With the support of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, in January 2021 JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa piloted the first cohort of the Sephardic Leaders Fellowship in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now under the leadership of the Sephardic Leadership Institute, this six-month learning program is designed for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communal professionals, lay leaders, and allies, to gain classical and contemporary Sephardic knowledge from leaders in the field, build a community of practice and friendship, and gain new approaches to Jewish leadership. Each fellow participates in bimonthly learning and engagement sessions facilitated by top Mizrahi and Sephardic thought-leaders, scholars, activists, and rabbis from around the world. Participants are tasked with bringing their new-found knowledge and skills back to their Jewish institutions in an effort to help their community become more diverse, inclusive, and better representative of Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage.
Scholars estimate that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews may comprise over 20% of North America’s Jewish population. Despite these high numbers, North American Jewish communities are culturally, spiritually, pedagogically, and ethnically defined by dominant Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are underrepresented in professional and Jewish communal lay positions. Those Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders who are Sephardic and Mizrahi are often disconnected from their traditional heritage and yearning for meaningful learning and engagement opportunities.
There is a need to empower Sephardic and Mizrahi professionals, potential lay-leaders, and allies with traditional Sephardic knowledge and opportunities for community building, study, networking, and leadership training. By doing so we can empower trained community assets to lead efforts at a number of Jewish institutions to ensure that Mizrahi and Sephardic individuals, culture, and communities are seen, heard, included, and properly represented in North American Jewish life. This in turn can help contribute to increased participation and engagement of Mizrahi, Sephardic, and Israeli Jews in mainstream Jewish communal life.
While focused primarily on empowering Sephardic leaders, the fellowship follows in the tradition of Classical Sephardic Judaism by being inclusive and welcoming of participants of various ethnic and racial identities.