FIU Black Student Union and Hillel Hosted A Panel on Intersectionality And Faith

FIU BSU and Hillel virtual Q&A panel via Zoom

Stephanie Valentine / Contributing Writer

FIU Hillel in partnership with the Black Student Union hosted a virtual panel on intersectionality and faith. Participants got the opportunity to ask questions to Jewish activists on their complex experiences as people of color. 

Jon Warech, director of FIU Hillel, introduced and moderated the conversation where panelists addressed the questions with personal anecdotes on their experiences such as: pertaining interracial and interfaith relationships, communities and family dynamics. 

Janu Mendel, another activist who spoke at the panel, is South Florida Jewish community leader born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He is now the executive director of Repair the World Miami, a grassroots organization focused on mobilizing marginalized communities in partnership with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

The panel addressed intersectionality within the Jewish community.  

Intersectionality recognizes the overlapping systems of discrimination towards people due to social factors such as race, gender, and faith and these activists bring awareness to their experiences of identifying as multiple things at once. 

Activist Tema Smith is a mixed race Jewish writer, who currently serves as the director of professional development at 18Doors, an organization working to empower Jewish interfaith families and relationships. 

The panel mainly touched upon the vastly different experiences Jewish people of color face with other people of color as opposed to when they are occupying predominantly white environments, which the majority of Jewish communities happen to be, according to Smith.

Alvey Thompson is a Black Jewish holistic growth coach committed to creating a world that is healthy, connected, creative, purposeful, and loving through meaningful discourse and intersectional activism. 

Rather than a focus on the need to occupy racially diverse spaces, Thompson stated that it is far more important to escape an ideological echo chamber. Interacting with people who have different opinions is crucial to having meaningful discussion.

“For me it is much more about the psychographic than the demographic,” said Thompson. “The mindset that a person has, what are their self affirming beliefs? What is their outlook on the world? What is their perspective?”

South Florida Jewish leader Mendel shared that, like many immigrants he found himself subconsciously code switching, the process of changing linguistic codes in order to assimilate into a social context. 

Altering his accent and mannerisms in professional spaces, as well as in white Jewish communities in the hopes of appearing more assimilated to his environment. “Navigating the American world, I need to make an extra effort to ensure that people can understand me and take me seriously,” said Mendel.

Mendel further explained how imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern of self-doubt made him question the legitimacy of his own Jewish knowledge.“Having to prove my belonging— Did I know enough? Did I have the right education? Did I have the right Jewish upbringing? It some days felt like having to put on a show and prove my worthiness overtime,” he said.

Jewsish writer Tema Smith commented on similar experiences she faced as a mixed race woman and the lines that she feels she needs to tread carefully in activism spaces and catering to both sides of her racial identity. 

When attending predominantly white (nonjewish) institutions Smith explains the internal conflict of being a person or color, “I feel out of place even though I look like I fit in.” However the feelings of alienation disappear the more invested she gets into those communities. 

Mendel echoed her sentiments when addressing his own biracial experience as a half black half white jamaican, having to deliberately educate himself on the privileges that lighter skin bestows in the United States. 

On the topic of organizing her community, Smith mentioned an article entitled Jews of colors deserve an accurate count published on Forward.com. In it, he explains the hurdles preventing the mobilization Jewish communities of color is the absence of an official national count. 

Although the overall Jewish community is getting more and more diverse, they are not being included in the demographic. Smith writes, “This growing diversity is not necessarily translating to proportional participation in mainstream Jewish communal organizations.” 

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