A Gateway to Belonging: The Makings of a Jewish Buddy Program

I am a Jewish and Black woman who once found it difficult to be comfortable in Jewish spaces. Of the many things I am grateful to my parents for, one is that they never forced me into environments where I didn’t feel secure. Instead, I was guided to understand both my Jewish and Black heritage and permitted to choose the spaces that served me. As a shy youth, I wasn’t comfortable standing out and felt safer with people who looked like me. Because of this, it was easier for me to participate in African dance classes than Torah study where I felt I would stick out like a sore thumb.  

In college, I found a sense of pride in my Jewish heritage and embraced being different, but the feeling of not really fitting in remained. In my first year, I attended a Jewish event that solidified my feelings of standing out. I wasn't part of the group. No one at the event spoke to me. I wasn't a part of the circles that had already formed and, I believe, no one welcomed me because I didn't look like a “typical” Jewish woman.   

Creating connections in the Bay Area Jewish community

When I recently moved back to the Bay Area, I found the Fed Fellows program and was excited to discover a Jewish group that shared my interest in business. This group had established a common thread to help ease entry into the community, thus increasing my confidence in attending events and staying engaged. I was paired with a wonderful organization, Jewish Gateways, which serves a diverse community of Jews and strives to reach people like myself, who aren't necessarily in Jewish spaces but are interested in learning. Armed with the understanding of this goal, an awareness of my own experience, and the conversations around belonging with the Fed Fellows group, I was empowered to share my story with the board when prompted by Rabbi Bridget. I shared a suggestion that I am hopeful will impact the lives of fellow Jews who are seeking belonging.

Enter - the buddy program

This program enables people who are interested in joining events to notify the organization ahead of time that they will be attending and will be paired with someone to steward them. That person will help greet them, inform them of what to expect and how to prepare, and support them in whatever way is needed to ease them into the community. The program would identify a few members of the community to be on the lookout for new faces and make a point to acknowledge them and check in with that person based on their comfort level. The idea behind this is much more targeted for in-person events however, it is my hope that people gain the same awareness for virtual events, ensuring all feel welcomed. This can be through a private message, by following up after the event, or by meeting them during the event in real-time. My thought behind the buddy program is to alleviate the fear of what to expect: Will the program be conducted in English? How should I dress? Will I be singled out in a 'cliquey’ environment? And any other anxiety-inducing fears that come with entering unfamiliar spaces.  

I am grateful to the board of Jewish Gateways who allowed me the space to share how something like this would have completely changed my perspective regarding participating in Jewish life. I may have experienced 15+ years of belonging by now had someone greeted me at the event I attended in college. Community is such a powerful and vital network. If even one person finds belonging through this program, the long-term effects could be monumental to not only their lives but could overall strengthen the Jewish community. 

Through my involvement with both the Fed Fellows program and Jewish Gateways, I have found a deeper sense of what I bring to Jewish spaces and a better understanding of how diverse Jews really are. I am grateful for the community at Chabad of Vacaville for welcoming and supporting me and am excited to explore all that Chabad of Oakland has to offer. I plan to continue “going where I am needed” and showing up, proud to be a Black and Jewish woman.  

With a goal of educating participants in nonprofit decision-making, cultivating relationships, and promoting a sense of belonging for up to 20 individuals, Fed Fellows inspires the next generation of Jewish community.


July 13, 2022


Juliana Wise