How Can We Help Empower and Educate Teen Jews of Color?

Fifth-year rabbinical student Kelly Whitehead (and Zschool '23) writes about the creation of the new Teen Jews of Color Fellowship.

Kelly Whitehead speaking at L’Taken social justice seminar

By Kelly Whitehead
August 2023

Kelly Whitehead praying with Women of the Wall

Kelly praying with Women of the Wall

The percentage of Jews of color in our communities is increasing year after year, with each generation more racially diverse than the previous. And yet, I am one of the small handful of Jews of Color enrolled in rabbinical and cantorial schools across the United States. As part of my rabbinical studies work at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I created the Teen Jews of Color Fellowship to empower high school students to be leaders of their own communities by instilling a deep sense of belonging within their intersecting identities – potentially inspiring them to one day become clergy.

Before starting at HUC-JIR, I participated in the URJ’s Jew V’Nation Fellowship, a program for Jewish adults of color to engage in professional development, networking opportunities, training, and empowerment aimed at expanding the field of Jewish leaders and creating communities of belonging in the Reform Movement, the broader Jewish community, and beyond. Participating in this fellowship gave me the strength to know that as a Jew of Color, my voice mattered in my community. As a former Youth Director, URJ Camp Harlam Shared Professional, and soon-to-be rabbi, I hope to provide this same experience to high school students at a crucial stage in their development.

I began to create the Teen Jews of Color fellowship during my fourth year at HUC in my role as Rabbinic Intern on the URJ Youth Organizing Team. Using techniques learned while pursuing my Master of Arts in Jewish Nonprofit Management (MAJMN) at the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management (Zschool), I interviewed clergy, synagogue professionals, teens, and adult leaders of color and held informal affinity spaces both on Zoom and at L’taken weekends. I learned there is a great need for teens of color to have spaces in which they can truly be themselves. During these meetings, interviewees shared detailed examples of pain, discrimination, and being treated like an “outsider” within the Jewish community. It is heartbreaking, and I felt called to address it.

If our high school students feel seen and respected within Jewish spaces from a young age by peers and mentors, they will be more inclined to stay committed throughout their adult lives. In Deuteronomy 5:1, Moses proclaims that the Torah is for everyone, and it is on all of us to engage in our sacred tradition. No one group should claim ownership over it, nor deny others the opportunity to participate in our holy community. By empowering our teens of color, we will be able to say that they too have a right to Jewish memory, meaning, and belonging, regardless of the intentional or unintentional bias and discrimination they may face.

Kelly Whitehead at L’Taken social justice seminar. Photo courtesy of Linnea Farnsworth Photography.

Kelly at L’Taken social justice seminar. Photo courtesy of Linnea Farnsworth Photography.

At the heart of this fellowship lies a commitment to creating affinity spaces—spaces that provide a sense of belonging and understanding among individuals who share common experiences. Within these spaces, Jewish teens of color are encouraged to explore their personal narratives, discuss the intersections of their identities, and forge deep connections with their peers. Participants will emerge empowered, equipped with the tools to shape a future that celebrates diversity, inclusivity, and social justice.

Through the generous support of the Shards of Light Foundation, teens from across North America will have the opportunity to gather together in sacred community and be inspired to engage in Torah, becoming leaders in their own community.

The Teen Jews of Color (JOC) Fellowship will take place from October 2023 – May 2024. Apply now! To learn more, go to