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New fund offers financial grants to Jews of color in dire need due to pandemic

An organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for Jews of color has opened a COVID-19 emergency relief fund, citing the ways in which racism amplifies the impact of the coronavirus on people of color.

A project of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, the fund will provide grants of between $250 and $2,500 to help defray certain documented expenses, like mortgage payments, rent or groceries. People of color who identify as Jewish, work or have worked for a Jewish organization or are members of Jewish organizations (like synagogues) are eligible to apply online.

The fund is necessary because Jews of color might not have equal access to other financial support systems, wrote Ilana Kaufman, the field building initiative’s executive director, in a May 26 statement announcing the fund.

“This is about systemic racism, owning the fact that racism exists,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of American Jewish history at Temple University. Most organizations that provide aid and services to Jews in need — like the Hebrew Free Loan Society and the Hebrew Free Burial Society — have a specific historical context. They were founded more than a hundred years ago to help Ashkenazi immigrants, Corwin Berman pointed out, and although they have broadened their mission are still often associated with that history.

The pandemic has ushered in a new set of concerns in American-Jewish philanthropy, typically concerned in recent decades with program building and institutions, Corwin Berman said. Now there’s a new focus on individuals in dire straits — who are sick, or have lost their jobs.

The group behind the fund — the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative — is a non-profit that helps Jews of color build Jewish organizations in addition to working with existing groups to include Jews of color as members and leaders.

The announcement came a week after a debate about the number of Jews of color that involved scholarship Kaufman commissioned. The initiative had been working on the emergency fund for five weeks, however, and the timing was coincidence, she said.

The controversy flared after two professors said that the number of Jews of color is closer to 6% of the total population than to the 12% to 15% in the research sponsored by the Jews of Color Field Building initiative.

Technically, the disagreement boiled down to which national research outfit the two camps considered more reliable, but the article asserting the lower number was experienced by Jews of color as racism, according to an anonymous petition disseminated in protest. Some 2,500 individuals and 200 organizations signed the petition — entitled “Jews of Color Count.” Others published additional articles in solidarity with Jews of color, such as Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Union of Reform Judaism, the United States’ largest Jewish denomination.

Corwin Berman said that the emergency fund had a host of precedents in American-Jewish philanthropy, although it’s unique at present in the way it makes direct grants of money to individuals instead of services or loans.

The fund’s mission of supporting Jews in need, Corwin Berman said, is similar to that of HIAS, founded to help Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in 1881, and which also helped Ashkenazi Soviet Jewry starting in the 1970s. It’s also similar in a way to Birthright, which invests in Jews who are young, like the emergency fund invests in Jews of color.

Kaufman declined to disclose how big the fund is, when it will make its first grants or the identity of its backers.

The field building initiative itself is funded by donors, such as the Nathan Cummings and Leichtag foundations and itself makes grants. In its 2018-2019 year, for example, the initiative gave money to Hillel International to help Jews of color connect with each other.

To get the word out about the emergency fund, the field building initiative will tap its network of colleagues and partners, and use social media, Kaufman said.

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