Think of her as a modern-day Queen Esther.
Rachel Sumekh, the founder of Swipe Out Hunger, a national initiative focused on ending college student hunger, is a community leader, activist and proud Jew. She is also the daughter of Iranian immigrants and a Persian woman of color.
“Since the time of the Megillah, our community has told the story of a Jewish woman of color saving our people,” said Sumekh, 26. “Women, and women of color, are often the unsung heroes. This holiday is an opportunity to celebrate those voices.”
In an innovative Purim-inspired campaign, three organizations — Repair the World, Jewish Women’s Archive and the Jewish Multiracial Network — are banding together to raise awareness about Jewish women of color, and their unique contributions to the Jewish communal narrative. The campaign — called #ShareHerStory — aims to celebrate the stories of Jewish women of color, Mizrahi and Sephardi women by sending e-cards highlighting nine women’s stories, including April Baskin, the Union of Reform Judaism’s vice president of audacious hospitality, and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the first Asian American rabbi and cantor.
“This is our modern riff on mishloach manot,” said Tamara Fish of the Jewish Multiracial Network, referencing the holiday custom to exchange food gifts. “Instead of sharing food, we’re sharing stories.”
The Purim saga also provides powerful commentary on what it means to be a “cultural outsider,” said Fish. “Esther was a woman, a Jew and an orphan; in so many ways she was ‘othered.’ Still, she was able to hone her influence and shift the narrative. “It all came down to her choice to act, rather than to be silent.”
With the recent #MeToo campaign still reverberating, the new, modern take on Purim aims to increase its relevance to a younger audience, said Laura Belinfante, director of digital campaigns at Repair the World, an organization that aims to involve young Jews in Judaism through social justice work.
“We tried to think about what in the Purim story would be captivating and easy to share,” said Belinfante, 28, the mastermind of the growing organization’s previous digital campaigns. For the 2017 High Holiday season, she worked on the campaign #ADifferentKindofService, an effort to provide young people not enthused about synagogue with community volunteer opportunities instead. The Purim narrative provided a natural point of connection: “We saw a natural connection between Esther and women of color, and the power of women in general to change society.”
Carolivia Herron, 71, is the daughter of runaway slaves on her mother’s side and Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews on her father’s side. Though raised in a Christian home, she had been attracted to Judaism since she was a child, even before knowing that Judaism was a part of her family roots. Twenty-five years ago, while working as a university literature professor, she took Jewish studies courses and had a bat mitzvah celebration.
“Finally, I felt my lineage was complete,” she said.
Though by and large her experiences as a Jew of color have been positive, she has gotten the occasional confused look and question: “Are you Jewish?”
“Many Jews of color find that question very bothersome,” she said. “To me, I take it as an opportunity to tell my story.”
She was both glad and bemused when asked if she would be willing to be featured in the #ShareHerStory campaign. Mostly, though, she was “glad to know that young people still care about finding relevance in our tradition.”
“In retelling the Purim story, we extend that lineage into contemporary day and the women of color who continue to transform our community,” said Mikki Pugh, director of programs and education at Jewish Women’s Archive.
Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, another of the women of color featured in the campaign, described Purim as “precisely the right time for all of us to search the margins.”
She posted on her Facebook page: “Purim is exactly the time for the heretofore invisible to become manifest in the world; as Esther starts off as an invisible, passive figure and emerges as a powerful Jewish leader over the course of her story and the story of the Jewish people, so do we.”