(JTA) — When Ilana Kaufman, a program officer at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, arrived at San Quentin State Prison for a meeting with the Jewish chaplain at California’s oldest correctional facility, the chaplain couldn’t seem to find her — even though Kaufman was standing in plain sight.
As Kaufman waited in the receiving area, a security officer by her side, the spiritual leader of the prison community — largely composed of men of color — turned her head left and right trying to locate the federation representative whose name she knew but whose face she had never seen.
“Finally the officer says, ‘Chaplain, this person standing right next to me,’” Kaufman recalled. “And the chaplain says, ‘You know, you are not who I expected.’”
It wasn’t the first time that Kaufman, 42, had heard such a comment.
In her two years as the federation officer responsible for regional grant making in Marin and Sonoma counties, Kaufman had seen her fair share of jaws drop when she walked into a Jewish communal space. Kaufman is black — the daughter of an Ashkenazic Jewish mother and an African-American father.
“There is a deeply established set of assumptions about who represents federation,” said Kaufman, who stands nearly 6 feet tall. “So when I walk into a space where they’ve seen my name, which is a very traditional Jewish name, they cannot fathom that a person of color is going to walk in the door.”
North America’s central Jewish charities employ many non-Jewish people of color — some at high levels of management, including an Asian-American chief financial and investment officer at the San Francisco federation. But Kaufman, having reached out via email and social media to colleagues across the federation system, has yet to identify any other Jews of color working in forward-facing programming roles.
The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of 153 federated charities, does not track the racial and ethnic composition of its approximately 2,700 employees. In response to questions about the role of racial and ethnic diversity at Jewish federations, a JFNA spokesman said, “Jewish federations enjoy a tremendous commitment to inclusivity and diversity, one that is highly reflective of the different kinds of Jews there are in our communities, vis-a-vis Jews of different ethnic origin, Jews across the religious spectrum and interfaith families, among others.”
Kaufman was raised in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood by a hard-working single mother who spoke to her in Yiddish. Kaufman, who is a lesbian, now lives with her almost 9-year-old-daughter, Noa, in Berkeley, Calif., and has a long-term partner. While she was growing up, her struggling family often benefited from Jewish philanthropy, and Kaufman attended a Jewish summer camp on scholarship.
She spent 20 years working in independent school education and administration. Most recently, Kaufman served as director of the Windrush School, a private elementary school in the East Bay city of El Cerrito, which was forced to shut down in 2012 as a result of the economic downturn.
After the school closed, Kaufman embarked on a search to find a job that would “totally rock my world,” she said.
Kaufman was steeped in her Jewish identity: Her daughter had attended Hebrew school since the age of 6, and she was as part of a diverse Bay Area social network that included other Jews of color and LGBT Jews. But she had never considered a career in Jewish communal life.
That changed when she visited Afikomen Judaica, a Jewish bookstore and Judaica shop in Berkeley, and encountered the shop’s co-owner, Nell Mahgel-Friedman, an old friend from her Jewish Student Union days at Humboldt State University.
Mahgel-Friedman said she remembered Kaufman’s passionate commitment to social justice issues and deep spiritual connection to Judaism — as well as her role in bringing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to the Humboldt campus in 1994. She looked Kaufman squarely in the eyes and said, “I just want you to consider working in the Jewish community.”
The statement resonated so deeply, Kaufman said, that for the first time she could envision a career that would bring her social, spiritual and professional lives into tighter alignment. By October 2012, she had begun her work at the San Francisco federation, known officially as the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.
“Maybe it’s not coincidental,” Kaufman said. “But I came out of an independent school world that’s equally rarefied. My purpose in the world has always been to be a bridge.”
In her role at the federation, Kaufman allocates grants in Marin and Sonoma counties. Her program officer portfolio includes the Early Childhood Education Initiative and the Affordability Initiative, which provides federation scholarships for Jewish education from preschool to day school.
Jim Offel, the San Francisco federation’s interim CEO, said that Kaufman “brings a really keen intelligence, thoughtfulness and high level of commitment to her work.”
He also said that if it’s true that Kaufman is the system’s only program officer of color — it’s impossible to say with certainty, given the lack of data — it wouldn’t be the first “first” for their federation. In 2010, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation became the first big-city federation to hire a female CEO, Jennifer Gorovitz, who left in March.
“There’s a likelihood that the Jewish community will become more diverse in a variety of ways, and being inclusive of the full Jewish community is going to be important for any communal institution, whether it’s our synagogues or JCCs,” Offel said. “Diversity as a value is important, and I would hope that the federation system would reflect that.”
According to a 2005 study conducted by the late Jewish demographer Gary Tobin, 10 percent of America’s approximately 6 million Jews identify as black, Latino, Asian or mixed race. A 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, the American city with the largest Jewish population, found that 12 percent of the city’s Jewish population is non-white.
These figures reflect wider demographic changes, according to Diane Tobin, the CEO of Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life. Diane Tobin, the widow of Gary Tobin, pointed to the 2010 U.S. Census, which found that among American children, the multiracial population had increased by 50 percent in 10 years.
Informally, Kaufman works with Be’chol Lashon on capacity building, and it was the organization’s 2013 International Think Tank that sparked her search for other Jews of color in the federation system. In mid-November, Kaufman and her daughter attended the organization’s Family Camp weekend retreat in Petaluma, Calif.
“We’re gratified that the federation is making space for leaders like Ilana who bring a different perspective and experience,” Tobin said. “We’re also delighted that Ilana is serving as a role model for our diverse Jewish kids.”
Chava Shervington, president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, a volunteer organization that promotes diversity in Jewish life, said that mainstream Jewish communal organizations are finally starting to “get it.” Over the past decade, she said, an increasing number of synagogues and Jewish groups from across the country have contacted JMN seeking counsel on how they can be more welcoming to Jews of color.
Last summer, a JMN representative spoke at the UJA-Federation of New York’s day of learning dedicated to racial and ethnic diversity.
“Jewish organizations, whether they be large communal organizations like the federations or local community synagogues, are starting to see the changing face of Judaism in the American context,” Shervington said. “I think that people are starting to realize that they have to change their modus operandi to reflect that.”
There’s also the issue of a bottom line.
If the numbers are any indicator of the federation system’s future constituency, then the North American philanthropic network has a strong financial incentive to bring more Jews of color into the fold, Kaufman said.
“There are moral reasons mainstream Jewish organizations should be more inclusive, organizational development reasons,” she said. “And then there’s a strong business rationale for being inclusive of the broadest range of possible donors.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Windrush School shut down in 2011.