am. This is usually how it starts off: “Leili, that’s an interesting name, are you Hawaiian?” “No, my name is Persian, my father is Iranian.” “Oh, that’s interesting. So he must be Jewish?” “Nope, he was born Muslim.” “Oh, so is your mother Jewish? “Nope, she is a Mexican Catholic.” “I converted to Judaism in my late 20s.”
Additionally, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been introduced as, “Leili, the Mexican/Iranian Jew,” which is not correct at all. I am not a Mexican Jew, I am not an Iranian Jew. I am all those truths: Mexican, Iranian and Jewish. And it has become exhausting to have to always educate people on what this means.
From there, the responses to me being Mexican, Iranian, and Jewish range from disbelief, to being exoticized. “Wow, you are so exotic – you’ve got a little bit of everything in you!”
Not to mention the countless questions I get about converting, particularly from Jews. I am shocked at how much I have had to educate other Jews on conversion — answering the million dollar question, “What made you decide to be Jewish?” Some days I just want to respond, “None of your business!” But what kind of person would I be if I responded that way? So instead, with a smile, I answer all the questions about how I am Jewish, my parents, and finally, my personal identity politics.
Being the target of so many questions at Shabbat dinners stifles my willingness to participate fully in Jewish life. I’ve wondered to myself: If I were White, would I receive the same interrogation? Or would it be easier to pass as a White Ashkenazi Jew? The isolation I feel is painful and holds me back from reaching my full potential as a confident Jewish Woman of Color. This isolation stops me at times from building community within Jewish spaces. And without a doubt, this isolation shows up in my public life as a Jewish professional working in a particular Jewish community that is almost entirely White. I convinced myself that this isolation was my reality and nothing would change.
An opportunity that would turn out to be a life changing experience appeared in late 2017, when I was selected to be in Cohort 15 of the Selah Leadership Program, a cohort specifically for Jews of Color who are social justice leaders working in Jewish and secular organizations. I was excited to be a part of this community and unsure of what I would get out of this experience. This excitement I felt was rooted in the possibility of building relationships with fellow Jewish People of Color and finding support as I navigated difficult life and work circumstances.
Our opening retreat in January proved to be a transformative event. Meeting my fellow JOC ‘family’ was more than I anticipated. I can still remember our opening retreat activity — our facilitator, Yavilah McCoy, had us raise our arms in the air and say “I am powerful!” My arm was halfway up, my voice just barely over a whisper. I had a long way to go before I came fully into my power as a Jewish Woman of Color, but I knew Selah was a step in the right direction.
Meeting and building relationships with other JOCs with both similar and different lived experiences was instrumental to my growth. I was able to share my stories of pain and challenges and receive comfort and validation from fellow JOCs. This validation was mind-blowing for me. It was the first time I could be fully vulnerable about both personal and work challenges in the majority White Jewish community. At our opening retreat, I realized that I had been holding myself back in my work because of my fear of not wanting to be the employee who causes conflict in the workplace. This realization of how much I was holding back at work, and how much my work was affected by this fear, led to me make a crucial decision. As we say in Spanish, “¡Basta!” Enough. Knowing that I had the support and validation from my JOC family was what I needed to lean into my full potential as a Jewish organizer and woman. Once I made this decision, “la vida dio muchas vueltas” — life took many turns.
After Selah’s opening retreat, it was clear that in order to come into my full-power Jewish Woman of Color self in my professional life, I actually needed to start with my personal life. This required that I take a deep look into my personal relationships and end those that were not emotionally nourishing to my development and growth. As heartbreaking as it has been, this was necessary in order for me to prioritize my livelihood and emotional well-being. Since then, I have learned how to live my life in a way that prioritizes myself and what it means to not only survive, but thrive as a Jewish Woman of Color. And thrive I have!
The next step I needed to take was to apply what I learned from Selah, my coming into my full power, into my professional life. This meant that I had to lean into difficult conversations with colleagues and other staff in positions of power. It meant that I needed to face my fears of being the dissenting voice in some conversations, and most importantly, of not allowing race and positions of power to intimidate me. While I can not say that I have yet fully reached the level of confidence to be the Jewish Professional I aspire to be, I know I have made significant progress and more lies ahead in my future.
In closing, the Selah Leadership Program proved to be a turning point both in my personal as well as professional life. I look back at the Leili I was two years ago when I first started working at Bend the Arc, and I don’t recognize that woman at all. After Selah, I feel more prepared at Shabbat dinners to call out when I feel I am being scrutinized with inappropriate “How are you Jewish?” questions. I feel better equipped with tools to handle challenges at work when my colleagues’ race and power dynamics are having negative impacts on me. And not to mention the confidence I feel at calling out White Jews who exoticize me for being Mexican and Iranian. The relationships I’ve made through Selah are ones that will last a lifetime — our commitment to one another’s resilience and success as Jewish People of Color did not end at our closing retreat, but will continue throughout our lives. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have participated in Selah and look forward to the continuation of Jewish programs, including Selah, dedicating cohorts that are exclusive to Jewish People of Color. No doubt there are many more Jewish People of Color who want and need this fellowship in their lives. I know I did.
Leili Davari is the Bay Area Regional Organizer of Bend the Arc.